Cheap Game Tuesday – ‘The Binding of Isaac’

It’s an expensive time to be a gamer, especially in Australia. A Triple-A new release is going to set you back around $110, and that’s without the bonus editions and downloads and whatever else. It’s little wonder the trade scams are flourishing – swapping in finished titles is the only way to afford new games. In light of this, welcome to our new weekly feature: Cheap Game Tuesday. Helping you find affording electronic thrills since…well, right now. For our first entry we go with the popular dungeon crawler with a horror twist known as The Binding of Isaac.

Platform: Steam for PC, MAC and Linux

Price Range: Couple of bucks.

Sometimes when you log on to Steam you are greeted with so many retro-graphicsed (totally a word) horror crafty zombie space games you don’t even know where to start. Something that initially appears to be a fresh breath of air in your otherwise humdrum life turns out to be a flashy dud, while plain looking shooters you pass over are the most insanely addictive and novel experience this side of Journey. This game, and it’s expansion Wrath of the Lamb, are firmly in the latter category.

Binding of Isaac 2

Isaac lives with his devout mother who spends her time watching Christian broadcasting. After hearing a voice from above commanding her to purge Isaac of his sins the boy is stripped of his clothing and toys and confined to his room. When the voice deems that this is not enough Isaac’s mother decides to sacrifice Isaac, leaving the boy no choice but to head in to the cellar beneath the house. Here he will encounter a Barker-esque nightmare of monsters and terror that he must battle through using his tears as a weapon.

At first glance this is a horror rendition of the old school Legend of Zelda dungeons.  Top down view of a room with puzzles, traps and enemies. Except without the traps. You use the WASD keys to move and the arrow keys to fire in that particular direction, the E button to drop bombs and Q and Space to use items. Once a room has been cleared of enemies the next door opens. Nice and straightforward, and that’s part of the old school charm. 

Except it has so many layers and options for random generation you will never play the game the same way twice. In addition to the different characters that can be unlocked there are literally hundreds of different items to discover, try out and change your strategy around. Whenever you start a new game the dungeon layout is randomly generated, as are the secret rooms, enemy encounters and boss fights at the end of each area. Sometimes you’ll be cursed and every two levels will be joined in to one massive map or you’ll be in an alternate version of the map. With the myriad of options available you will always have a new challenge to face.

Binding of Isaac 3

At times the game feels as though it is just plain screwing with you. You go right through a whole level without finding a useful item, or you pass golden treasure chest after golden treasure chest without finding a single key to unlock them. On the other hand you can wind up so heavily loaded down with power ups you become invincible. It is the luck of the draw.

As you progress through multiple play throughs you will unlock new aspects of the game. New level types, new items and new characters that only appear after fulfilling unspecified checkpoints. Once you defeat Isaac’s mother the first time you unlock the random option of fighting one of the Four Horsemen as a boss encounter, and if you happen to get them all in one game you can collect Super Meat Boy as a familiar. It is only through dedicated playing that you will see everything on offer, but a couple of games won’t make you feel like you’ve missed out.

Binding of Isaac 2

In addition to passive power-ups and extra weapons you can find Tarot Cards, that have a set once-off effect, pills, the effect of which change with every new game, cursed objects and familiars that hover around you and assist. As part of the games themes these familiars often seem to take the form of a foetus, or a dismembered head of one of Isaac’s pets. This sense of distastefulness runs throughout the game, and if it’s a problem for you as a gamer then this is one to be skipped over. Enemies range from flies and spiders to headless corpses with gushing neck stumps, eerie masks with disembodied hearts and weird skeletal figures with an exposed brain at the back of their head (who occasionally have Isaac’s face for extra creepy). It’s disconcerting to say the least, but it never feels shocking for the sake of being shocking. The designers have a theme and they don’t hold back.

The Binding of Isaac and the expansion Wrath of the Lamb aren’t going to tax your grey matter, but it will provide a visually interesting challenge. Well worth the money.