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Review: The Binding of Isaac

At a Glance

ESRB Rating: NR - Not Rated
My Rating: Adults - 18+
Genre: Roguelike / Twin Stick Shooter
License: Commercial
Release Year: 2011
Review Published On: August 27th, 2016
Played on: Martha

Available from:

Gamer's Gate, Steam

Save System:

There isn't one. Instead, you're supposed to play through the game in one sitting, and it's short enough for this to work. Most of the fun comes from replaying the game though, so expect to play through it several times.

Summary of
Major Issues:

While the Binding of Isaac is a fun game, the way it treats Christianity is insulting at best, blasphemous at worst. In my opinion, it would be better for Christians to avoid this game, as this pushes things a little too far. See below for some additional comments about this.


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Bloody hilarious, if you like dead baby jokes

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Bosses tend to be a little messy

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Finding something useful

General Notes

The Binding of Isaac is a popular Indie game, and for good reason. The gameplay is simple yet challenging, there's a huge amount of content, multiple endings and nearly endless replayability. It's short enough to play through in one sitting, and no two games are going to send you through the same dungeon.

This is a twin stick shooter, meaning that you'll be moving Isaac around with WASD while also aiming his attacks using the arrow keys. The main benefit of this is that you can dodge enemy attacks from any direction while you focus on attacking in another. Most of the rooms feature monsters of some sort, and a good number of them can shoot at you, so coordinating your movements and attacks is a much needed skill.

In order to advance to another room, the current room need to be free of monsters. There's a chance that you'll be rewarded with bombs, keys, coins, or some other powerup when you clear a room for the first time, so exploring can be rather useful.

Isaac's journey takes him through several floors. Each floor is a small maze, but you can be certain that every floor has a shop, a treasure room and at least one boss. Once you've beaten the level's boss, you're free to continue exploring the current floor or continue on deeper into the pit.

Unfortunately, what would otherwise be a quality game is buried under a lot of questionable content. There's a lot of blood, feces and gore for such a simple game, and if you take everything at face value, much of the game's story is a mockery of Christianity.

The end result is that I feel this game crosses too many lines for it to be found in a Christian home.

Story Overview

Isaac and his mother lived alone in a small house on a hill. While his mother sat on the couch and watched Christian programming on the television, Isaac kept to himself and played with his toys or drew pictures. This had been his life for some time, and everyone was happy.

This idyllic scene change abruptly one day, when a voice from Heaven called down to his mother. It told her that her son had been corrupted by sin, and she must remedy this swiftly. Obeying without question, she took away Isaac's drawings, his toys, and even his clothing. Assuming all was well, she resumed her position on the couch.

The voice then called down again, affirming that Isaac was still corrupt, and must be removed from the evil influences of the world. Hurriedly, his mother locked poor Isaac away in his empty room, where he would presumably be safe from whatever evils could corrupt him.

As he watched from a crack in his door, the voice called down to his mother once again. This time it asked her to prove her devotion by offering Isaac's life as a sacrifice. Seeing his mother grab a large butcher's knife, he began to panic and scramble about his tiny room.

Finding a trap door, he escaped into the depths of the basement as his mother burst into the room.

Points of Interest

Huge amount of content
Since each level is fairly small and there aren't many levels, any one game will only show you a fraction of the game's total content in a single playthrough. There are a lot of bonus bosses, many treasures to discover and even unlockable characters. You'll need to play through the game a large number of times to actually see everything.

This even extends to the game's bosses, as they are chosen at random rather than being predetermined for a specific floor. Each boss is also quite unique in their appearance and behavior. Some are stationary, others chase Isaac around their lairs, and many fire projectiles of their own. This is a lot of variety for such a short game, and it's definitely welcomed.
Steam community features
Like many other Steam games, there are achievements to earn and Steam trading cards to collect. Most of the achievements are based on items you can find or bosses you've defeated, so earning them all requires more luck than skill.
Luck based difficulty
The Binding of Isaac's difficulty is based more on what items you find and how well you can use them than anything else. Many of the items hidden in the dungeon provide benefits, but quite a few make the game harder or have problematic side-effects. Fortunately, you can choose whether or not to collect a treasure; it's advised to pick them wisely.

Concerns and Issues

Isaac's main weapon...
In order to attack anything, Isaac fires projectiles like most video game characters. However, in this case, he's using his own tears as ammunition. Some of the powerups change his weapon to something else, like blood or mucus, but that's not any less disturbing.
Mockery of Christians and Christianity
At face value, the game's storyline is a straight up mockery of stereotypical fanatical Christians, right down to the way Isaac's mother is depicted as an obese couch potato that gets all of their "spiritual" nourishment from daytime television. The depiction of God and other holy beings as being vengeful monsters isn't much better. There is a theory that there's more going on under the surface, but I'd wager that this goes over the heads of most of the people playing this game.
Blood and feces are everywhere
Just about everything bleeds, and in many cases the blood sticks around. In rooms where there had been a lot of combat, there's often a thick coating of blood on the floor. As for poo, there are piles of it all over the place. Other fluids, such as bile and mucus, can also end up splattered about, but these are rarer and depend on which powerups you've collected and what monsters you're fighting.
Most powerups corrupt Isaac's appearance
Whenever Isaac equips a new item, his appearance changes to reflect it. For example, if he finds his mother's shoes, he'll be shown wearing them from then on. That is one of the mildest examples though, as other transformations include him becoming demonic, bleeding, carrying a still-beating heart around his neck or even having a coat hanger caught in his forehead.
Many powerups are quite unsettling
Aside from the coat hanger and beating heart, there are other disturbing items that Isaac can find. These include a dead cat, the common cold, a crown of bloody thorns, dog food (entitled "dinner" for that extra helping of child neglect), flies and what is either an aborted or miscarried fetus. For extra fun, there are unmarked pills scattered about, and you'll need to take them to find out what they do. Several of these pills are harmful, so it's not a good idea to just eat them.
References to suicide, injured or deformed children
The shopkeepers are frequently depicted as decapitated or hanging from the ceiling. Either way, their gray skin and crossed out eyes make it obvious that they aren't among the living.

As for the monsters Isaac encounters, many of them are graphically injured children (or just parts of children). The bosses take this up a notch by frequently having deformities like cleft palettes or an undeveloped twin.
References to bullying, unloving parents
Between levels, you see one of Isaac's dreams (or perhaps, memories). These often involve another child doing something bad to Isaac, but sometimes they show his mother pushing him away or otherwise being indifferent instead of being a loving parent.
Tarot cards are powerups
Throughout the levels, you may find tarot cards lying around. These have different effects and can often be pretty useful if used properly. For example, the Hanged Man allows Isaac to separate his head from his body and float around the room. While it looks weird, the main benefit of this is that you can pass over holes and other objects that would normally be blocking your way. That said, tarot cards are something Christians should be avoiding, and thus their inclusion is yet another strike against this game.

Some final thoughts

The Binding of Isaac provides a very distressing take on religion, to say the least. Most of us are probably content with calling it blasphemous and moving on, never giving it a second thought. However, there is a point behind this extremely graphic narrative that's worth considering for a moment.

Christianity is a big religion. There's a lot of things to take in, and it's not always easy for someone to understand everything presented to them. In scripture, there are instructions to give immature believers portions of spiritual "milk", while mature believers have grown the teeth to chew the "meat". The reason for this instruction is that people need to have a basic understanding of their religious beliefs before they can build on them with the more complex details. For example, immature believers are often stuck in a rut of figuring out how they are to obey various commandments. This tends to lead to legalistic rule making, and can rob a person of their freedom in Christ.

Aside from the details of his macabre adventure, Isaac is in a surprisingly common position when it comes to children living in strict Christian households. Children aren't capable of the same levels of abstract thinking as adults, and much of what happens in their lives seems random or arbitrary. The younger a child is, the more their world is restricted to how things impact them directly and the fewer details they can string together.

To a child, God can become a monstrous bogeyman; a being that stalks you, waiting to punish you with eternal damnation should you break any of the arbitrary rules it comes up with. Even accidentally breaking a rule is grounds for divine punishment, so the child must constantly be on guard or risk being sent to Hell. This can turn a simple act like having your lunch into a minefield: eating anything made with pork is sin, but it's okay to eat almost any other kind of meat unless it's Friday, then you can only eat fish -- but not just any fish, since shellfish are sin too! Sadly, in an attempt to ensure their children behave, some parents hold the threat of God's judgment over their children like a Sword of Damocles, reinforcing their child's fears.

It should be obvious by now what the problem is: the Good News isn't getting through. These children have only part of the message, and lack the hope and freedom given with the rest of the Truth. People who get trapped in fear like this don't have a working understanding of either sin or forgiveness, resulting in an immature faith that has become corrupted. This is why the Bible repeatedly urges us to study it and find mature Christians to guide us along. Left by themselves, immature Christians can't tell the shepherds from the wolves, and in turn they become a danger to other members of the flock.

Isaac has had a lot of problems in his life, but it's clear that one of the biggest problems is that, for him, God has become a terrible monster to be feared.