The Binding of Isaac: Repentance

Lunatic of God’s creation

Reviewed on the computer, via Steam.

Does this game need an intro? Yeah, this game needs an intro. The Binding of Isaac: Repentance doesn’t seem like it should be special—it’s a top-down twin-stick shooter with heavy biblical themes, and there are loads of chods everywhere. There. There’s an intro.

Does that seem like it might be your thing? It doesn’t really seem like it might be mine. There are plenty of great twin-stick shooters already, dating back to games like Smash T.V. And chods? I’m trying to think of good games with prominent chods, and can’t think of more than, say, ten.

Biblical themes? I’ve got a Baphomet tattoo—two Baphomet tattoos—so, y’know.

Gets a bit busy sometimes, this does.

Anyway, Binding of Isaac is great. It always was—even back in 2011, when it was made of Flash and sort of released very quietly—but I didn’t get it. It didn’t seem like it might have been my thing. It was clumsy, and floaty, and had too many chods.

Why do I think it’s great now, then? Even though the chod content has, if anything, massively increased?

Simple. The Binding of Isaac: Repentance is really, really silly. It’s got a whole load of grimdark under the surface, the kind of grimdark that takes a minute to click, then suddenly you go ‘oh’ and feel rotten. But on the surface, it’s a big silly toybox full of magic and explosions that can make you feel like a gaming monster.

Importantly, it makes you feel like a gaming monster far more frequently than earlier iterations. I played a LOT of Isaac six or so years ago—I had just moved to a new city and started a new job, and it helped with a lot of the anxieties I felt. But back then, the game was a lot more sparing with its rewards. Runs* tended toward failure a lot more than success. And while those successes felt great, banging my head repeatedly against Mom’s Heart grew wearing. 

If like me you’re playing on an ultrawide, you’ll find Isaac‘s HUD a bit odd.

Repentance feels a lot more lenient, and a lot more generous, than my experiences with earlier versions of the game. Weirdly, criticism of Repentance online skews toward it being too hard—maybe this is people used to the systems of Afterbirth+, who are finding the changes difficult to work with? I dived in with a fresh save file, and smashed out a couple of successful runs** within the hour. Chods and all. I’m not a fan of games whose primary selling point is ‘really, really hard,’ and this doesn’t seem to be one of that.

But where Isaac has always resonated with me is in its atmosphere. As mentioned, the game features plenty of grimdark—the story might even be little more than the hallucinations of an abused child, suffocating to death in a locked toybox he can’t escape. Items have meaning, and this meaning isn’t explicitly spelled out to the player. A wooden spoon, for example, gives Isaac a boost to his speed stat. A photo of his family, torn apart to remove him from the image, boosts his fire rate—and since Isaac’s fire rate is a representation of how hard he’s crying, you begin to realise that this is a painfully bleak story,

Let’s not even explain the item It Hurts.

Strangely, my favourite parts of Isaac—even above and beyond the boss named Mega Satan***—are the brief moments of calm and clarity found when a boss is defeated. A beautiful piano piece rings out, in direct contrast to the chaos and violence just witnessed, and you can take as much time to breathe and get yourself together as you like.

Two things about this make my mind go ‘oooooo.’ One, there are a number of timed challenges and criteria for progression. Certain items, levels and enemies won’t appear unless you smash your way through the game as quickly as possible, meaning dragging poor Isaac down a hole to the next set of enemies before he even gets a chance to breathe.

Two—and this is horrible—Isaac’s default pose, when receiving no player input, is to look up and out of the screen. Directly at you. Items and effects cause changes to Isaac’s physical form, often in jolly unpleasant ways. It’s almost as if Isaac if asking you why you’re doing this to him, as he stands alone and terrified in a room covered in blood and shit, where seconds ago he was fighting for his life against unimaginable horror.

Post-boss, Isaac shines in terms of story.

I’ll likely play a lot more of this game. It’s hooked me, in a way lots of ‘rogue’ ‘likes’ don’t. It’s quick to start, has a frankly frightening amount of depth, and has Satan in.

Mega Satan.

Two thumbs fresh.

*heh, runs
**heh, runs

*** this is almost as cool as Deathsmiles’ true last boss, which is named—no, really—Demonic Imperator Tyrannosatan.

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About Da5e

A writer and a black metal musician.
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