The Binding Of Isaac

Album Title:
The Binding of Isaac
Record Label:
dB soundworks
Catalog No.:
N/A
Release Date:
September 28, 2011
Purchase:
Download at Bandcamp

 

Overview

The Binding of Isaac is one of those games that once you start playing it hooks you in and you just want to keep playing to find and explore all of it’s gameplay depth and secrets.  It’s incredibly gory and disturbing, which was off putting for me at first, but once I started playing it I loved it.  Edmund McMillen states that the intention of making the game this way was to explore issues and concepts that most video games shy away from as they are too risky, such as how religion can negatively affect children.  If you really think about it, the Biblical story of The Binding of Isaac is an incredibly dark story, depending on how you read into it of course, and this game captures that.  As a game, it’s simple to pick up, hard to master.  Sometimes you’re an overpowered beast, other times you have to really be skilled to get far.  Rogue-likes and Rogue-lites are becoming a favourite genre of mine due to their depth, replay-ability and the fact that each time you play the game it is a fresh start, and The Binding of Isaac is one of the best out there.

The music was composed by Super Meat Boy composer Danny Baranowsky.  Taking a departure from the general upbeat nature of Super Meat Boy, this soundtrack adopts a more intense, darker style, while still retaining a non-typical sound palette that indie games are well known for.  The soundtrack mixes traditional orchestral and choral sounds with electric guitars and electronic sounds to create a memorable soundtrack that serves the game very well.

Body

The soundtrack is ordered as you would expect it to be if you’ve played the game, starting with the opening 13 second composition “Those Responsible”, setting the tone for the intro story, which is told in “In the Beginning…..”  Musically, the low cellos combined with the xylophone type sounds makes for a very unsettling opening sound while the narrator tells the story of the game, loosely based on the Biblical story of the same name.  The pipe organ complementing the darker moments  when God talks to Isaacs mum works really well.  There’s even a comical pizzicato in there.  The unsettling harmonies and intense music as mum prepares to sacrifice Isaac really add to the tension.  Later on in this soundtrack is a version of “In the Beginning…” without the narration so people can hear the music on it’s own.  I’m really glad they included the narration in the soundtrack as well, it adds to the atmosphere.  This atmosphere is carried on in the main menu theme and title track.  Again, the electronic bass and string combination work really well.

Then we get into the main gameplay music, as signaled by “Unknown Depths Below”.  The first track is “Sacrificial”, which sets the tone for the gameplay perfectly.  It carries the dark atmosphere set up previously while adding electronic drums.  This is proceeded by the bass dropping out of focus and high strings and an electronic lead move forward into the best part of the track, an electric guitar dominated rock section.  The drums and electric guitar aren’t so powerful that they take away from the atmosphere, they simply add to it and complement it.  The music then dies down back into the dark atmosphere before repeating a few times.  “Conflicted” then prepares the listener for “Divine Combat”, the main boss fight music.  The electronic sounds and cymbals are kept fast paced and drive the piece forward while the strings, snare drum keep the atmosphere going.  The piece then goes into double time with an impressive piano lead before repeating again. 

“Pride” then leads into a completely different piece of music, “Peace be with you”.  This piece is simple crescendiong and decrescendoing synth pads.  The pattern of filler track followed by big track is kept going with “Agony” leading into “Repentant”.  This track carries on the dark atmospheric instruments from before, with some subtle choral elements coming into play, with the different rhythms of the electronic drums signaling the game getting slightly tougher.  “Respite” follows, which is the track that plays when you enter a secret room.  This is followed by an 8-bit version of “Sacrificial”, titled “S4cR1f1c14|_”, which plays when you find an arcade room.  This track is very well done and exactly how you would expect it to sound.

The soundtrack then introduces some more orchestral sounds as it moves into the later parts of the game.  “Dreadful” kicks things off with tense strings and a dirty synth bass underneath.  The low strings really drive this piece forward very well.  “Burning Ambush” is more of the same boss music while including the new orchestral sounds as well.  Interestingly this is broken up by “Greed”, the shop theme, which is an interesting mix of electronic sounds and jazz organ which sounds like it’s played through an old vinyl player.  The next track is the boss theme when fighting mom, which is one of my favourite tracks in the soundtrack.  It’s well orchestrated and intense without being too over the top and keeps the pace up with it’s snare drum and electronic percussion. 

We then move into some more ambient music, beginning with “Apostate”.  The subtle piano plays a melody while ambient sounds create the atmosphere in the background.  This is carried on in “Hereafter”, which plays when you die, and Temptation, which is the Devil Room theme.  “Be Done” is an interesting boss theme, featuring pipe organ and a fast beat.  While less dark than “Thine Wrath” it does get the adrenaline going.  “Absolution”, just like “In the Beginning….”, keeps the narration in the soundtrack, which once again makes the track even better to listen to, really adding to the atmosphere.  “End Times” is the end credits music, which takes the main menu theme and adds a rock guitar and beat to the mix.  I don’t like the cheap guitar sound but the drum beat underneath keeps the theme fresh. 

After this we get two remixes, the first is “The Clubbing of Isaac” by Big Giant Circles, which is an interesting dance remix that works well because it keeps the atmosphere intact.  Then we have “Atempause” from Minecraft composer C418, which keeps things mellow while still adding to the track very effectively, making it slightly happier in a way. 

Then we’re into the even later parts of the game and the Wrath of the Lamb DLC content.  “A Mourner Unto Sheol” carries on the atmosphere heard before, then we get a heavy rock theme in “Enmity of the Dark Lord” which has some impressively fast solo melody lines combined with orchestral and rock sounds.  The tracks that follow are similar to their alternative level counterparts (“Penance” and “Sacrificial”, “Atonement” and “Repentant”), though there is significantly more happening in “Latter Days’ than in “Dreadful”, keeping things interesting.  “Lament of the Angel” sounds much more like church music with it’s fantastic choir lines, appropriate since it’s the theme that plays if you choose the Cathedral over the Sheol.  The rest of the soundtrack is mostly more of the same, but they are still interesting to listen to.  “Tomes” is another track of note, when you enter a library room, there’s this effective piano and light instrument texture which carries the piece and makes it one of the best atmospheric tracks in the soundtrack.  “My Innermost Apocalypse” is perhaps not the best track to finish on as it fades out and is very heavy rock inspired, I would have preferred an atmospheric ending.

Summary

The Binding of Isaac score is a fantastically atmospheric score which captures the mood and feel of the game really well.  It’s got a well balanced mix of dark atmospheres and heavy beats which combine together to create an appropriately moody score to complement the action on screen.  There’s a good balance as the score moves on between the familiar and the not so familiar and it gradually builds the sense of dread as it progresses.  Danny Baranowsky proves that he can compose effective music in more than one way with this soundtrack which is a departure from his previous catchy work on Super Meat Boy.  Perhaps a little more variety would have been nice from a soundtrack album perspective, maybe more remixes from other indie composers, but as it is it’s a really good soundtrack album that’s well worth checking out.

The Binding Of Isaac Joe Hammond

Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!

4.5


Posted on January 18, 2015 by Joe Hammond. Last modified on March 11, 2015.

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About the Author

Joe Hammond

When I first heard the music of Nobuo Uematsu in the Final Fantasy series at about 17 years old, my love of video game music was born. Since then, I've been revisiting some of my old games, bringing back their musical memories, and checking out whatever I can find in the game music scene. Before all of this I've always been a keen gamer from an early age. I'm currently doing a PGCE (teacher training) in primary school teaching (same age as elementary school) with music specialism at Exeter University. I did my undergraduate degree in music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. My main focus at the moment is my teaching and education work, though who knows what will happen in the future. I like a variety of music, from classical/orchestral to jazz to rock and metal and even a bit of pop. Also when you work with young children you do develop a somewhat different appreciation for the music they like.



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