Welcome to this basic guide, I hope you find it helpful and if you’ve any questions or comments please do leave something down below and where possible I’ll try and reply asap.
This is going to be aimed predominantly at the folks who have never played The Binding of Isaac before and who want to get a little more up to speed before the next sizeable chunk of new content lands later this week on Steam. (And at a later unconfirmed date for console)
Apologies in advance for the wall of text that awaits you. I’ve tried to segment it a little but there is quite a bit to take on board so please don’t try to digest this in one go, save the page and refer to it as and when.
What is The Binding of Isaac about?
Well the game is loosely based on the bible story of the same name and its creator Edmund McMillen (@edmundmcmillen) has commented on many occasions that the “story” explores several themes but is very much open to interpretation. Personally I tend to lean towards the “commentary on how religion can affect young children” angle but that’s because I’m a cynical git. That said, it doesn’t really matter, the story plays second fiddle to the actual gameplay and there are enough lore and fan theory sites out there to fill enough of anyone’s free time should you so choose. It is quite a dark game with everything from the loading screens to the in-game imagery and enemies making me feel quite uneasy for a good while when I first started playing.
The game is viewed from the top down perspective and movement and firing is controlled with the 2 sticks or WASD and arrow keys depending on your platform. If you’ve ever played a twin-stick shooter, you’ll be fine.
The Levels and their layout:
The levels or floors as they’re known will be randomly generated each and every time you play. You may encounter familiar layouts or enemy combinations but very rarely will you see the same room and you should never see the exact same level unless playing a preset or “seeded” run. (more on these later)
1. Basement or Cellar (2 floors)
2. Caves or Catacombs (2 floors)
3. The Depths or Necropolis (2 floors) >>>> Mom Boss fight.
4. The Womb or Utero (2 floors) >>>> Mom’s Heart boss fight.
5. Sheol or the Cathedral (2 floors) >>>> Satin/Isaac boss fight.
6. The Dark Room or The Chest (2 floors) >>>> Mega Satin/ Blue Baby boss fight.
(More levels and alternate floors will be arriving with the Afterbirth update later this week)
Each floor will have both guaranteed rooms and some that are down to chance or dependent on meeting conditions within the level. I’ll explain a few of those next.
Examples of maps:
The Item/Treasure Room:
Possibly the most important room during your first few hours and a room you should always check out. Found by seeking the Yellow Crown on the map. This room will contain one random item which can be good, bad or indifferent depending on your current run or personal preference. Generally, especially early doors you’re going to want to take whatever is in the room and you’ll pretty quickly learn which items to squeal with glee at and which to consign to the Run-killer folder and never ever pick up again; expect to get this wrong a whole bunch at first!
The item room will appear on every floor until you reach “The Womb” and will always require a key to enter the first floor.
The Cursed room:
This room has spikes on the door and without certain protective items or a flying ability, you will take damage on the way in and out, (again, half a heart each way until the Womb where it’ll be a full heart each way) The curse rooms in the early game always seemed a waste to me but after the runs started to add up I quickly decided that the chances of getting a great item were more than equal to the cost. I’d strongly encourage you to risk these rooms whenever possible, some possible items are annoying and it sucks to have wasted a heart but personally the only time I’d outright avoid these rooms is when the damage will leave you with 1 full heart or less. As with all of the special rooms you’ll come across, if you notice there is an adjoining room without a door and you have plenty of bombs, see if you can bomb your way in to avoid the damage or use of a key (especially early on in a run). The same goes for when you’re in a cursed room, if you have the bombs, try the 2 or 3 “empty” walls, you may find a route out and perhaps even a secret room.
The Boss Room:
Shown on the map as a skull, this room will contain (as you’d guess) a Boss fight. Barring one or two level skip items, you will have to finish this room before you can descend to the next level. There is a wide range of bosses that may appear and they are all daunting at first but honestly very simple once you learn the timings. You’ll have your favourites and the one’s you dread but given time you’ll best the lot. Once you beat the Boss you will receive a random item; the fun (and frustration) stems from not knowing what it does. For the vast majority, boss items will be positive for your run with it usually being a health, speed or range upgrade but every now and again you can get given an item.
The Mini Boss Room:
Marked on the map as a skull (It looks slightly darker on screen compared to the boss room) This again is usually well worth the risk as they will quite often drop very good items even in early levels. As with all random items, you’ll get the good and the bad.
The Special Room:
This room along with a list of several others will show up on the map This won’t appear on every level, but it’ll show up a lot of the time, the rewards for these rooms are generally brilliant or awful; very little middle ground. These rooms will be boss fights with one of the seven deadly sins or occasionally the Super versions which tend to have more health and stronger attacks. If you come across this room early on it’s going to be a war of attrition (especially Envy) with your low damage output but this is another room where I’d say the risk is just about worthwhile.
The Seven Deadly Sins
This room appears on the map as a coin and after the first floor usually requires a key to be able to enter. The shop will offer between 2 and 5 items for sale depending on how much you have donated, costing anywhere from 3 to 15 cents. All of the items found in the shop are beneficial; no item is a run killer. It is however very possible to buy a random pill and have it be negative though so watch out. In the corner of shops, there will usually be a donation machine which you can interact with and donate coins. By doing this, you can upgrade the amount of items the shops will stock. Any money donated will carry over to future runs although a huge WARNING here if you donate enough to get the machine to 999 coins, adding another will cause the machine to explode dropping some coins and resetting it to ZERO. Coins can be bombed out of the machine although I’d recommend only doing this when desperate. Get into the habit of donating as much as you can spare as some of the later unlocks are super useful items. I won’t list them here as I don’t want to spoil anything but the amount of coins needed to unlock something or upgrade the shop are as follows:
The Devil Room:
This is a super important one so stick with me. This room has a chance of appearing after killing the boss, although there are things you can do to greaten the chances during the level. Acquiring certain items such as the Pentagram or by killing the beggars you see in the level will grant you access. The items offered in this room are usually traded for your hearts be it red, white or black depending on what you have upon entering. Every time you enter a Devil room there is a 10% chance that it will spawn a mini-boss called Krampus instead of a “Devil deal”; killing him will give you one of two offensive items. Generally the Devil rooms offer offensive items. It is possible to kill yourself if you take an item which costs the same amount of hearts you have left so be careful! There literally a page full of ways to improve your chances of getting a Deal on the Binding of Isaac Wiki but rather than copy paste a wall of text I’ll link to the Wiki towards the end of this article.
The Angel Room:
Like the Devil room, this has a chance of appearing after killing the levels boss. Items found herein will be limited to just one (and/or occasionally chests) but will be free unlike in the Devil rooms where you must swap hearts. As before, there is a full page on the wiki dedicated to ways to improve your chances of one appearing but don’t worry about it for now.
In my experience, these rooms appear on most levels but not 100%. They sometimes contain coins, bombs, hearts or pills and occasionally regular items. The rooms are random and not on the map without picking up one of the appropriate pickups. The best way I can broadly cover their locations is like this.
Room 1. Usually near the shop. Look on the map for a blank space that has three rooms adjoining it. After a bit of practice, you’ll be able to spot the one or two most likely locations for this room on each map.
Room 2. In my experience, the second secret room on most levels tends to be attached to one of the final two rooms before you fight the boss so either the room with the boss door in it or the one prior. If you are low on bombs try to save at least 2 for the next floor or until you find some more as bombs are usually best saved for blowing up rocks to access chests or power-ups.
There are several other rooms to learn about, but I’ll save those for a part 2 as at the beginners stage you’ll have your hands full trying to take in all the weirdness without adding layers and layers on top at this stage.
For me the sheer volume of items is one of Isaacs biggest draws. It means that with so much choice and so many different possibilities to putt from the hat, no game is ever going to be the same. to this day some 600 hours in I’ve yet to have more than a handful of runs that i could describe as very similar. Try and think of the item pool as a bag of those horrifically expensive gourmet jelly beans; They’re for the most part really nice but there’s a handful that you absolutely hate and in the same way, you’ll be able to spot them a mile off and know to steer clear after a couple of accidents.
Theres a huge temptation for me to show you the really terrible items and save you the agonising feeling of watching a fantastic run being fatally crippled by that one item you’ll grow to loathe but I’m not going to. That would ruin for me one of the huge elements of the game that drew me in and continued to do so for many many happy hour until i’d unlocked and memorised all 250+ items.
What I would reluctantly suggest if you’re really having a hard time or more understandably being in the middle of a perfect run and you can’t remember if the item at your feet is amazing or horrific. Open up your device of choice and have this page in your bookmarks. Use it sparingly and if you found it helpful, go and say thanks to @eluc_ he’s a top chap and has made many Isaac players lives immeasurably less stressful with that page!
Even the really crappy items do honestly have there uses and that nicely brings me to the next section. If you’ll forgive the Middle Management bullshit buzzword; It’s all about the Synergies.
These are the meat of your runs, items that can be found randomly or in boss fights and item rooms or shops. Currently there is over 300 of these both active and passive. During any given run you can have dozens of these items applied to your character leading to some insanely powerful attacks and some that are just ridiculous looking. Passive items will be applied to your character and be viewable on the pause screen whereas active items which require you to use them will appear at the top left of your screen, sometimes with a power bar next to them. Some items will apply an effect to your character usually changing his appearance and some of them will require you to use the item with a button press.
These are a little different to the general items in that they are kept in a separate slot to the active items you may hold. You can normally only carry one of these at a time (one specific pickup allows you to hold 2) and they are all passive; lending you abilities or bonuses without you actively having to “use” them. Once picked up, these items will appear in the bottom left of your screen. With a couple of notable exceptions, Trinkets are largely beneficial and should be collected regardless until you find a better one.
Cards and Runes.
The 31 cards and 8 runes you may find are all Active items so require you to use them with a button press. The rune or card you hold will appear in the bottom right of your screen. They have many effects ranging from doubling the amount of coins you currently hold to being able to kill any enemy in the game with one shot. With one exception these are all of benefit to you; the key is knowing when to use a card and when to save or discard one.
Pills go into the same slot as the cards and runes so without the pickup that allows an extra slot, you can only carry one Rune, Card or Pill at any time. Pills are the most annoying item for the new player in my opinion. They are random in both effect and appearance each time you play so the pill that gave you extra health on the last run may reduce your health on the next. 8 or perhaps 9 of the effects would be classed as outright negative with about the same amount being positive with the remainder, like the cards and runes being context sensitive to your particular character that run or the position you find yourself in. Once you have used a pill during a run, it’s effect will be revealed for the duration of that run so if you do happen to stumble across a room full of “health up” pills you’ll know what they do after the first use.
The only rule I have for using pills is avoid using unknown pills when lots of enemies are close by as you may set yourself up for a fail.
As i mentioned earlier some items will change not only the abilities of your character but also the appearance. In the same vein certain combinations of items will lead to a transformation of your character into an altogether stronger character. I’m going to avoid spoilers once more but try collecting items that have similar names or a matching theme and see what happens. One transformation in particular will turn most runs into a won run so if you’re super struggling, perhaps look up the most popular transformation.
That brings me to the end of a huge “basics” guide and i hope it serves you well even if you’ve not read most of it. I could honestly type pages and pages more in microscopic detail but i’d be ruining a huge element of the game and once you reach a certain point, you’ll no doubt go looking yourself and find one of the many community wiki’s.
A couple of final notes…
Have a look on Youtube, there are loads of people that do daily Isaac runs either leaving it to chance or particularly fun community suggested seeds. (You can run the same seeds if you see a good one as the passwords for each level are the same across all copies) I’d recommend having a look a NorthernLion for his Isaac videos. He’s quite good at explaining the pros and cons of various items and tactics and helped me a great deal after i’d gotten my first few completions under my belt.
If you’ve any comments or would like to suggest any specific areas you may want covered in a part 2 to this guide, please feel free to let me know.
Good luck and see you at Real Platinum God.!!