Review: The Binding of Isaac

You'd cry too if your mom was trying to kill you.

You'd cry too if your mom was trying to kill you.

In the biblical account of the binding of Isaac, Isaac is not so much a character as he is a plot device. He accompanies his father Abraham on a test of faith – God wants Abraham to sacrifice his son to prove he fears God. Isaac remains passive throughout, even as his own dad ties him up and raises a knife over his helpless body. The Isaac of Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl’s account is a little bit more proactive.

Your quest in The Binding of Isaac is to guide Isaac as he attempts to escape the misguided zealotry of his mother. You’ll travel through his house’s basement, which seems to be connected to hell itself. Along the way you’ll encounter numerous terrifying creatures and other oddities that can help or hamper you in your quest for freedom.

The game plays like Robotron: 2084 mixed with a Zelda adventure. You can only shoot in the four cardinal directions, and your projectiles and stats can be upgraded through items found in the dungeons. You’ll never quite have the same game twice, as enemy placement, room layouts, item drops and secrets are all randomized heavily. With so many variables in play, conquering the game is as much a game of luck as it is skill. Finding the right gifts out of dozens of possible items will definitely factor heavily in a successful run, with each new item appearing on poor Isaac’s horrified face and body. After several such upgrades, Isaac usually bears closer resemblance to the antagonistic grotesqueries of the depths than the innocent child he began as.

With its roguelike influences so readily apparent, you can expect to fail – a lot. No save system exists here, which is fine since a complete run through Isaac’s basement is not very long. The Binding of Isaac delivers a compact experience in about half-hour bite-size chunks, making it the perfect length as the curious diversion it is.

The art looks like something out of a Flash game, because it is. It might not be much to look at it in still screenshots, but in motion everything comes alive with the sick creativity of McMillen’s imagination. Horrors lurk in every room, and the disgusting creatures within the hellish atmosphere are simultaneously gross and amusing. This is not a game for the kids. The excellent soundtrack by Danny Baranowsky adds to the uneasy tone.

One of the disadvantages of the Flash technology powering the game is that everything runs off the CPU rather than a dedicated graphics device. This means that even with an above-average system, you may run into a lot of slowdown in some of the busier rooms. Ironically, this actually tends to work to your advantage as the dozens of flying projectiles become much easier to dodge in slow motion.

I’m not sure what statement if any McMillen was attempting to make with The Binding of Isaac, or if the source material was merely inspiration for his own twisted vision. It’s an endearing game, as odd as that may seem, and a great value at its $5 asking price. You may find yourself coming back to it again and again, because surprises still remain in abundance even after you’ve seen one of the endings. It’s not for the faint of heart or the easily frustrated, but those who persevere will be rewarded with a unique and unforgettable experience.

4 out of 5

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