There is some special alchemy at the heart of The Binding of Isaac. Developer Edmund McMillen (Super Meat Boy) has combined biblical monsters, scatological humor, and tense twin-stick shooting into a thrilling and, at times, disturbing game about a boy and his troubled relationship with his mother.

A pregame Flash animation shows Isaac’s mother, who likes to watch Christian television programming, being told by God that Isaac is a creature of immense sin. To prove that she loves her deity above all else, she attempts to kill Isaac, who escapes into a cavernous basement of hideous monsters and terrible trials. After his fall, Isaac awakes, ready to seek revenge.

To reinvent one of the oldest stories in Western theology (Abraham almost killing his son Isaac at God’s behest) as a videogame, McMillen drew inspiration from venerable entries in gaming canon. Isaac, who cannot stop crying, shoots his tears in a manner reminscent of Robotron and Smash TV. Some enemies harken back to arcade classics like Asteroids and Centipede. The UI and environment design smack of The Legend of Zelda on NES, replete with hearts, bombs, shops and grid-based dungeon maps.

But Isaac owes the most to Rogue and its many descendants. Roguelikes – loosely defined as dungeon crawlers with randomized elements and permadeath – have seen somewhat of a renaissance in the indie community, and Isaac rides that wave. The game can be beaten in about an hour (if you make it that far, for death is permanent and means starting anew). But no two playthroughs of Isaac are the same. I was on my tenth or eleventh session before I saw a room I even vaguely recognized and have yet to see a sequence of rooms repeat.

All of Isaac’s demented loot drops with similar randomness, and none of it is explained. Upgrades come in many forms: trinkets, pills, tarot cards, blood pacts with the devil. They each change Isaac cosmetically, reflecting the shame and punishment inflicted by his mother (lipstick, heels, and a coat hanger are a few choice examples). There is no manual to tell you what they do, and if a guide crops up on the Internet, I  urge you to avoid it. The whimsy and danger lurking behind each item pickup make Isaac’s journey all the more precarious and exciting.

The uncertainty and randomness breed resourcefulness. Sometimes the game will hand you powerful items early on, only to withhold heart and bombs in the later levels. Other times you will receive plenty of bombs and keys but few meaningful upgrades to Isaac’s skills. To succeed, you must adapt your play style to what the game gives you. Unless you have issues with the core gameplay, it could take ages to become bored with Isaac’s breadth of game-changing content.

So about that core gameplay: it’s purposefully loose and imprecise. Isaac can only fire his tears in the cardinal directions, and they don’t always travel in perfectly straight lines. Moving while shooting allows you to angle the shots a bit, but it isn’t an exact science. Movement’s controlled with WASD, and Isaac glides a bit, especially after a few speed upgrades. Navigating some of the spike-filled rooms is difficult when your protagonist can’t stop on a dime.

Despite this, I love how Isaac handles. The controls enhance the overall tension while still feeling fun. You need to be mindful of the environment, how Isaac moves within that environment, how the enemies move in reaction to Isaac, and how and when you can harm them. Fighting a bit of imprecision fits in well with the rest of the game’s randomness and adds to the challenge.

Isaac’s crude Flash aesthetic suits McMillen’s twisted take on Scripture yet keeps the possible severity of the subject matter at an adolescent arm’s length. The design of Isaac and his enemies feels like the result of McMillen regularly daring himself to a gross-out contest.  Upgrades permitting, you can shoot poison tears at piles of poop (see above). When Isaac enters a room with a single heart remaining, he will urinate on the floor in fear. Most boss fights leave the room dripping with blood and entrails. You will find many horrible things in the dungeons below Isaac’s house. Subtlety isn’t one of them.

While guiding Isaac through the depths, stop and give a listen to the delightful soundtrack by composer Danny Baranowsky (Canabalt, Super Meat Boy). Baranowsky consistently finds ways to channel retro game music without resorting to composing on a Game Boy. I’m particularly taken with the surprising warmth of the “Caves” theme. He also admirably meets the challenge of writing his own riff on the “You Found A Secret” chime from Zelda.

At just $5, The Binding of Isaac is priced as an entertaining distraction, but it offers much more. McMillen and his programmer Florian Himsl have packed this retro hybrid with loads of secrets and unlockables. After six hours I'm still discovering new items, new enemies, new endings. Nothing about a boy being tortured by his mother should be this fun, but it is. And it’ll likely stay fun and fresh for a while.

A copy was provided for the purposes of this review. The Binding of Isaac is currently available on Steam for $4.99. You can find the hardware requirements below:

 

PC Requirements

Mac Requirements
OS

Windows XP/Vista/7, 

OS X Leopard 10.5.8 or Snow Leopard 10.6.3
Processor 2.5 GHz Intel Mac 2.5 GHz
Memory 1 GB

1 GB

Hard Disk Space 50 MB 50 MB
Video Card DirectX 9.0c Compatible Card  --

 

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