Game Review: 'The Binding of Isaac'


"When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood." –Genesis 22:9

The Binding of Isaac, the latest artistic oddity from Edmund McMillen (who also contributed his distinctive artistic style to Super Meat Boy) wears its religious opinions brazenly on its sleeve.  In the game you play as Isaac, a little boy living happily with his mother until she starts to hear the voice of God commanding her to purify her "corrupted" son through progressively crueler acts: first she takes away all of his toys, then she locks him away in his room, and finally, much like Abraham in the Old Testament (from which the game takes its name) she receives the command from God to kill him as a show of faith. 

Isaac escapes his knife-wielding mother in the basement, only to find that he's wandered into a much more horrible place, teeming with horrors ranging from flies to monstrous, unnamable things that may or may not be Isaac's malformed siblings. 

If the game sounds dark and bleak…well, it is.  Edmund McMillen has the artistic chops to make you feel incredibly uncomfortable while still maintaining a simplistic, cartoonish style that would result in something cute from a less twisted mind.  Thankfully, Edmund's demons are all on display here, with everything from harelipped heads to twins conjoined by a prehensile umbilical cord wanting to do nothing more that finish what's Isaac's mother couldn't.  Luckily for Isaac, he can defend himself against his attackers using his tears, spit, and urine as ammo, further enhanced by disturbing powerups that range from his mother's high heels (which increase the range of his weapons) to his unborn brothers and sisters that float around his body as a secondary weapon.  Yes, it's all as wrong as it sounds.

All of this fantastic, twisted artwork is a wrapper on a solid, if simple game that winds up being far greater than the sum of its parts.  The game is a wondrously weird mishmash of elements from games as diverse as The Legend of Zelda to Robotron 2084 to Rogue, without feeling derivative of any of them.  The most peculiar influence in the last one, Rogue, whose random layouts Isaac use to excellent effect.  Without hyperbole, I can say that no two playthroughs are the same, as everything from the dungeon layout to the boss encounters to the treasures and powerups you encounter are completely random.  This, in addition to expending replayability almost indefinitely, also keeps even the most seasoned players on their toes, as all of these factors can easily work against you.  More than once I found myself dead simply because the loot dropped by bosses and the game's treasure rooms simply weren't good enough to keep me alive against the game's malformed menagerie.  However, Isaac counters this with its brevity (a playthrough of the game is a case of minutes rather than hours) as well as the aforementioned randomized replayability to keep these moments from becoming too frustrating.

The best characteristic that keeps the game playable, however, is its sheer fun factor.  Its easy to play, hard to master style combined with hundreds of unlockables and pickups make it the digital equivalent of potato chips: you really can't play just one round.  Lord knows I couldn't.

The Binding of Isaac is available now on Steam for $4.99.