The Binding of IsaacESRB:
Platform: PC Games
Category: Action/Horror, Horror, Shooter
Single Player Campaign
Plenty of Unlockables
Remember Super Meat Boy and Gish? Both were, in their own way, slightly creepy games with disturbing cartoon visuals. Well, both games were at least partly designed by Edmund McMillen, and The Binding of Isaac is what happens when Ed really lets go. It's a horrific game with an Old Testament theme (Indeed, the Binding of Isaac is a bible story), and gameplay reminiscent of several games, such as Zelda's dungeon sections and twin-stick shooters like Robotron 2084. Be warned, if you're easily disturbed by the thought of an indie game containing Old Testament Fundamentalism and a case of the Whooping Crazies (or not?), read no further. Navigate away, and live contented.
Sitting comfortably? Let's begin.
As with SMB and Gish, Edmund McMillen's goth-cartoonish style shines through again, with more cartoon blood than you can shake from a Left 4 Dead baseball bat, ichor, gore, headless monsters, and deformed nasties aplenty. The game's UI is quite simple, reminiscent of retro games (There's your hearts, there's your "arrows"... more on those later... specials, area map... yup, it's all there...), and the dungeon rooms (starting with the basement of Isaac's once happy home) are also retro in their obvious use as arenas. Rocks block your way (which later become fleshy mounds... don't ask), pits gape with pure black (although they act much like rocks, except without the projectile blocking), but everything is clear enough that you don't ever lose sight of your goals (kill everything in the room, pick up/bomb/interact with anything that's still standing), and it rarely becomes busy enough to panic you (although later levels come close enough for discomfort).
It's worth noting how dystopian the whole thing looks, despite the clear, Illustrator style graphics. Isaac's mom, in the intro, is only vaguely disturbing, a sort of simplistic caricature, but, when parts of her are present in her boss encounter, or in one of Isaac's brief nightmare-cum-loading screens, her legs are fat and veiny, and her eyes are bloodshot with hate. Up close, it's not a pretty sight, no sirree. Similarly, with the monsters, expect gouged out or sewn up eyes, weeping cartoon sores, and general ugliness all around. The world of Isaac is a graphically well-drawn place, but made deliberately ugly, a reflection of Isaac's grim situation.
Also of interest is the fact that each powerup is represented on your character somehow, whether in his projectiles, his appearance, or the things floating round him. What's more, they stack, so you often get some interesting looks the more powerful you get. Of course, some powerups trump others in appearance (I've never, for example, seen Demonic Pact... yes, you heard that right... failing to keep your character black as coal when another powerup is meant to change his skin-tone), but, overall, the crazy look of your once innocent character is another source of disquiet, albeit one mixed with pride that your character is, in gaming terms, quite a badass, and openly so.
Similarly, the music of the game is dark, mostly minor key, and grim as anything. Listening to it, you feel the oppression of Isaac, and the piano theme that plays upon your death is almost mocking in its execution (I sort of hear it as "Ohlookyoudied, pityonyouuuuu..."). This contrasts quite well with the sound effects, which, with the exception of certain boss fights, are exactly what you'd expect from a retro-game all tarted up for the modern day (Isaac says "Ow!" like the small boy he is, and one boss, I swear, literally says, in his monstro-voice, "BLAAAARG!" as he hurls, in the pukey sense, globules of bloody projectiles your way). It's well done, and the mix fits the game excellently.
Before we go into the gameplay, let's briefly discuss just how grim this game's story is. Isaac was once a happy boy, playing near his mom, who watched "Christian Broadcast" all day. And then she hears the voice of God (or what she *thinks* is the voice of God?), and it all goes downhill, and downhill, until finally, Isaac is forced to escape his now murderous mother through the previously unknown basement of his own home. It then proceeds to get worse for Isaac. Yes, you heard that right.
In terms of pure gameplay, the levels are a series of procedurally generated arenas, where you can use your gamepad or keyboard (either works fine) to twin-stick (one set of controls for moving, one for shooting) your way through the small hordes of enemies you must defeat in each room to move onto the next. Once emptied, rooms *stay* empty, but health pickups become quite rare later on in the game, so it pays to be cautious. Some enemies are chasers, following you and hitting you in melee, others turtle up until they can surprise you with multi-shots, others follow you and shoot the heck out of you, and others still leap about randomly, causing damage if they hit you. There's more, but suffice to say, the AI is only as complex as it needs to be, which isn't that complicated.
What makes this game unsettling, though, is the realisation of what you're shooting. At first, your weapons are bitter, salty tears, but, as the game goes on, you upgrade them to be psychic projectiles, blood, or, in the case of the "Number One" weapon... your own urine. Yes, this game likes to be sickening. That the enemies are usually mutated beasts even more wretched than you are (at first, at least) doesn't help.
To powerup, you're going to need extra kit, and that kit can be found in several ways. You can collect nickels to buy things in a store, keys to unlock vaults with special items (many of which stack, but not all), you can open chests (whether locked or no), or you can kill special enemies and fight in arenas (if you're healthy enough). The bosses are all pattern based, but the first time you face them, you're going to be stumped for a few seconds at least, and probably die. Dying is a reality of this game, and, like oldschool games, dying means... start again, doofus. But even when you've finished the game the first time, you haven't finished the game. There are 110 known items, 20 secrets, three known unlockable characters, and achievements for finishing story mode a total of 9 times. Yes, 9 separate achievements.
It's not a perfect game, and part of the score down comes from this reviewer getting random slowdowns (not big ones, but still very noticeable), and, in his first two times at beating "Mom", a rather annoying bug where the game alt-tabbing at the wrong moment (starting a new game) crashed it, erasing the save for that playthrough. Third time, however, was the charm, as nobody attempted to call him during his moment of bittersweet glory.
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