The Binding of Isaac is the brainchild of Edmund McMillan and Florian Hisml and concerns religion and child abuse. It’s probably not the most normal source of inspiration for video games, but makes a welcome change from the endless parade of space marines gunning down aliens. Edmund McMillan had already scored an indie hit with the ridiculously difficult Super Meat Boy, an old school platform game that hated you and everything about you. In The Binding of Isaac McMillan has outdone himself, turning in a game that feels like it takes everything good about games of yore and serves it up with a refreshingly modern twist.
The Binding of Isaac, as anyone who paid attention during Religious Education lessons should know, was a hilarious prank that Jehovah played on one of his bearded followers called Abraham. The Almighty basically asked Abraham to murder his first born son to prove how much he loved his God. Abraham was totally going to do it too, but God rescinded his kill order at the last minute which saved Isaacâ€™s life. Everyone involved learned a valuable lesson about trusting God even if he appears to be out of his fucking mind. This does of course raise the problem that its very hard for anyone religious to tell the difference between an actual request from God to open up with a machine gun in Waitrose and a psychotic episode, and itâ€™s this that forms the backbone of McMillan and Hismlâ€™s videogame. In the game Isaac is a little kid whose mother has a just such a psychotic episode whilst watching Christian TV and, following instructions, apparently from God, locks Isaac in a room, takes away all his toys and eventually tries to kill him. Isaac, being surprisingly resourceful for a five year-old, flees into the cellar from which he must escape to face his ghastly mother.
Essentially The Binding of Isaac combines elements from twin stick shooters, roguelike games and action RPGs into a gloriously insane and horrible mush of nightmares and awesomeness. Isaac starts the game as a naked child with tears running from his oversized eyes. These tears serve as his main weapon, they can be shot in four directions independently from his movement and their trajectory is somewhat affected by the direction he is traveling in, which allows you to bend shots with practice. He moves through a sequence of single screen rooms filled with all manner of horrible monsters and he cannot progress until he clears each room. Every level contains a few special rooms including one which houses the trap door down to the next level and which is protected by a boss monster. The monsters are grotesque and beautifully drawn, as if straight from a childâ€™s nightmares. There are headless children, diseased fly spitting creatures and disembodied heads, all rendered in a unsettling cute style that only adds to the sense of horror.
The game comes with a truckload of possible upgrades and finding as many as possible is essential to progressing. There are hundreds of possible items to find with a bewildering range of effects and playing through the game unlocks more as you go along. Each upgrade changes how Isaac looks. Over the course of a typical playthrough youâ€™ll wind up with a truly horrible mess by the end as the graphical tweaks from the various items combine to create something reminiscent of a miniature Frankensteinâ€™s monster or any photo of me taken between 1997 and 2006. This is an element I really like, the idea that in fighting the monsters you end up a monster yourself. The items are full of evil charm, a syringe filled with steroids turns you into a â€˜roid-raging freak, a spider gives you a red bite on your head, putting on Momâ€™s bra causes all the monsters to freeze (presumably in horror at the sight of a toddler in a bra). Real thought has gone into making each of the items suggestive of a story. I particularly like the plate of dog food labelled â€˜dinnerâ€™ (which gives you more health) and the wooden spoon which gives you more speed but also covers you in spoon shaped welts. Both of these are items which hint at Momâ€™s ongoing abuse of her son in the back story. Itâ€™s all very dark.
The game is randomly generated in the same way as traditional roguelike games, so itâ€™s never quite the same game twice. Also, like a roguelike, death is permanent and will send you back to the beginning of the game. This will happen a lot, itâ€™s brutally, brutally hard and the the random generation of rooms will sometimes throw up vicious combinations of monsters and scenery that will be really hard to get through. The flip side is also true though, the game will sometimes throw awesome power up after awesome power up at you until Isaac becomes a five year old engine of death. The game is short, on paper at least, needing only about an hour to play from beginning to end. Actually, with your chances of survival being so minimal there are many, many hours of play to be had from the game. Iâ€™ve logged almost thirty hours of play and Iâ€™ve yet to beat it and Iâ€™ve only discovered about half of the items buried in the game.
The Binding of Isaac has been well supported by McMillan and Hisml too, thereâ€™s been one update already and another is due to drop very soon (at the time of writing). Its a game of astonishing depth and compelling atmosphere that really showcases the best side of the current indie scene, borrowing heavily from the past and re-interpreting it in a way that is extremely contemporary. Its vicious difficulty curve might put some people off but for me it adds to the horror vibe, thereâ€™s nothing worse than a horror game thatâ€™s too easy. The Binding of Isaac is a real treat for anyone who doesnâ€™t want to play endless identikit FPS shooters and doesnâ€™t mind dying a lot.
The Binding of Isaac is available now on Steam priced 3.99.