Developer: Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
Edmund McMillen, half of Team Meat and developer of cult indie hit Gish, is well-versed in the art of the thoroughly disgusting. The Binding Of Isaac is the natural progression of his trademark art style and dark mature themes, telling the horrifying story of an abused child escaping certain death at the murderous hands of his insane mother - fighting off hordes of deformed, nightmarish monstrosities with his own tears. It's thoroughly nasty, frequently nauseating and occasionally even a mite moving.
Strip all that away, however, and you'll discover an ruthlessly addictive and surprisingly replayable little Roguelike beneath all the blood and grime.
After Isaac's schizophrenic mother attempts to murder him (a modern twist on the bloodthirsty Bible story), our tragic young hero manages to tumble into a hidden basement beneath his house. Players will need to explore these terrifying catacombs, gain items, grow in strength and eventually commit brutal matricide. The action subscribes to the classic roguelike formula of randomly generated mazes consisting of single-screen arenas full of enemies, obstacles and collectibles. However, the formula has been brought up to date with slick arcade shooting mechanics instead of turn based number crunching. Isaac's tears can be directed in the four cardinal directions using the arrow keys or mouse, with speedy movement mapped to WASD. Fans of shoot 'em ups will be well away.
As you'd expect, there's no save option - but The Binding Of Isaac is designed to be insanely, ridiculously replayable. Each maze is randomly generated each time you start a new game, packing different enemies and collectible items every playthrough. Discovering what surprising new challenges await on your next run makes the experience insanely, wonderfully addictive, especially due to the dizzying selection of items that continually unlock throughout. These items can increase Isaac's speed, strength or range, add new fire modes such as charge shots, provide bombs or one-shot mystery powerups and even humorous cosmetic touches. Isaac instantly adorns these items (or has them embedded sickeningly into his flesh, like the item-attracting magnet), resulting in the poor lad becoming a cross-dressing, hybrid monstrosity. As mentioned, completing hidden objectives causes a wider variety of these pickups to spawn on future playthroughs, providing a compulsive drive to unlock the best gear.
This randomisation can be a double-edged sword, though. Sometimes you won't be given enough keys to access the all-important items you need, and more to the point, these powerups might end up being completely useless. Items may also appear locked within impassable scenery, stopping you from getting the tiny sliver of health that could mean the difference between success and instant failure. You'll frequently die through no fault of your own, though at least even the most abortive forays usually unlock new loot. You'll occasionally stumble upon the perfect combination of pickups to make it through to face off against your murderous mother - but you're equally likely to blag a bunch of tat.
The Binding Of Isaac is also capable of tugging on the heartstrings - and evoking more of an emotional reaction than simple relief, frustration and disgust. Isaac is a truly tragic figure who appears to have been abused throughout his life, and every new stage starts with a horrifying random flashback of an embarrassing, heartbreaking or utterly cruel incident in his past. What's more, several powerups are genuinely shocking: such as the 'wooden spoon' that causes raw spoon-shaped welts to appear all over Isaac's infant body. Some will say that Edmund McMillen is being cynically controversial for the sake of it - and if you're easily offended, I'd advise you to stay away. Otherwise, read into it what you will.
Visually, The Binding Of Isaac is a pixel-sharp example of McMillen's cute-yet-vile signature art style. It's adorable in a vomitous, stomach-churning kind of way, and possesses plenty of low key Flash charm. Free roguelikes aren't in short supply, but the graphical clarity and sheer volume make this a bargain at its incredibly low asking price.
- Slick mechanics, immensely replayable structure
- Incredibly addictive
- Budget, bargain price tag
- Cynical controversy for the sake of it?
- Random item placement can lead to massive frustration
- There are plenty of free roguelikes
The Short Version: The Binding Of Isaac is a randomised , replayable and reprehensible masterpiece. The horrific imagery and shocking themes may disgust, but the core experience works brilliantly regardless. And it's cheap as chips.