The Binding of Isaac was a nice surprise. Perhaps “nice” is the wrong word to use. There is, in fact, very little nice about The Binding of Isaac. I would go as far as to say the game subverts niceness at every available opportunity. It’s tactilely vile, unapologetically disturbing and consistently offensive to every single one of my senses. Still, it’s probably the best five dollars I’ve ever spent.
You are Isaac, a young child living under the roof of your pious mother. One day, your mother hears God’s voice in her head. In a haunting ultimatum, the almighty demands that she kill her son on the grounds that he has become corrupted by the devil. Without question, she obliges. The unlucky Isaac is forced into a haphazard retreat down to his basement in order to escape his murderous matriarch, setting the stage for the game.
In order to progress deeper and deeper into the basement, Isaac must defeat hordes of monsters, collect various items, and navigate labyrinthine hallways. Every level is 100% randomly generated, ensuring a unique dungeon floor plan every time you boot up the game. The Binding of Isaac is at its core a rogue-like – a randomly generated dungeon crawler that lends itself to unlimited replayability. It’s a subgenre that I have a particular soft spot for, and one that I’m exceedingly pleased is making a resurgence through independent developers.
Where The Binding of Isaac sets itself apart is in its tone and aesthetic. It is grotesque, almost unbearably so. Every individual element of the rogue-like subgenre has been subverted into an ersatz reflection of itself. Rather than a weapon, Isaac fights with his tears, pummeling his opponents with concentrated bolts of sadness. The bulk of the monsters are macabre reflections of the protagonist himself – disembodied heads, zombies with bleeding eye sockets, and headless corpses that perform jumping jacks across the screen to name a few. The dungeons themselves are spattered with blood, slime, and… dookie. Yes, as if the gore and sacrilegious elements weren’t enough, toilet humour is dispensed liberally.
The really crux of this review is the question of whether or not this grotesqueness services The Binding of Isaac. The bones of the game are rock solid: dungeons are well paced, there are an impressive variety of monsters, bosses are fun and challenging, and there are more power ups than anyone would consider necessary. The skill curve is excellently balanced. The more you play, the more nuances you pick up on – such as how to find hidden doors or angle the trajectory of your attacks. Discovering these little things on your own is extremely satisfying, and helps propel you further and further. It all just feels good – so good that I clocked more than 20 hours the first week I owned the game without even noticing.
But could this have been accomplished without the all over-the-top weirdness? If Isaac were, say, a robot that shot lasers out of his eyes instead of tears, would the game have suffered at all? Or if – harkening back to the rogue-likes of yore – he were an adventurer descending a dungeon with a bow and arrow in hand, would anyone have complained? True, the grotesque aesthetic is aided by the same tactile art direction that propelled Super Meat Boy into superstardom, but does such a dramatically nonconformist approach benefit the game at all? Is there even any thematic point to the sacrilege and the gore other than simple shock value?
Honestly, I’m not sure there is. In the end though, I can’t say the aesthetic hurt the experience for me personally. After playing for about an hour or so, I simply got acclimatized to all the heinousness, to the point where I didn’t even bat an eye when one of the power-ups gave me a dogpile for a hat, or when I had to avoid rolling boulders of organs, or even when my mother split into several disparate pieces that made a coordinated effort to crush me. Well, maybe that last part bothered me a little bit.
My main concern is that the tone of The Binding of Isaac may ward off the casual and the squeamish. The ultra creepy trailer for the game was almost enough to turn me away; I probably wouldn’t have considered it all if I hadn’t been made aware that Edmund McMillen was connected to the project. Moreso, I would feel highly uncomfortable recommending this game to a friend, and I have friends who spend three hours a night blowing various parts off of zombies with sawed-off shotguns. Whereas its predecessor Super Meat Boy was cartoonish and slapstick, The Binding of Isaac is straight-up gruesome. It’s a difficult sell.
At its core, The Binding of Isaac really is a great game. With its endless replay value, you’d be hard pressed to find more bang for your buck at five dollars. Still, due to its grotesque narrative and aesthetic, it certainly isn’t for everyone.