Edmund McMillen is a weird dude. Anyone who’s played Super Meat Boy can attest to that. Hell, if you played Gish, you’re an expert on the subject. I say this up front because The Binding of Isaac is more gothic, more gory, and more literally full of crap than any of McMillen’s previous releases.
If you were no fan of Dr. Fetus or BDSM nuns, you’ll likely be put off by, well, everything about this game’s aesthetic. Luckily, below the shit-smeared surface lies a deep, addictive action-RPG, framed by brutal religious satire and perhaps even some insight into McMillen’s own opinions.
Isaac opens with a modern retelling of “The Binding of Isaac,” the Bible story wherein Abraham is told by God to kill his son, only to have the order rescinded at the last moment.
Here, Abraham is played by Isaac’s overly televangelized single mother, who one day hears the voice of God telling her that her son’s soul is corrupted. Seeking refuge from his reverently homicidal mother, Isaac escapes to his basement through a trap door in his room.
McMillen’s art style is operating at full force here. The opening cutscene is rendered in cute line drawings, done by Isaac himself, with bold lines and colors filling the very chibi depths of the cellar. Danny B., composer of Super Meat Boy’s Super Meat sounds, returns to offer some great neo-dungeon crawler tunes.
Beneath his broken home, Isaac finds a sequence of six Legend of Zelda-style dungeons, filled with antagonistic severed heads and maggots, deadly sin-themed minibosses, and a host of megabosses ranging from Loki to “Mr. Peep,” whose urine (of which he has plenty) is quite harmful.
Isaac manages these threats by shooting them with his ever-flowing tears, his abilities frequently supplemented by loot and one-time use pickups, such as “The Bean” (lets Isaac fart, damaging and poisoning enemies) and “Mom’s Underwear” (increases Isaac’s range).
This mix of Diablo loot-grabbing and Smash TV action would be solid enough to carry a traditional adventure game. Tears can only be fired at ninety-degree angles, but they can be curved by moving while shooting, which is actually more strategically satisfying. The fire rate can feel a bit sluggish at first, but power-ups usually come fast enough to solve that issue.
The map system is what really gives Isaac its lasting appeal. Dungeons are randomly generated, and while you may occasionally see the same room, the layouts will always be different. The UI is ripped straight from Zelda, with a couple welcome upgrades: Health pickups, bombs, and coins don’t fade away, and the map will record their locations in case you need to return for them.
The Binding of Isaac’s main selling point is its sacrilegious charm, but the layers below it will never cease to draw you deeper. In over thirty playthroughs, I’ve succeeded in defeating Mom once. In over six hours, I still have yet to discover two-thirds of the secrets, one-third of the items, half of the characters, and most of the endings. At five bucks, the math couldn’t be more convincing. You should play this game. It is God’s will.