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It’s exceedingly rare for a five dollar downloadable game to engender real creepiness, but the intro sequence to The Binding of Isaac delivers plenty of disturbia. An update of the biblical parable (in which God demands the sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac), the game tells the story of a woman driven mad by Christian telecasts. Her fragmenting mind begins hearing the voice of God, who eventually demands she demonstrate her loyalty by carving up her only son.
The game’s cartoonish art style (reminiscent of creator Edmund McMillen’s most famous project, Super Meat Boy) doesn’t sustain the intro’s terrifying atmosphere. Though the game is blood-soaked and generally gross, nothing about the level design recaptures that horrible moment of Christian fundamentalism gone filicidal. Between levels players are treated to vignettes from Isaac’s past, but these are as often more humorous than horrifying.
We were more than willing to sacrifice (pun intended) horror for crisp gameplay though, and Isaac’s blend of top-down Zelda and grueling Rogue-like is a compelling formula. Players work their way through basements and catacombs, collecting power-ups and battling disgusting enemies and giant, putrescent bosses. Isaac’s default weapon, an endless stream of his own tears, can be upgraded to fire faster or in a spread, and he can improve his speed, damage, and health as he works his way toward the ultimate encounter with his wicked mother.
As in any good Rogue-like, dying means players have to restart from the beginning, their precious power-ups evaporated. Some of that punishing design choice is mitigated by persistent elements like unlockable characters, but Isaac is definitely a game that rewards careful play and perfect runs. Isaac’s survivability is improved somewhat by secondary weapons (like his mother’s bra) and health and powerups available for purchase at random vendors. The game also features tertiary items in the form of tarot cards with a variety of odd effects, though using an unfamiliar card is always a gamble. It may teleport you to a random part of the level, destroy everything on the screen, or do any number of good and horrible things.
Though the gameplay is a lot of fun and intentionally challenging (Isaac can’t shoot diagonally, for instance, except by maneuvering in one direction and firing in another), the game is saddled with some unfortunate technical flaws. More than once during a boss encounter our character glitched off the edge of the screen and couldn’t be recovered. Once, in the middle of a particularly challenging room, the game completely vanished, leaving us staring at our desktop helplessly while we listened to Isaac’s painful death. We also would’ve liked some native gamepad support, which the game design seems to beg for (an odd omission, considering how often Super Meat Boy exhorted players to use a controller).
These issues, combined with inexplicable slowdown and some other minor technical hassles, slightly hamstring what is otherwise an enormously entertaining experience. For those not daunted by challenge, in the market for a game that’s quick to jump into and a great deal of fun, The Binding of Isaac is a fantastic way to spend five bucks.