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The Binding of Isaac

Few games can truly claim to walk the fine line between fun and frustration as much as The Binding of Isaac, another hellishly difficult title from Edmund McMillen: the man behind Super Meat Boy. It’s a title that delights in pushing players to the point where they want to start taking swings at their computer before attempting another round guiding its titular tyke through a series of nightmarish and randomized dungeons.

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A brief animated intro sets up the threadbare plot: Isaac is a young boy living a happy life at home with his mom until she starts hearing the voice of God and hiding him from the evils of the world. It isn’t long until Isaac is permanently locked in his room and awaiting execution at the hands of his mother at the almighty’s behest. Escaping into the basement, Isaac begins his bizarre journey.

“Disturbing as it is endearing”The Binding of Isaac somehow manages to be disturbing as it is endearing with its balance of gruesome monsters and matching setting with its adorable, wide-eyed sprites. Dungeons are splashed in every foul bodily fluid imaginable—blood, guts, tears, urine, and even an uncomfortable amount of feces. Imagine Hellraiser filmed through the lens of a Saturday morning cartoon for kids. The bestiary is equally grotesque. Armies of maggots and flies are frequent foes, and headless children spewing fountains of blood from their necks are a common sight.

Bosses take things a distasteful step forward: fetuses, conjoined twins, fat slugs urinating on the floor, and even Isaac’s mother are just a few of the end-level bosses that need to be dealt with. Keep in mind that the protagonist is also a perpetually-naked boy using his tears as projectiles. The Binding of Isaac is a pretty sick game with aesthetics that would appeal to one’s inner horror fan and Splatterhouse enthusiast. It isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes, but those that enjoyed Super Meat Boy are probably going to find themselves like McMillen’s perverted sense of style.

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Since the dungeons are randomized, there’s no telling what you’re going to find whether it be a useful power-up or more monsters. This makes memorization of each level impossible and keeps the experience fresh every time. On the downside, this means success depends on good luck and players will often lose because they were dealt a bad hand. Every time Isaac dies, players wind up right back at the start of the game and even the most patient of individuals will become infuriated by such a design choice. After putting in so much effort and acquiring a myriad of useful abilities, it feels way too harsh.

“Boils blood just as easily as it encourages laughter ”The randomness extends to the power-ups themselves, as there are well over a hundred of them and they don’t always have the expected effect. Some even hurt Isaac and if used in a tight spot are going to guarantee death. At the very least, they can be used in conjunction with other power ups and there’s not much of a limit on how many of them can be used at the same time. Still, there’s nothing worse than getting bad power-ups and items with no end in sight. At that point, it’s probably best to just quit and start again.

There’s even some replayability to the title with extra characters that can be unlocked and a bit of exploring to see if there’s anything particularly useful in a given dungeon. The Binding of Isaac is a purposefully short title designed to be played many times over, not just due to its unforgiving nature, that will yield a surprise here and there when players think they’re seen everything. Its ability to keep you guessing is its greatest strength and weakness as it violently seesaws between an enjoyable 2D romp and unbridled frustration.

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The Binding of Isaac is not for those that are easily deterred, and it’s a safe bet that any Super Meat Boy fans are going to sink their teeth into it. For such a small title, there’s a lot of content packed into it and it’s an experience that isn’t always the same from one playthrough to the next. Players will question whether it was their own skill that carried them through to the end or if it was sheer luck, but regardless of the difficulty it’s an approachable game with a unique charm that boils blood just as easily as it encourages laughter at Isaac’s cartoonish spectacle of childhood trauma.

7 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in March 2010.

Gentle persuasion

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