Pete Davison: Bound by Isaac

Posted on September 29, 2011 by

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Edmund “Super Meat Boy” McMillen and Florian “I Work With Edmund ‘Super Meat Boy’ McMillen Quite A Bit” Himsl have a new game out — you may have heard of it. It’s called The Binding of Isaac and it costs just £3.59, or $5 to you American types. It’s also a prime example of a project that would never have got greenlit by a large publisher, for many reasons.

These reasons start with the very premise of the game — you play a nude, crying child attempting to escape from his mother who has been hearing messages from God and believes that she must rid her child of corruption by, as in the Biblical story, killing him. Little Isaac isn’t willing to stick around and wait and see if God stays his psychotic mother’s hand, however, so he escapes into the basement, only to be confronted with numerous manifestations of his own fears and nightmares. What follows is a genuinely horrifying yet darkly amusing quest through a series of Zelda-inspired randomly generated dungeons where Isaac dispatches his enemies by crying on them and powers up through a series of items, most of which affect his appearance in some sort of particularly grotesque and inappropriate manner. Sound fun? Or just plain weird? It’s both.

The exact items you’ll encounter are different on each playthrough, making each run through the game’s short dungeons a genuinely unpredictable experience. On one run you might come across a syringe full of steroids first of all, which beefs up Isaac and makes his head swell in an unpleasantly tumorous manner. On another run you might come across a wire coat hanger which, revoltingly, he impales through his own head and increases his capacity for crying. On yet another run you may find something else — there’s about 100 different items to find and discover the uses of, and every one of them affects little Isaac’s appearance in one way or another.

This being a game from McMillen, it’s got a distinctive art style that is entertaining, amusing and horrifying all at once. Cute little worms slither around, only to come flying at you with fang-filled maws agape as soon as they become aware of your presence. Nightmarish clones of Isaac with no eyes in their sockets stagger around — and continue to do so even after Isaac has blown their heads off. And flies buzz around destructible lumps of shit before turning on Isaac in anger.

It’s an utterly bewildering game, but strangely compelling and addictive. The fact that a single death forces you to go back to the start of a new dungeon and try again means potentially limitless replay value, and a huge number of unlockable items — including extra characters — only add to this. The game parodies the NES original Zelda dungeons perfectly, right down to the mostly mute shopkeepers with just three wares lined up before them — only in the case of Isaac’s adventure, the shopkeepers are effigies of him that have been strung up by their necks and hang from the ceiling.

At $3.50, it’s certainly worth giving a shot, even if you play it once and are too horrified and disgusted to play it ever again. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see fairly traditional play mechanics married to an aesthetic and setting which is utterly shameless and doesn’t hold back from showing things that are either darkly hilarious or stomach-churningly revolting — I haven’t quite made my mind up yet.

One thing’s certain — for more reasons than one, you’re never going to seethis one on Xbox Live Arcade.

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Posted in: Pete Davison