The Binding of Isaac, like a vengeful god, lacks compassion and forgiveness. The only tutorial is scrawled on the floor of the first room you enter – it shows button mappings for movement, attack, and using inventory items. As you set forth into one of many randomly generated rooms, you come across misshapen beasts that attack without provocation, and within minutes you’re fighting for your miserable life. (As if being chased by your homicidal hyper-religious mother wasn’t enough). There is no saving of progress – death is permanent, and all inventory items are lost every time.
The game is a trial by fire, a series of exercises in humility, patience, and experimentation. There is no telling what an item does until it is used. The only thing that is clear is when you are in danger. The first death will be abrupt and somewhat confusing, but subsequent deaths become all too clear. Every playthrough is a lesson learned, and the game bestows a great sense of progression, even if no progress is actually saved.
The game’s presentation is disturbing and completely appropriate. Isaac’s main weapon is his tears. Secret rooms house suicide victims. Enemies range from horribly malformed children to walking vaginas that fire streams of period blood. (Feel free to read that last one again.)
Inventory items complement the game’s mood and range from the religious to the Freudian – Isaac can gain abilities from wearing a Crown of Thorns, a Pentagram, and his mother’s panties and heels, while drawing on a Tarot deck to access some pagan powers. As a nod to the original Biblical story, the theme of sacrifice tends to come up often, too: do you give blood for coins so you can gamble or purchase better loot? Do you make a pact with The Devil to be offensively strong, but physically weak?
The game is difficult and does take some time to master, but that doesn’t speak much for its longevity. If you play it long enough, enemies and inventory become familiar, and bosses are no longer threatening because you know how to defeat each one effectively. For the price and format, it offers bite-sized gaming sessions competently, but those expecting the game to overreach its indie status will be disappointed. The DLC release Wrath of the Lamb beefs up the package for a decent price if this is your cup of tea.
The Binding of Isaac is best suited to those who need to kill half an hour at a time. Those with weaker dispositions may want to reconsider their need to face off against eyeless blood-spitting children.