…or how I learned to love social services

It sounds like the set-up for a terribly misguided episode of Stepford and Son. In an effort to appease God’s will and demonstrate divine love for him, a man is requested by the Lord to sacrifice his son. There’s a happy ending, the Lord throwing something of a jerky curveball at the very last minute and announcing it was all just a test, but still, it’s a Jeremy Kyle episode I’m eagerly waiting for. It’s a controversial tale of faith, but Edward McMillan is pretty convinced he can take some even heftier strikes at the domestic to end all domestics.

Mirroring the classic dysfunctional family tale of Abraham and Isaac, The Binding Of Isaac casts you into the pitter pattering bare feet of a helpless toddler. Innocent and yet forever tormented, the final straw of mental torture comes from his mother, determined to cut the child into pieces with a kitchen knife after hearing a voice from God demanding her to do so. In a final act of desperation, Isaac discovers a trap door leading down into the depths of his house and hopes of safety. In reality, it leads to a ever changing dungeon leading to hell, filled with venomous insects, torturous implements and his deformed siblings spewing forth blood and choking on flies.

Anyone familiar with Edward McMillan’s former (and phenomenal) Super Meat Boy will be instantly in touch with the dark humour that oozes from his titles, but those who have braved his work on Newgrounds will probably have a better handle on just how grim this tale can get. There are slight cracks of smiles hidden deep in this deprived trial, you just have to have some rather strong will to see them through the mask of a naked toddler fighting off demons with nothing but his tears. The deeper you delve into this man-made hell, the more sickening the predicament gets, and yet at the same time, it just becomes even more fascinating. No matter what you’ve played before, or even what you experienced, The Binding Of Isaac will hit, uproot and discard your nerves with a rusty broadsword.

Anyone familiar with Edward McMillan’s former (and phenomenal) Super Meat Boy will also be familiar with the love for astonishingly difficult gameplay, and Isaac certainly doesn’t falter on this front. Those who have dabbled in Zelda titles that had to be blown into with the force of a whirlwind in order to make them work will most likely appreciate the difficulty some of the obstacles in the game will chuck at you. Cavalcades of grisly beasts chase you down into the darkest corners they can find, and the less said about the internal organ flaunting bosses the better. Scanning from the clouds at the infant’s slow demise into hell, the tried and tested ancient formula works well, but you won’t be walking away relishing of fond memories of dungeons gone by…because there’s no memories to hang onto.

Life in this game is a bitch.With only a handful of levels on offer, The Binding of Isaac should be a simple task to overcome, despite its tough exterior. Succumb to death however, and you’ll be chucked right to the beginning of the game. Commence another trial in the domestic nightmare, and everything will alter. Dungeon layouts rearrange, enemies dwell in darker corners and the potentially torturous aids are replaced with brand new bittersweet power-ups to educate yourself with.

You’re not left completely helpless against the monstrosities you will face. Items tempt you off the entrails coated path and can be god-sends…in a way. Power-ups come in grotesque little packages, from your mother’s lipstick that will fire your tears further to your dog’s decapitated head that, inevitably, force you to cry more on your enemies to toothpicks you can stick underneath the eyelids to turn those tears into…blood. Tons of these items litter each and every playthrough, and despite serving the obvious purpose of slapping dignity around the face, each radically alters how your version of the infant plays out with every playthrough.

The Binding Of Isaac certainly isn’t soul-crushingly difficult, but it’s a challenge that’ll constantly keep you on your toes and swiftly disciplines anyone not kind or twisted enough to pay it the attention it deserves. Even once you’ve got the fundamentals , sciences and rules logged in your favour, a wiki’s worth of knowledge on enemy patterns and power-ups can only take you so far. Isaac balances the risk/reward. Conventionally, the difficulty automatically hikes up after a few completions, but the threat of death is ever present. Gut tearing maggots, noose enraptured corpses and excreting piles of fat may be an ever present danger rapidly depleting your health, but you soon realise that the game is only as hard as you want to make it. Sometimes a power up you grabbed after pushing through 20 layers of pus spewing oddities will turn you into a mutant spider with multi-tear firing tech. Sometimes a power-up you grabbed after pushing through 10 layers of pus spewing oddities will give you slightly acidic pee. Death loses half-an-hours worth of progress, but life in this game is a bitch.

With randomly generated nightmares materialising in each playthrough, the whole game is a joy to re-sicken yourself with. Even after 22 hours, I’m still uncovering new bittersweet goodies, new bosses, new endings and bizarre Easter Eggs that launch you down even stranger paths. Tons of items, several endings and bosses that seem to reside in the darkest corners of your internal memory before unleashing themselves on you. There always seems to be something else to uncover just around the corner, it’s hard not to be determined to discover it.

The Binding of Isaac is an exceptionally macabre take on the biblical prose that spawned it, and one that will chew out your emotions no matter where your religious views lie. If your skull is made of kryptonite and hadoukens controversy or your brain is a ‘dead baby’ joke factory, there is an astonishingly deep game to uncover here at a ridiculously cheap price for what you receive. A simple blend of Rogue and Zelda, it’s as compelling as it is gruelling and a utterly brilliant trek that lavishes those with the stomach for it with hours of joy. Grisly, horrid joy.

The Good: Tons of items to uncover over multiple playthroughs, Ever changing dungeons keep you on your toes, Cute art style clashes with the distressing imagery…well, Hours of gameplay in a small packageThe Bad: Not for the faint hearted in both morals and gameplay experience

Gameplay: Gameplay - 9 out of 10 9
Graphics:   Graphics - 8 out of 10 8
Sound:      Sound - 8 out of 10 8
Overall:     Overall - 9 out of 10 9

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