Over the past year, Lady Gaga (whom I am not, for the record, a fan of) has crafted videos of all sorts satirizing religion. It’s garnered her fans and critics alike. Add into the mix a ton of references to pop culture, and you’ll have one of the weirdest indie games I had the pleasure to play: The Binding of Isaac.
The Binding of Isaac follows a young boy of the same name who lives with his Christian Televangelist Network obsessed mom. They lived in a small house and were, according to the introduction, “happy.” Suddenly, his mother begins to hear a voice telling her that Isaac’s in danger. She takes away every basic need of a kid due to what she thinks is God telling her. Ultimately, the voice tells her to kill Isaac. He runs to his room and just as he is about to die, he finds a trap door and lands in a haunted basement.
All things considered, this is a game that could only have been made during the 2010-11 game year. References abound to the aforementioned Gaga, religion, video games, pop culture and psychology. It’s this odd mixture of thoughts that make it intriguing, especially since many of your opponents have many of the same traits as Isaac.
Of course, one could argue that this is the drawback to the game’s engine and Ed McMillian’s artwork as a whole. The majority of his characters all look alike and poor Isaac is no different. However, he does an awesome job selling the atmosphere. There are tons of crevasses, rocks, bombs, mysterious “monsters” and tons of blood. It’s easy to tell where Isaac is and the enemies while maintaining a dark atmosphere with previous “siblings” in various positions of dead.
So what is the gameplay like? It’s a combination of dungeon crawling Rogue mixed in with some light shmup elements, power-ups and items. Isaac “kills” his enemies by throwing his tears at them and can move around the screen. You explore each level looking for items, coins, hearts to restore life, bombs and the boss to descend to the next level.
However, The Binding of Isaac is hard. It’s like carving granite with no power tools. This is a game that punishes you if you make too many mistakes as resources are rare. Thus, you need to know the patterns of each enemy. Power-ups are also rare and some items can actually harm Isaac. Pills are the greatest cause of harm. Plus, you can use secondary weapons to help even the score. There is a catch: They only “recharge” when you clear a room (unless you find the proper power-up). So you really need to ask yourself, “Do I need this NOW?”
Thankfully, the game controls rather well. I never blamed the controls for my inability to survive, just my wits. The typical WASD set up moves him around while the arrow keys direct his tears. There is a catch: You cannot aim at an angle. The funny thing is that all the monsters can fire at an angle. So it bothers me that I cannot return the favor. It feels confining.
The music continues this theme as well. The music is full of lush orchestrations such as a xylophone tingling over violins and drums. Drums and xylophones are common instruments, lending the game an even creepier feel than the graphics alone. Tracks vary in degrees of lushness as a few are sparse. Overall, it is a very impressive soundtrack and one I’m happy to have on my computer.
Get The Binding of Isaac. It’s an intriguing modern update of an old biblical tale. It should be noted that this game revels in its explicit and “controversial” topics. It’s a challenge to honestly look at our values and beliefs. One cannot play the game for its unique mixture of play and ignore the message it is relaying: Does religion have a place in our lives today, or should something else fill the void? You can find Isaac on Steam for $5. Go buy it and be prepared to be tied to your computer for a long time.