Review: The Binding of Isaac

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Games that get remade are a bit of a sticky point for reviews. I try not to allow external factors to influence my estimation, but at the same time it must be acknowledged that a superior version of the same product exists. However, I think there’s still enough daylight left between Binding of Isaac and Rebirth that the original can stand on its own, and stand tall on its stubby, misshapen legs. It was one of the most-played games on Steam for a reason, and still retains a few features that distinguish it from its successor.

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On the off-chance you’ve been living under a rock inside a Faraday cage somewhere in the Himalayas, Binding of Isaac is like if Zelda was all randomized dungeons, a billion unsettling organic weapons, and lots of poop. Little Isaac’s mother has been commanded by God to sacrifice him, and to escape this grim fate he flees into the gloomy basement and tunnels of his home. There he finds horrifying cast-offs of life, amalgamations of blood and bone, and twisted visions of heaven and hell standing between him and his final fate. It’s a fever-dream of a presentation, crowned with vomit and feces.

The bizarre, grotesque themes of BoI are inescapable, and I’ve often wondered if they were more of a contributor or a liability to its success. Given the runaway popularity I can only conclude the former, and now have to face the reality of just how many gamers love peeing enemies to death. Isaac’s main weapon against the bloody fetuses and rotting children of the underhalls is his tears, upgradable through all sorts of random objects to cry farther, faster, harder, and in different ways. He can cry in a spread, in a beam, in psychic homing tears, in pee, in blood, and more. Enemies worn down by his mournful tirade explode into piles of cartoon gore and viscera that paint the dingy walls crimson.

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It’s a grim game in theme and aesthetic, held together by the incredible depth and breadth of content. The first time you complete the game it’ll be on a run through six levels, but after that many more open up with their own new gimmicks and enemies. Many of your deeds unlock new items to appear from the random pool of power-ups, some with dramatic effects that make future wins more likely just with their availability. New enemies and bosses are unlocked as well, lest you think the good fortune comes at no cost. You’ll also need to manage supplies of bombs and keys for accessing certain areas, and coins that are used to purchase, gamble, donate, and achieve other ends.

Your rewards for learning the nuances of the game and growing your skill are the runs where you get a perfect confluence of items that fill entire rooms with deadly tears, or transform you into an immortal floating head of attrition, or give you direct access to the mysterious and terrifying endgame areas. The RNG is God here in the dungeons, but it is a benevolent one that will grant you power beyond measure just as often as it will snatch it away. And with a little experience, you can stack that deck in your favor, too. BoI is tuned to let you win any run, and while some will be tougher than others, some will also be utter cakewalks with instant laser tears.

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Bear in mind that all of this and more is found in Binding of Isaac Rebirth, of course. I won’t mince words here, Rebirth is the superior version, but there is a case still to be made for the original. Plenty more content was added to the remake, from new levels to new enemies to entirely new systems, but they only make the game bigger, not better. OG BoI is still a very focused, comprehensible challenge with plenty to see and do. Having sunk nearly 50 hours into this version, I still find myself a little bewildered by the new, unfamiliar features of Rebirth. There’s a difference in look and feel as well, this one featuring the smooth vector looks of Flash while Rebirth has a more blended, pixelly appearance.

It’s not all good, mind you. Being a Flash game makes this one more prone to stuttering, slowdowns, and the occasional glitches. Rebirth isn’t perfect either but it doesn’t have that inescapable cheapness that Flash titles do. At other times the hit detection might get a little wonky, or in extreme cases some things might not unlock correctly. And there’s no native controller support either, which these days can be a dealbreaker for some. Still, it’s the one that helped grow the roguelike craze that has engulf Steam, and for good reason. The unique look, the compelling secrets, and the visceral fun of working through it all are in no way diminished by the remake. It’s such a bizarrely perfect mix of roguelike and bullet hell that no matter how far its successors go, there will always be a place for the original.

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