Review: The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

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Imagine a time traveler had come to you ten years ago and told you one of the biggest gaming hits of the future would be about a naked boy crying bloody tears on piles of poop. You’d probably have him hauled away before he got to the part about buying Bitcoin but that’s just what happened with Edmund McMillen’s grotesque opus, captivating the world with an eclectic mix of top-down shooting and roguelike elements. The original Binding of Isaac was a solid design held back by the limitations of Flash, so it only makes sense that they would produce a more robust remake in The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. And they did, just perhaps not one for their entire audience.

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I suppose it’s theoretically possible you don’t know what Isaac is about, so real quick: Happy little Isaac’s mom hears the voice of God commanding her to sacrifice her boy, so he escapes into the cellars and caverns beneath their home. There he finds a horde of malformed children, fetuses, insects, and worse intent on keeping him company forever. Arming himself with cast-off refuse and offal, Isaac must battle his way to whatever salvation lies at the end of his dark path. Death can come quickly, but each attempt at escape places him in a new arrangement of halls and chambers to find his way out of.

It’s an absolute horror show of a game, tempered only by the soft-edged pixel art and dim cartoonishness of the designs. You definitely wouldn’t want to play this thing when you or your wife are expecting (I did this and had some powerfully fucked up dreams), or if you’re very much squeamish about bodily fluids or gaping orifices. I mean, you’re here now on the internet so that’s probably not the case, but the point is that this isn’t the kind of thing you want to play on your lunch break at work. Time has tempered how vile Isaac and his foes can be, though I could still see it being a hang-up for the less edgy folks in the audience.

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The artistic direction can only overshadow the design so much, though, and Binding of Isaac would not be the classic it is without a stellar design. It’s built like a randomized Legend of Zelda (the original, if you weren’t a fetus back then) kept solely in the dungeons, grids of rooms full of monsters you must defeat before moving onward. The enemy and room arrangements get more challenging as you descend further, so locating the upgrade items on each floor is key to survival. These can enhance your main weapon, your tears, in all kinds of zany ways, or provide new abilities like flight or shields, or grant consumable or temporary effects. You’ll need other resources like bombs or keys to find some, which can be located with a little foreknowledge or a lot of luck.

If any one thing about BoI is what makes it great, it’s the hundreds of items to find. Truly any combination of powerups you can conceive of is present here, with even more in this version than there was in the last. In just the first few hours of play I’ve found triple shots, homing shots, charge shots, juking shots, remote-controlled shots, spiraling shots, poisonous shots, sticky shots, huge shots, clouds of tiny shots, and more. These different effects can be mixed as well, granting a whole new level of madness and unique mechanics to ever run you make. You’ll need something ridiculous to get past some of the beefier bosses but it’s rare that the RNG does not provide, assuming you know what you’re doing.

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Really that’s the big potential hang-up with this title, the amount of foreknowledge you need to succeed at it. The original BoI was pretty good about ramping up as you scored wins and unlocked more goodies to find or fight in the dungeons, but Rebirth starts off in a more advanced place, with more unknown features. Veterans of the first will find half a dozen new kinds of rooms in just the first hour, with completely unexplained mechanics or purposes. Experimentation is of course an important part of any game but the path to sussing out these new features is far murkier than it was before. There are also more trap items than before, along with more powerful, hidden items that can make a huge difference only if you know the mechanics of obtaining them.

Coupled with the improved performance (you could often count on slowdown in the Flash version to save you), these additions make Rebirth a far more challenging package than the original BoI. New enemies also fill in the safe gaps of the old monster roster, featuring interesting new mechanics but also poking huge holes in old tactics. It ends up feeling like a harder, more punishing game to get into even with the original being a pretty steep challenge. That doesn’t make it a bad game by any stretch, just one harder to recommend to newcomers.

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Honestly at this point you should already know if you want a game like The Binding of Isaac. Its reputation precedes it, dangling appendages and urine-soaked raiment and all. There are plenty more top-down roguelike shooters to choose from now but they were almost all inspired from this source, and not many capture the same magic of assembling a bizarre and overpowering build. You’ll have more characters to master, bosses to murder, and items to collect than ever before, along with some new challenge modes and secrets to pursue. The only question is whether or not you’ve got the time to invest in it, and the stomach for the challenge and the horror.

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