How to talk about The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth? Its vital statistics – a reboot of a procedurally-generated dungeon adventure with heavy overtones of the original Zelda and a host of Freudian issues – don’t really tell the story.
Neither does “shoot the poop,” which is literally a thing you do in the game.
There’s been a bit of a renaissance of games that harken back to the brutally-difficult bullet-hells and platforms of the glory days of the NES – see, for instance, the popularity of Spelunky! and Isaac-creator Edmund McMillen’s magnificent Super Meat Boy. The legendarily difficult Dark Souls has even become its own genre, with imitators beginning to crop up in the triple-A scene.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is firmly in that camp – it’s difficult, sometimes to the point of being comically unfair, but it also rewards and actively encourages mastery. Like Dark Souls, death in Isaac almost always feels like a personal failing, rather than the game punishing you for daring to wander outside its creators’ idea for how you should experience the game.
Isaac is definitely a love letter (albeit a twisted one) to the early Zelda titles – in its procedurally-generated dungeons, you encounter traps, obstacles, and myriad enemies. You collect keys to open locked doors to shops and items, and bombs to use against enemies and terrain. Little pink, beating hearts replenish your health, and the items you find, purchase, or earn for defeating bosses can help even the odds as you head deeper into the increasingly-difficult (and bizarre) levels of the dungeon.
Of course, it must be said that the, well, theme can be troubling. Isaac has been chased into the dungeon by his crazed mother, and the strange combination of religious and occult symbols, as well as the apparent fixation on bodily functions reflects the obsessions of a seven-year-old boy. Enemies spew blood, you find icons like a rosary and crown of thorns, and your primary weapon is your constant stream of tears.
So there’s clearly a complicated game of Freudian Bingo to be played here, and someone more expert at that kind of analysis than I am might write a very intriguing paper about what The Binding of Isaac says about its creator, Edmund McMillen. What keeps me coming back to the game, though, are the tight controls, the bite-sized runtime (15-20 minutes is typical for a run), and the constant sense of unlocking new secrets.
There’s a seat-of-your-pants intensity to most Isaac runs, a moment-to-moment sense of tension created by the host of different enemies and their attack patterns. But there’s also a metagame element – not just in learning how to handle each new enemy, but also in using the hundreds of items most effectively. These items can synergize with each other, and an improvement Rebirth brings to the vanilla Isaac formula is that these synergies are now carefully crafted: the “Technology 2” item, which fits robotic laser over one of Isaac’s eyes, now has an interesting effect (I won’t spoil it) when paired with “homing tears.”
The fact that each dungeon is procedurally (not “randomly,” as it’s often incorrectly called) generated, with new floor layouts, enemy populations, and item placements means each run is unique. “Beating” the game is technically possible, but the game unfolds far beyond your first trip to Mom’s Boss Chamber (during which you shoot her stomping, varicose legs and dodge swats by her monstrous hands). And since by the time you get to each boss you’ll be sporting a totally different set of gear, even memorizing bosses’ patterns only gets you so far. You might get deeper than you thought you ever would on one run, only to die on the second floor in the next.
For those new to Isaac, it should be pointed out that Rebirth is not the first entry in the franchise. It’s a reboot, and also it’s an expansion – it includes much of the content added in the initial game’s Wrath of the Lamb expansion, an oeuvre that was only available on home computers (PC, OS X, and GNU/Linux). With Rebirth, the game is now also available on PS4 and Vita as well. The original game was coded in Flash, an environment that was never meant to handle the scope of what McMillen had in mind, and the unexpected “bugs” that resulted were often accepted as part of the Isaac canon. Rebirth brings to the game its own, brand new engine, which keeps the framerate at a buttery and responsive 60 frames per second (the Flash version of the game had wildly-varying framerates that could kill gameplay).
Rebirth also overhauls the game’s aesthetic, which has been the cause of some controversy. Whereas the Flash version of the game used vector graphics for a smooth look at any resolution, Rebirth’s graphics are redone in a crunchy, pixelated style. Personally I like the updated look, especially with the brand new atmospheric lighting effects, but Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Alec Meer didn’t care for it at all. I’m not a big fan of the game’s ending cutscenes, which don’t seem to match the rest of the game’s visual style, but that’s a very minor gripe.
If you can handle the macabre theme of boyhood terror and bodily fixation, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a fantastic game that you can return to again and again, and I imagine I’ll be discovering more of its secrets as time goes on. But stabbing your mom in the legs and shooting sentient fecal matter is certainly not for everyone, so I can’t blame the squeamish for giving this one a miss.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
Reviewed on PC, also available on Mac, Linux, Playstation 4, PS Vita
Developed by Nicalis, Inc. and Edmund McMillen
Published by Nicalis, Inc.
Released Nov. 4, 2014