When the original Binding of Isaac was released in 2011, I don’t know if anyone expected it to be the massive cult hit it turned into. Even with all of its issues, people put hundreds of hours into it. When a remake was announced, it was a long, agonizing wait for anyone who loved the original. The creator, Edmund McMillen, teamed up with development company Nicalis, and promised to fix all of the bugs and limitations of the first game, while adding a ton of additional content. They completely hit it out of the park with The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.
For the uninitiated, Rebirth (and the original) cast the player in the role of the titular Isaac, a small boy who lives alone with his mother. As the opening narration explains, his mother, who spends her time watching Christian television, hears the voice of God one day, and decides to heed its advice and kill her son. Isaac, fearing for his life, escapes into the basement, and it is your job to see him through to the end and deliver him to safety. To do this, you must fight monsters, pick up items, and explore an ever-changing labyrinth, using only your tears as a weapon.
The game is one of the definitive rogue-likes, which means that it’s randomly generated, there’s permanent death, and it’s incredibly challenging. It plays sort of like the original Legend of Zelda, without an overworld: you move through a series of top-down maze-like rooms, collecting things like bombs, keys, and power-ups (each of which change the look of your character in various ways). Once you fight a boss, you can move down to the next floor, and so on until you’ve beaten the game. While death is permanent, there are persisting elements, such as unlockable items, characters, levels, and bosses.
Where the game shines is in its randomness and replayability. As each run is randomly generated, and because there is such a huge multitude of items to find, each run feels unique. Also, since the way that items work with each other has been revamped since the first game, finding winning combinations of powers is fun, and can make you feel very clever when things work out in a big way. For example, “triple shot” plus “laser shot” give you a triple-laser-shot. Add an “orbit shot” into the mix, and you’ll have a triple-laser that orbits around you before shooting ahead, creating a shield of sorts.
Not all combinations are good, however. You have to be careful what you choose to mix, as some synergies can be detrimental, like the explosive “ipecac” shot mixed with the “four-way” shot. Most are beneficial, though. You can even take advantage of these power-ups in order to overcome the basic mechanics of the game. Using a shield in order to prevent damage in rooms that you are required to damage yourself to enter is fairly basic strategy. Using rare extra lives in order to pick up “deal with the devil” items, which can be bought with permanent health, for free, is something of an advanced move. While it all feels very “gamey”, it doesn’t detract from the game. Rather, it feels rewarding, and almost necessary to understand these sort of concepts in order to get the most out of the experience.
All in all, the game is a vast improvement over the original. The bugs that plagued the original have been fixed, and the game on the whole runs smoother as a result of moving it from Flash. There’s a local co-op mode that, while feeling somewhat tacked-on, is functional and adds to the already impressive replayability. The pixel-art style is more representative of what was originally intended for the first game, and works well with the game’s core concept.
My biggest issue with the presentation is the new music. It’s not bad by any means; in fact, it fits the theme and setting of the game very well. However, it is a bit of a departure from the original score, which was quite good. Though, if you’re new to the series, then you’d never even notice.
If you were a fan of The Binding of Isaac, then you’re likely already enjoying Rebirth. If not, and you’re looking for a fun, challenging title with lots of edgy, tongue-in-cheek humor, this should do it. The jabs at religious themes, sex, and the darker aspects of the human condition may be a turn-off for some, but if those things don’t bother you, you’d be remiss to not give The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth a try.