I really don’t know how to come up with a clever introduction for The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. I’ve spent about 100 hours on the original version of the game, mindlessly pushing myself through death after death after death, promising myself each time that every one would be the last go before I went to bed. I even promised myself that I’d get the elusive Platinum God achievement, in some vain hope that my countless hours lost to the title would mean something. It became an obsession for me.
When I heard that The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth wasn’t going to be a full sequel as much as a version 2.0, improving on everything and adding all sorts of new touches, I knew I’d be back here again. Back in front of a screen at three in the morning promising myself that I will go to sleep after just one more turn.
For those who are unfamiliar with The Binding of Isaac, you really should have some sort of warning coming in. This game is not for those of you who are faint of heart. At best, it’s a compilation of crude jokes and dark humor, and at its worst, it can be considered outright blasphemous, as demonstrated by Germany’s version of an ESRB rating. At its very core, this is a game about child abuse from the scared and confused perspective of the child going through it, so it’s not by nature a happy story.
That being said, the game is an absolute masterpiece in what it does. In The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, you play as Isaac, a little boy hiding from his mother who believes that God has commanded her to sacrifice her son as a show of love. In your quest to avoid her, you’ll scurry deeper into the basement facing off against abandoned siblings, mutated insects and other unimaginable horrors. And of course, this game being as twisted as it is, your weapons of choice are you own tears.
The game itself plays as a dual-stick shooter wrapped in a rogue-like. Each run ends up being completely different thanks to random level generation and power up placement, and every time you die you’re going to start over from scratch. While it’s not fair to say you’re completely at the mercy of the RNG, especially since there are some advanced tactics that can really help turn the tide in your favor, you’re always just one pickup away from having a run turn tragic. Picking up an item you’re not prepared for could very easily lead to your untimely death.
One of the coolest additions to The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is that items now stack on each other. This means picking up a combination of Brimstone and Mom’s Eye allows you to shoot a massively powerful ray in two directions at once. It’s led to this incredible metagame of trying to find out what the most overpowered combination of items you can put together is. Of course, there’s always a downside, and with this mechanic you can easily set yourself up for some trouble. For instance, picking up Ipecac and Tiny Planet grants you exploding shots that are as harmful to your enemies as they are to you, yourself.
I have seen some people complain online about items needing to be nerfed, but I have to think that they’re missing the point of the game. In The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, you’re supposed to become this unstoppable monster if you want any hope of progressing through the deeper levels of the game. After a few levels, you’ll start finding bosses waiting in regular rooms, and after you get a few wins under your belt, the game ramps up the difficulty. If you’re not able to melt away lower enemies, you simply won’t stand a chance against Satan himself. This isn’t a result of poor game design, but is instead a very deliberate design choice to provide an experience unlike anything else out there.
One of the other massive changes is a complete retooling of the level layout. In the original, the maps were all fairly similar with the same sized rooms and similar layouts, with the only really difference being color schemes and enemy placement. In The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, rooms can be upwards of four times as big, house twice as many enemies, and seem to contain countless amounts of devious traps devised to make you rage out just a bit more. There’s something to be said about looking at your mini-map and knowing that the extra-long boss room waiting for you is going to house two baddies as opposed to one to make you clench your sphincter just that much more.
There’s even a two player mode this time around, although it’s definitely more of a bonus than a fully fleshed out mode. A second player can pick up a controller and, at the cost of one of Isaac’s hearts, become a little floating buddy capable of wreaking havoc of their own. They’re slightly limited in the sense that they can’t go through doors, lay bombs, or pick up items (so no trying to cheat the system by having your little flying buddy cross that gap to nab the extra key), but it’s a great little distraction.
Speaking of which, I was absolutely shocked at how well the game translated to a controller. I still think I prefer playing with a keyboard here, but the twin-stick gameplay feels perfect with joysticks. PC players have the option to plug in a controller if they would like to check it out, but those of you playing on a console should feel right at home with the control scheme.
Honestly, I feel like I could go on and on about how great The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is. This is unequivocally the best version of the title available, taking everything that was wonderful about the original and simply improving on just about everything. If you’re a fan of the original, this is a no brainer: you need to spend the 15 bucks to grab this ASAP. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to enjoy the title, this is the perfect launching point. A near perfect rogue-like mixed with a near perfect twin-stick shooter, set in a world of uncomfortable terms where the most dark and depressing settings you can imagine are still somewhat lighthearted, makes for one of the best games this year.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth isn't a game for everyone, with its crude settings and heavy use of religious iconography. However, it's just about as close to a perfect game as we've seen all year.