‘The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth’: More Grotesque, More Fun

Grotesque, strange, and difficult, Rebirth offers a fantastic vision of what might be the ideal roguelike.

Roguelikes are one of the most addicting genres in video games. Similar to addicting mobile games like Flappy Bird or popular arcade games like Pac-Man, roguelikes are all about the idea to “play till you die, then try again.” The difference between a roguelike and an arcade game is in its variety. Every round of Pac-Man you are bound to the same powers, you can get the big dot and eat ghosts, and this never changes. The layout of the two dimensional map never changes. The ghosts never change.

This consistency can be great for some players who like finding patterns or love learning a few core concepts then mastering them (i.e. Othello‘s “A minute to learn… A lifetime to master). For other players, like me, this consistency can be boring and feel repetitive. Roguelikes, like The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth operate under similar ground rules as arcade games, but throw consistency out the window in favor of variety and a lot of it. This creates a dynamic experience that keeps the player coming back for more.

This isn’t The Binding of Isaac‘s first time ’round the block. What began as a simple flash game by Edmund McMillen has grown immensely over time into being just as (if not more) popular than Super Meat Boy, McMillen’s previous crowning achievement. This is in part due to it being in a very popular Humble Indie Bundle and great word of mouth. The word of mouth spawned DLC, Wrath of the Lamb, which boasted that it added “70% more content” to the original game.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is not a sequel, but rather a remake of the original game. Generally speaking the core concepts remain the same. Isaac’s mother has heard from the Lord that she must kill her son, and in a frenzy of panic, Isaac escapes to the basement. There he finds all sorts of atrocities, and his only way of destroying them is to cry on them.

The gameplay itself is much like that of the original Legend of Zelda. In fact, I would argue that as much as Super Meat Boy is to Super Mario Bros(which is a lot), so Binding of Isaac is to The Legend of Zelda. The player starts with the same three heart containers and makes their way through dungeons mapped out in the same way as that classic Nintendo game.

What makes Rebirth a roguelike is its randomness. As the player descends further into the basement every “floor” is randomly generated. There are commonalities, a boss room (which leads to the next floor), a “treasure room” (which if unlocked yields some sort of upgrade, which is again, analogous to the traditional Zelda formula), many enemies, secret rooms, and a merchant are found on each floor. However, the layout of the rooms, the enemies themselves, and the items are all randomly generated.

Variety is what makes the game fun and frustrating at the same time. Some runs you will get a whole slew of items that are nearly useless together and you inevitably die quickly. Other runs the stars align and you become an unstoppable force. Your items, though, do not dictate your proficiency, as competitions like the Boiler Room (competitive Binding of Isaac runs in which players are pitted against one another to see who can kill mom first) shows. For instance, I can (for the most part) kill mom (which would be the end of “level 6”) regardless of what items I have, but I often fail soon thereafter unless my items are good.

This mixture of skill and luck keeps the player hooked on the game. They want to find new items, new bosses, and experience different gameplay. Their are over 450 items (which means virtually every playthrough is different), over 50 bosses, and 10 different characters that the player can control. All this variety means more fun for the player.

The original Binding of Isaac especially with the Wrath of the Lamb DLC was no slouch in variety, but Rebirth takes it to a completely different level. Despite most of the items and bosses being similar to the original game, Rebirth feels incredibly fresh to play and the new items add a significant amount of character to the game.

The game has always dealt in the realm of the superstitious and religious. For instance a new set of items is all based on astrological signs and gives the player corresponding powers (Leo, for instance, gives the player a large mane and the ability to run through rocks). This type of thing is where McMillen’s creativity really shines, and throughout the game, the attention to detail is astonishing. Whether it be in the rebooted mechanics, new items, or what feels like infinite secrets to discover, Rebirth is a game whose developers poured their heart and soul into, and it shows.

Overall, the insane amount of new items and enemies makes an already stellar game better. Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is not for everyone. Many might be offended by the playful way it tackles religion, become weary of its often “twitch gameplay,” or just get bored with a game that challenges the player to adapt rather than to perfect. But for most players, Rebirth offers a fantastic vision of what might be the ideal roguelike.

RATING 9 / 10