James Stephanie Sterling
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth Review – The Meek Shall Inherit The Birth
There’s been an odd lack of reviews for The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, which won’t do at all. It’s many weeks after the fact, but here’s a long overdue bit of praise!
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), PS Vita (reviewed)
Released: November 4, 2014
Mention Watership Down to an adult of a certain age and you may very well see their face grow a pallid white, their eyes burning with a haunted look of abject horror. The movie adaptation of a story revolving around adorable little rabbits is an unlikely source of nightmare fuel, but those who have witnessed it – a story of death, despair, and outright torture – will attest to its propensity for sheer dread. It’s one of those fine examples of ghoulish dissonance – an outwardly cute little film about bunnies harboring imagery so ghastly it’s kept many a child awake at night. To this day I still remember the lovingly animated rivulets of blood pouring from that little rabbit’s body. The cruelly detailed corpses. The slow, merciless grasp of death immortalized in a charmingly rendered cartoon. It is not the only piece of art to marry adorable visuals to macabre content, but it’s undeniably an inspiration for many subsequent presentations, and it’s something I can’t help thinking of when trying to explain The Binding of Isaac.
Edmund McMillen is no stranger to this style, with his previous game, Super Meat Boy, being a cute-as-hell platformer about a blood-slicked, skinless child. He outdid himself with the help of Florian Himsl, however, when giving Isaac to the world. Its main protagonist is thoroughly darling – a sweet little boy with big puppy eyes who squints tiny teardrops from his round smooshy face. He’s also perpetually naked, having been stripped of his possessions by a fanatically Christian mother, and he’s fleeing the family home because she plans to kill him in the name of God. He uses his tears as bullets to fight through a twisted basement full of monsters, perpetually crying thanks to a short life of abuse and bullying. His upgrades are simply depressing when contextualized – he can increase his crying ability by collecting the body parts of his former pets, because of course that makes him cry harder. Items like spoons and belts increase his speed, implying his need to run away from the tools his mother uses to beat him. Characters such as Sister Maggie and Brother Bobby can be discovered – dead babies, suggested to be his aborted siblings. The game is full of allegory concerning torment, insecurity, fear, and neglect.
And did I mention how cute it all is?
Rebirth is an extensive remake of the original game, a top-down shooter with roguelike elements and a ridiculous amount of replay potential. As Isaac, players descend further into the bowels of the family home, clearing rooms of truly disturbing monsters and tackling large, fluid-spewing bosses. By collecting various power-ups, players gain the strength needed to tackle the deeper dungeons and eventually tackle the final boss (or the final final boss, or the definitely final for-real boss!), though the upgrades are as random as the dungeon layout and monster placements. There are some alleged enhancements that aren’t useful at all, others that seem almost totally overpowered, and it’s a crapshoot as to what you’ll get. Each run of Isaac is simultaneously exciting and nervewracking, as you’ll never know what might happen next. You could, as I once did, end up surrounded by over half-a-dozen familiars – floating little creatures that help Isaac by attacking or protecting him – and thus lead a small, overwhelmingly powerful army that pushes the framerate to its limits. Alternatively, you might get saddled with a bunch of one-shot items, or double-edged swords that are nowhere near as useful as they should be. Aiming for that killer run, and hoping to gear up with the best kit available, is a draw that keeps one returning time and time again.
As with all good roguelike-likes, there’s an air of mystery to the whole affair (unless you go and scour the obligatory Wiki, of course). Isaac’s subterranean world is full of hidden rooms, strange rituals, and secret systems. As you continue to play and beat the game, the entire world changes – new bosses appear, the amount of levels increase, and previously unseen gear becomes available. There are rooms which allow you to sacrifice your own maximum health for powerful items, pills with random effects that could upgrade or downgrade you, as well as shops, NPCs that trade resources for presents, and single-use tarot cards with a range of bizarre effects. I love a game that feels densely packed with mystery, waiting to be unraveled, and there are layers to The Binding of Isaac that simply beg to be peeled away.
Combat takes getting used to, thanks to the unusual way in which Isaac fights. The young boy’s tears have their own sense of weight and inertia, refusing to simply fire in a straight line like your usual videogame bullets. If Isaac runs up and down while firing, his tears will curve with the motion. If he charges in the direction he’s crying, they’ll come out in a tightly packed fashion. Getting a handle on how tears behave, and moving to utilize this behavior, is a challenge that rewards clever use of space, though of course there are plenty of upgrades that will alter this behavior and thus turn the whole fight on its head. Tears can increase in size or fire rate, gain elemental properties such as poison and blood, or even be replaced entirely by laser beams or big bubbles of chocolate milk. Once again, you just don’t know what will come next, and that discovery is all part of the thrill.
The Binding of Isaac, like Spelunky before it, is one of those games that arrests the mind, full of enough randomization and revelation to keep one hungrily going back for more. It actually took me a while to “get” what all the fuss was about, in fairness – I played the original game briefly and it just didn’t click with me, but after a few rounds of Rebirth, I found myself becoming obsessed, as the systems in play made sense and the compulsion to explore darker depths overtook me. Having played through multiple times and experienced the subtle changes with every victory, having unlocked and played with a variety of weird characters, I am officially obsessed with the thing. I am, of course, very late to the party when it comes to Isaac, but better late than never. On both the PS4 and Vita, I’m losing hours upon hours to this thing.
Rebirth of course adds plenty of new stuff, with over 150 fresh items, 16 more boss encounters, and three playable weepers to choose from. As well as various gameplay tweaks, rebalancing issues, and anti-frustration features, there’s a local co-op mode in which a second player can become a controlled familiar, similar to Tails in Sonic the Hedgehog 2. For those who find Mother’s wrath a little too easy, a hard mode is included, offering tougher monsters and a few rewards unattainable in the regular game. The most notable changes are the audio and visuals, with the graphics getting an all-new retro look instead of the Flash-based cartoon animations found in the original release. Danny Baranowsky’s excellent soundtrack has been replaced by a creepier set of tunes by Ridiculon. I personally find Danny B’s music far more memorable (disclosure: Danny wrote the backing track that features on The Jimquisition), but Rebirth‘s haunting music is no less fitting, and does a good job of capturing just how unsettling the whole game is.
Everything about The Binding of Isaac is morbidly fascinating. The enemies are, themselves, a beautiful glimpse into a twisted mind – sobbing toddlers whose corpse-like heads are swollen with flies, malevolent pulsating tumors, evil babies with crimson dribble. Most monsters squirt blood as a means of attack, religious iconography and satanic overtones are everywhere, and even the most unassuming of items can carry with them some melancholic thematic meaning. Upgrades will physically alter Isaac’s appearance, causing him to sprout new eyes, grow hideous lumps, or otherwise mutate into something physically repulsive. One sick joy of the game is seeing just how monstrous the protagonist will appear by the end. Will he end up with a goat’s head, become bloated through growth hormones, or get saddled with a conjoined twin? All of this grisly fascination is wrapped around a core game that still manages to be a lot of damn fun – a challenging, dungeon-crawling shooter that remains simple despite boasting a ton of quiet complexity.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an accomplished update to a fantastic game, an experience as charming as it is sinister. It nails the addictive qualities of any good roguelike-inspired game, then layers a series of grotesquely captivating themes on top, laced with the blackest of humor and propelled by a multitude of reasons to play, replay, and replay again. It’s the Watership Down of videogames, and I can only mean that as twisted compliment.