The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth is potentially your next big timesink game. We should know – your humble scribe put over 90 hours into the original, and this PS4 remake (also available on PS Vita and Steam) expertly recaptures the qualities that made The Binding Of Isaac endlessly playable. But let’s take a step back and explain what The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth is. At it’s core, it’s a dungeon crawler crossed with a roguelike – that is to say, every run is unique and randomly generated. With hundreds of different items and enemies, you’re never quite sure what the game will throw at you, and when you either succeed or die trying, your next playthrough will be completely different.
In terms of changes to the original game, the new pixel-art graphics are very well executed – they might take a little adjusting to, but they’re a definite improvement, allowing for more subtle details than the original’s hand-drawn style. The music is certainly creepy and haunting too (though an option to use the excellent original soundtrack might have been nice), while the monsters make some suitably grotesque noises in their attempts to kill poor Isaac. Overall, it’s a very aesthetically coherent game. There’s also plenty of new content, with new enemies, items and characters on offer – but more on that later.
Thematically, The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth takes a twisted look at the darker side of religion. Isaac (the protagonist) and his mother live happily enough together until his mother hears the voice of god telling her that her son is filled with sin and must be sacrificed. Isaac obviously isn’t too keen on this turn of events, and so takes his chances with a hidden trapdoor he finds in his room. From thereon in, you make your way down deeper into the nightmarish world below, defeating all kinds of creepy, grotesque, and sometimes even pitiable enemies before eventually confronting mom herself. Some might find some of the game’s themes and designs overly disturbing or even offensive, but it’s not simply out to shock – rather, it’s supposed to be a thought-provoking piece, contrasting positive and negative ideas about religion, tackling the thorny issue of child abuse, and serving up a dose of black humour to boot.
The game controls fairly simply. On the PS4, you use the left analogue stick or the d-pad to control Isaac, and the right analogue stick or the face buttons to shoot projectiles at enemies – by the way, the projectiles in question are… Isaac’s tears. Yes, you defeat your enemies by crying at them, which would surely be a useful skill to have in real life. Aside from using the shoulder buttons to drop bombs and use items, that’s as complex as the game gets – and that’s not a criticism in any way, for it lets you focus on the moment-to-moment gameplay of tackling whatever combination of monsters and obstacles each randomly-generated room throws at you. The dungeon-like structure is reminiscent of the 2D Legend Of Zelda games, and there are bosses at the end of every level too – learning their movement and attack patterns will be key to surviving these encounters.
To help on your journey, Isaac will come across items that provide both active and passive benefits. Activated items will give you a (usually beneficial) effect each time you use them, and will generally recharge a little every time you clear a room – some items will be available to use once every room, while others will take as many as 6 rooms to recharge. Passive items, on the other hand, range from simple stat boosts to items that fundamentally alter the way Isaac moves or shoots. The rub is that you’re never quite sure what a given item will do before you pick it up or use it – of course, with this being the age of the internet, there’s a wiki for that, but with Rebirth containing over 100 new items, even veterans of the first game will find themselves scratching their heads.
Once you’ve gotten into the swing of things and beaten Mom for the first time, you might think you’ve exhausted the possibilities of the game – but really, they’ve only just begun, as your first victory will unlock a whole new level with its own unique end boss. That’s just the tip of the iceberg too, for each subsequent playthrough will see you unlocking new items, characters and levels, often whether you succeed or not. New characters offer different takes on the game – for example, Magdalene trades speed for extra heath and a heart-regenerating item, Lazarus gets a second chance after death, and Azazel offers a completely unique style of play. There are also challenge runs that start you out with either a particular handicap or a unique set of items, which will force you to alter your play style. But really, what makes this game endlessly playable is that each run is unique. Will you stumble across a combination of items that turns you into an unstoppable, godlike force? Or will you have to fight tooth and nail for every victory? Either way, you’ll want to try again after you’re done, despite the often challenging nature of the game. Regardless of what message you might take away from The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth, one thing is certain – if you let it get its hooks into you, you’ll be playing it for a long time.