It takes guts to make a game based on a story from the Bible. Just based on that, I commend the efforts of Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl for exploring a realm video games rarely visit. What is astounding is just how well the game came out. The original Binding of Isaac was one of the first indie games I bought after I built my PC. I loved the macabre themes roped together by the desire to escape the dark dungeon. Many hours were spent crying at the decrepit creatures, a few of which deeply disturbed me. Yet, despite the dark themes, religious tone, and staggering difficulty, I considered Binding of Isaac to be a masterpiece that all gamers should try. It actually led me down the path of playing other rogue-like games, quickly becoming one of my favorite genres.
This devilishly simple flash game quickly became one of the most popular indie titles of the past few years. Then, a twisted video with puppets revealed something amazing, Isaac was getting an upgrade.
Binding of Isaac: Rebirth expands the original game in staggering ways. Before, Isaac was stuck to exploring simple square rooms; Rebirth can now generate larger rooms. This opens up the game tremendously since the camera, instead of being fixed, has to follow Isaac around. Another impressive change is how smooth the game runs in the new engine. Pixels take over where Flash drawings had been. This change seemed like an obvious choice, knowing how much the indie scene loves pixel animations. It gives the world a bit more depth. Nothing has really changed as far as how the game plays; however, I did find the job to be an easier task with the PS4 controller, especially while using both analog sticks. Of course, the game has also gained more unlockable content, items, trinkets, and challenges. It will take a long time to get everything, so completionists beware.
Everything I loved in the original has become even better. The simple but layered story gives players a reason to keep trying. Death is permanent in rogue-like games, which if not pulled off correctly, can be frustrating; I never felt that way with Isaac. The mechanics are responsive, simple, and if players die, it’s their fault. Sure, sometimes the item drops lack the power Isaac needs to feel safe, but I rarely blamed the items for my death. After dying, starting up a new run takes seconds, unlike another game I played last month.
Basically, gamers who love the 2D Zelda games will feel right at home. It is a challenging and rewarding experience right from the beginning.
What fascinates me even more than the gameplay is the layers of narrative at work. One can spend years just taking apart the various symbols, creatures, and items in an academic sense. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve done a little of that while I was in college. While I won’t touch on everything I’ve come up with, due to the nature of this article, I will briefly mention the feelings I had when beating the game for the first time.
For starters, I’ve never beat the original. In fact, I don’t think I made it to level five. In Rebirth, however, I was able to defeat Mother in my first attempt. I don’t know if it’s because I was given amazing items or my skills have improved since the original. One thing has stuck with me: all of the creatures Isaac faces are twisted things, many reveling in their own sins and filth. Even Mother has been affected by her pursuit of Isaac, becoming one of the most grotesque final bosses in gaming history. I felt sorry for this woman, blinded by faith. What’s even more tragic is what Isaac has to become to defeat her.
Isaac starts out as an innocent child, naked and afraid of the darkness around him. As more items are acquired, his physical appearance changes so drastically that by the end, Isaac barely resembles what he used to be. That’s what shocked me the most about Rebirth. I had to become monstrous to defeat the monsters of the basement. What does that leave for Isaac upon his return to the world? Would he instead just roam the halls and the darkness? Needless to say my initial victory cry and excitement was plowed over with sadness and remorse.
This type of game design is rare, a true gem in an ever-growing sea of titles.
All in all, everyone should try this game. Okay, maybe not children, but all gamers should give it a try. The game is cheap compared to the shooters that will soon flood the market and is free this month if you have PS Plus and a PS4. Everyone else that owns a Windows PC, Mac, Linux machine or PS Vita will have to pay $14.99.
Also, in honor of the game’s release, I also made a quick commentary video over on Forever Classic.