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BINDING OF ISAAC: REBIRTH Review: Biblical Themes and Bizarre Things

Sometimes, when things get tough in life, you just want to cry it all away. Especially during the Fall, which is always a hectic time for gamers as developers scramble to push products into fruition before previously established release dates.

In the chaos of the fall of 2014, the first Christmas release season for new generation systems, there was one brilliant gem tucked away beneath the sea of releases. Edmund McMillen, the mind responsible for Super Meat Boy, brings us Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.

In this revisit of the 2011 title, Binding of Isaac, McMillen delivers us the same gritty charm. Isaac will literally fight away life’s demons with his tears… and a handful of new features.

Story, themes, and tone

Binding of Isaac: Rebirth ties together potty humor with some thematically disturbing story elements in an unparalleled way, all of which is presented as a disturbingly cute procedurally generated dungeon crawler. Isaac is a tear wielding, fleshy and fragile, pink boy who takes the role of the game’s protagonist.

His story is set in motion when his mother, referred to only as “Mom”, receives a divine message from above. Reminiscent of the biblical narrative of Abraham and Isaac in which Abraham receives a message from God demanding the sacrifice of his impure son, Mom receives a similar message warning her of the impurity of her son, also named Isaac.

The omnipotent voice from above demands Isaac first be stripped of all material belongings, then locked away and finally sacrificed. Pretty dark, huh? Left with nowhere to run but down, Isaac flees to the basement.

Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is tough but coated with humor that dissolves the tension. Cognizant fecal piles protected by enraged fly swarms and sludgy, deformed beings all assume the roles of enemies to Isaac, whose only defense is to cry away the terrors — the weird humor is pungent.

The dynamic between humor and difficulty works in a way that coaxes players through multiple runs. Absurd deaths caused by kamikaze flies as they protect their coveted poo piles, while frustrating, will keep players laughing and going back for the retry button.

With references to subject matter such as shock website Lemon Party, the themes and offbeat humor presented by the game may be darker than some players taste but this is a game made for fans of the black corners of the internet, satire and dark comedy. Then again, regardless of taste, just try not to laugh as a giant pile of crap, hurling itself at you and bouncing across a room, pummels your character… Dare you not to laugh!

Gameplay

As Isaac traverses the depths of the basement he will find trinkets and pills that grant him new powers and abilities, though sometimes these work more against Isaac that in his favor.

Upon ingesting a pill, Isaac may gain abilities such as “Bad Gas”, giving him the ability to fart a toxic cloud that poisons surrounding enemies. Another may induce Puberty, where Isaac will grow a few awkward hairs and zits but no real ability is gained. At first, the pills effects are unknown. A sense of mystery shrouds them. Only once a pill is eaten are its effects discovered, though Isaac will remember the attributes of each pill for the remainder of the play through.

The perks of these pills can boost or cripple basic stats including speed, attack range, damage and can occasionally grant special abilities such as turning Isaac into a floating orb so he can float over spikes and gaps. Effects of pills last the remainder of the play through and can be stacked.

Trinkets offer similar abilities and occasionally more gainful powers. The catch of trinkets is their limitation to one at a time, leading players to comical moments of debate asking themselves, “Do I want the Petrified Poop or the Rosary Beads?” – “the Tick or the Umbilical Cord?” – “the Missing Poster or the Lucky Toe?” One of the most addicting, or perhaps infuriating, aspects of trinkets is the mystery of theirs effects. Like the pills, the effects of trinkets are unknown, other than a brief summary and the true effects may not become apparent until it is too late to retrieve what you’ve left behind.

The charm of this simple, yet intricate, title is smoothly delivered with the use of twin-stick control scheme, simply animated characters and environments and a whimsical sound track.A fairly simple control scheme keeps things quick and easy when it comes to movement and the firing of tears at opponents, though a small complaint may be made about the controls when Isaac may occasionally lay a bomb instead of using an ability due to confusing the games use of triggers.

There is a bit of a learning curve with coordinating the use of bombs, abilities and items in which Isaac gains. This is a small problem only really prevalent in the beginning, but not a longstanding issue.

The animation will take you back to a time when Saturday morning cartoons and video games were part of your weekly routine, though the tone may be darker and a bit more dismaying. Accompanied impeccably by an uplifting and slightly playful soundtrack, the allure of Binding of Isaac is undeniable.

Functional controls, playful animation and an audacious soundtrack create the perfect vessel for this strange little indie game, based around biblical lore and potty humor, to deliver its charm and wit.

Replay Value

Immense variety due to the combining of different pills and trinkets mixed with the unpredictable nature of random dungeons and bosses create a game that shines when it comes to replayability.

Progression unlocks new trinkets to be found. A frustrating death may lead to the realization that a new and more powerful trinket has been added to the basement as a result. Procedurally generated dungeons mean that every time a new run is started a new map will be produced, each consisting of any mix of spikes, gaps, enemies, fire or even hazardous poop.

Occasional secrets rooms allow the player to buy new abilities and even set money aside for the sake of improving store products. At the end of each dungeon, Isaac will face one of over 20 bosses the game has to offer: all challenging Isaac with different attacks and fighting styles. Ideally, Isaac will grow his repertoire until a run graces him with the boost and abilities to work his way through the dungeons and into his final confrontation with Mom, though the offerings do not end here.

After defeating the end game in Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, the walls are knocked down and the true potential is seen. Multiple completions lead to new levels, which offer increased difficulty and – you guessed it – more potential item unlocks. Additionally, new challenges can be tried that, upon completion, lead to new runes being unlocked, offering EVEN MORE possibility for variation. There is no shortage of entertainment to be had.

Overall

Binding of Isaac: Rebirth offers players a chance to step away from the fully immersive titles and play a game that feels, at its roots, like a game. It’s infinitely fun, giving players unlimited possibilities for future runs, all the while, withholding just enough to constantly reward players with refreshing secrets and new discoveries.

With this version offering couch co-op, players can even bring in a friend for shared screen goodness; to cry away all the mutant basement dwellers and discover the secrets tucked away in Mom’s basement.

Another attractive selling point: players on PS4, who also own a PS Vita, can take advantage of the cross-buy feature, download the game for free and enjoy cross save functionality. This gives Binding of Isaac a wonderful amount of versatility, allowing long and focused plays at home; then, import your save to PS Vita for quick sessions on lunch breaks or long commutes.

Offering huge quantities of charm, replayability and versatility with next to no real complaints to be made, Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a near perfect game. With so many games requiring huge chunks of time and unwavering focus, Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a bizarre little game that doesn’t fight for your attention, but will keep you coming back and wanting more.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Cover image artist: Chuck Howard

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Categories: Video Game Reviews

Author:Tommy Robbins

Lover of video games. Writer of blogs. Eater of pizzas. Writing about nerd junk at AnotherCastle and chasing the carrot down the rabbit hole of Video Games Journalism. It's dark in here.

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