The original Binding of Isaac was released in 2011 and was a sort of pallet cleanser for creator Edmund McMillen (of Super Meat Boy fame). After the two year development cycle of his previous game, Binding of Isaac was a flurry of creativity and artistic freedom. A game conceived, gestated, and birthed to the general public in three months. And with dark undertones of religion, child abuse, and infanticide, Binding of Isaac was never designed for mainstream success. Or in the words of Edmund, “I designed Isaac to fail – and that was my goal from the start.” Binding of Isaac did quite the opposite and captured the public’s heart (soul?) and to date has sold over 2 million copies. It’s combination of solid gameplay mechanics, clever level generation, and dark artistry won over critics and gamers.
However, this game was never designed for this success. The game launched with numerous bugs, no controller or steam support, and was built in flash (A system so archaic it caused numerous bugs and slowdown on low end and high end PCs) The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a “from the ground up” remake of the original. A brand new engine, updated graphics, and new items makes this a worthy purchase for fans of the original and new players.
Isaac’s borrows the basic template of a Zelda dungeon crawler and mixes in a well-developed roguelike. Rooms are laid out on a procedurally generated Zelda style map. The goal of each floor (or dungeon) is to reach the final room and defeat the boss. It’s not a simple rush to the end, each room you enter is generated with unique rooms that are custom tailored to your game. Monster rooms lock you in till you deal with all baddies on the screen, treasure rooms reward you with helpful buffs, or challenge rooms may tempt you with treasure chests in exchange for battles with waves of increasingly difficult enemies. Each room is a surprise and figuring out when to battle and when to cut and run is a big part of Isaac’s charm.
A staple of other Zelda items make their way into Isaac as well. Bombs, keys, and coins will become staples of your run and are used in very interesting ways. Bombs can do massive damage to enemies but they can also be used to destroy rocks to make bridges, open blocked doors (allowing you to avoid monster rooms) or even reveal hidden treasure rooms. Keys can be used to open treasure rooms, golden treasure chests, or give you access to shop keeps. Coins function how you would expect, allowing you to purchase items in shops, but you can also use them to gamble for better items at slot machines or you can place them in the donation machine to eventually unlock upgraded shops in future runs.
Isaac’s main attack consists of tears that can be fired in four cardinal directions. Tears are impacted by your movement as well, allowing you to curve shots with precise movements. This gives combat a surprising amount of depth. Tears will not remain your only weapon. An absolutely huge amount of items and trinkets are available that can drastically change how you play the game. Some items will impact your main stats, like shot speed, damage, or movement. Or they can alter Isaac himself, granting flight, temporary invincibility, or a brand new hairstyle. This is just scratching the surface. With other additions like allies, one use playing cards, rotating cubes of meat (for defense of course), and regenerating health items no two games of Isaac are ever the same. The combinations are practically endless.
This actually happens to be one of the harder parts for newcomers. An Isaac run can swing wildly from game to game. At one point you can become a walking death baby wielding transparent, machine-gun exploding tears that rip through bosses and the next game you are struggling with half a heart of health and begging for a key drop. This is the nature of roguelikes and a bad Isaac run can turn into a good Isaac run at any moment. While a good portion of the joy comes from figuring out all the different item combinations, some items remain very esoteric in what they actually do. The game never explicitly explains things such as curses, blessings, or which effects are cosmetic and which have a deeper purpose. For some, this is a refreshing change of pace, for others, this may be more of a hindrance. If you fall into the latter may I suggest you check out the wikia. Just don’t rely on it too much, you may find you lose some of the magic.
The story and atmosphere are dark, exceedingly dark. The game begins when Isaac mother hears a voice, that she interprets as God, telling her to kill Isaac. This begins your run down the dungeons. More is certainly going on here and it is a tragedy I won’t spoil, but the implications you do pick up on are harsh. The game contrasts wildly between its mechanics and story, but that contrast is ultimately what gives Isaac its soul. Even enemy and item designs are twisted. You can expect to fight large poo monsters, headless babies, or enemies who vomit blood. This is not for the faint of heart. It rarely came across as too unsettling but you should know your own limits coming into this.
For some this game may be a huge turn-off and one that was made to be that way. It’s dark, violent, and uncomfortable. But, it is also one of the most fun and addicting games I have ever played. I have already spent one too many late nights with “one more run” syndrome. I am excited to see what kind of crazy combinations the game will throw at me next and Isaac will stay installed on my PC for a good long time.