The Hidden Depths of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

We all have games that we’ve been unable to put down. They’re addictive, and often you don’t even notice how addictive they are until the sun is rising, the birds are chirping, and you just need one more go. It’s what you think about while you’re working, and why you curse every red light on your drive home. Your friends may even stage an intervention, if you have any left.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is one of those games. But it doesn’t start out that way.

You see, Rebirth is a disturbing game. Beyond disturbing. If you are easily offended, now is the time to head to something happier, like Tyranny, perhaps. There are butt monsters, fetuses, and dismembered parts of a cat corpse (collectibles)! Worse than that, the simple controls often feel ponderous, and you’ll scream at your monitor every time you die.

And you will die – a lot.

BoI - Gameplay

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is classified as a “rougelike dungeon crawler,” which barely scratches the surface of all possible descriptions. Also, if you’ve scratched anything involving this game, you’ll want some disinfectant. Because everything about Rebirth is disgusting, from its enemies to its items, and even locations. It’s a game that’s designed to make you uncomfortable.

Let’s start with the plot. Anyone who’s ever gone to Bible study will recognize Isaac as the son of Abraham, whom God ordered Abraham to sacrifice to prove his loyalty to God. Much like the Biblical version, our Isaac has a mother who believes God is speaking to her. Long story short, “God” tells her to murder her son, and Isaac escapes said murder through a trapdoor in the basement.

BoI - Field of Turds

This is horrifying stuff, and the game hasn’t even started yet. Now that he’s escaped Mom for the moment, Isaac needs to fight his way through the basement, some caves, and a necropolis. You need to make your way to The Womb, because of course you do, and eventually you’ll reach both Heaven and Hell (sort of).

Now that we have the plot, such as it is, what about the monsters? With titles such as Mr. Maw, Greed Gaper (so many ways to go with that one), Buttlicker, and Conjoined Fatty, it’s pretty clear which direction the game is headed in. Most of the enemies have patterns you can learn and exploit, but generally not before dying several dozen times. And the bosses are even more ridiculous. Just look at Dingle (large poop emoji), Blighted Ovum (do I really need to describe it?), and The Bloat (don’t even talk to me about this one). The list goes on.

BoI - Thought Bubble

The cartoony graphics do lessen the grossness a bit, but only a bit. After a few hundred hours, you’ll forget you’re fighting turds with exploding fetuses because you’re so focused on your stats and items. Yes, I did say “a few hundred hours,” and no, I wasn’t being hyperbolic. The original Binding of Isaac was a Flash game, which meant that it had loads of limitations. Rebirth is not a flash game, but plays the same on the surface. At it’s heart, Isaac is a modern Zelda clone, which doesn’t sound interesting at all.

But if it’s not interesting, why do I have over 600 hours logged between the original and the remake? I don’t have to check my Steam account to know that that is far more time than I’ve spent on any other game – probably more than I’ve spent on any two games combined. And all for a 16-bit, top-down dungeon crawler with toilet humor and roughly 11 buttons for in-game controls (WASD, arrows, Q, E, space or their console equivalents).

BoI - Devil Room

In the name of all that is holy… why?

Honestly? I don’t know. I think it’s because there’s not one, single thing that makes Binding of Isaac: Rebirth amazing – it’s an amalgamation of things. There are hundreds of items, dozens of bosses, daily challenges, multiple characters to unlock, and endless combinations of powers to discover. On top of the sheer amount of content, which has grown exponentially over the past few years, there’s the difficulty. If you’ve ever played Dungeons of Dredmor, you’ll have a good idea of how tough this game can be. Instead of Dredmor’s classic death message, “Congratulations! You have died!” you’ll receive a death note from Isaac, just to remind you how cheery a game this is.

In case you ever doubt how dark Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is, just remember that Isaac’s weapons are his tears. Remember – you play as a terrified child fighting monsters (including aborted siblings) in order to escape his mother’s attempted infanticide. Toddlercide? Whatever – the woman is trying to kill her kid. It’s not exactly Mario Odyssey, here.

To start, Isaac’s tears aren’t very effective. They fire slowly, have only moderate range, and do low damage. During your first dozen playthroughs, by which I mean the first dozen times you die in the third room on the first floor, you’ll likely be frustrated by the amount of time it takes to kill even the simplest of enemies and how difficult it can be to dodge enemy fire.

BoI - Rubber Cement

Don’t despair! As you progress, you’ll unlock new items, discover favorite power combos (penetrating, super-powered, multi-scythes!), and learn the best ways to defeat monsters and bosses. Suddenly, death isn’t the tantrum-inducing hindrance it once was, but rather a chance to get better power-ups, unlock new collectibles, and get at least one floor further than before.

And you have no excuse not to at least try it. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is on so many different platforms that I’ll just direct you to Wikipedia, instead. Several companies turned down the chance to have Rebirth on their consoles, but all eventually caved due to its insane level of popularity. It doesn’t hurt that the simplicity of the game allows it to be ported quite faithfully to just about every platform in existence, and I won’t be surprised if new platforms continue to bring it on board for several years to come.

At the moment, Rebirth is a mere $15 on Steam – a pittance for a game with so many potential hours of play. I do recommend the Afterbirth DLC, which will run you another $11, but you don’t need that immediately. Let yourself get lost in the original content before sinking your teeth into the extra goodness. I know that popularity isn’t a great yardstick for quality (some people actually liked Batman vs. Superman), but a 97% rating from roughly 55,000 players is a pretty damn convincing argument all by itself.

Have you played Binding of Isaac: Rebirth? Watched your friends play it, maybe? Give us your thoughts in the comments!

Kenny S.

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