Binding of Isaac is quite a few years old now, but I recently got around to actually completing it. I figured while I had it in mind, I might as well do a write up for LRL.
I never played the original, roguelite poop fest that is Binding of Isaac. In fact, I didn’t even realize that Rebirth was an expansion until I was so universally spanked by it that I was forced to dig through the wiki to figure out what the hell was going on in this cold, cold basement. Sure enough, Rebirth was a reboot of sorts for Binding of Isaac, and from what I understand it is generally known as a great addition to an already great game. Not one to take a reviewers assessment for granted, I decided to draw my own conclusions about Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.
Obviously, as a frequent contributor to Living Roguelike, I am a fan of rogue-likes, rogue-lites, and generally challenging games of all varieties. I am not, however, a fan of poop jokes or similarly juvenile subject matter. What I got was a game that is simultaneously serious and juvenile, with a shrouded critique of fanaticism within organized religion.
Binding of Isaac: Rebirth’s gameplay is like a throwback to the dungeons of Legend of Zelda on SNES. Rebirth takes place entirely in Isaac’s basement. There are various level themes depending how deep you are in the thick of things, but you’ll recognize a lot of the props (pots, square metallic blocks, etc), the unabashedly-cloned health system, the bombs and hidden rooms, and the keys and locked doors. Even the shops that are spread throughout the basement are cloned in style from the Legend of Zelda series.
While Binding of Isaac borrows a lot from classic SNES giants, the gameplay is much more challenging. Though there is a list of pre-built rooms, the manner in which they are linked together is randomized. You may recognize a room you are attempting to fight through, but that doesn’t mean you have any idea what’s behind that locked door. Clearing rooms sometimes will yield useful items like hearts, keys, bombs, or coins which you can then use to (hopefully) keep you alive for the rest of the run. All the item pick-ups are also randomized, meaning that on one run you may be a demigod whose tears cause a rain of destruction upon all that may stand in your way, and on the next you’ll roll nothing but pills that slow you down and completely unusable weapons.
The controls are easy to figure out, but expect to accidentally blow yourself up when you’re trying to swallow a handful of pills or vice-versa until you get used to them. This shouldn’t take long, but I often found myself accidentally hitting the bomb button out of sheer panic when I was suddenly surrounded by horrifying creatures.
There is a huge variation of enemies that will be happy to end your life in a variety of ways. I died a lot playing Binding of Isaac, which can be infuriating. The game utilizes permadeath, meaning that when you die you go back to the beginning. A full “run” from the beginning of the game to the end can take as little as 20 minutes, but don’t plan on pulling that off without a lot of practice. The enemies are tough. After methodical observation, I was able to come up with strategies for most of the situations I found myself in. Even with hours and hours of experience, these dudes are no jokes. Also they are apparently Isaac’s siblings or something, but I’m not sure.
Items and Synergies
There are also tons of items, many of which offer little or no suggestion as to their effects. I have over 30 hours in the game and I still only know about what half of the stuff does. There is a comprehensive wiki available to explain possible strategies and uses of items, but I find that learning on the fly – often through disaster – is far more rewarding than just googling everything. Items come in terms of passive abilities like defense or upgraded attacks, mutations that change Isaac’s form, active items that have to be used for effect, Tarot cards that invoke a particular effect upon use, and pills that are essentially like rolling the dice each time you pop one. Isaac’s mom apparently has an intense interest in pharmaceuticals, which no doubt contributes to her excellence in parenthood.
The items aren’t the only mysterious component here. There are set pieces spread throughout the basement that simply go totally unexplained. For instance, the shops have a donation machine that allows you to deposit extra coinage. Because I knew full well that I was soon to die and lose my coins anyway, I just dumped them all in the donation box. There was no fanfare or explication beyond the little counter on the box increasing. Without spoiling anything, suffice to say that this sort of experimentation pays off, if not immediately.
The dungeon begins saturated with items, but you’ll soon find that various actions will unlock even more stuff to tinker with. As with all rogue-likes, replayability is huge. Collectors will enjoy unlocking more and more throughout their play time, including entire levels and bosses.
To provide just one more level of complexity, combining items can result in some strange and often wonderful effects. For example, combining an item that gives you triangular “piercing tears” with an item that offers a spreadshot mechanic will grant you a spreadshot, triangular piercing attack. Keep adding items and the synergy gets crazier, sometimes to the point of becoming nearly unusable and totally unpredictable. Still, it’s a fun feature. Some popular Youtube players base their style entirely around uncovering and using these quirky synergies just for kicks.
This is where Binding of Isaac: Rebirth really proves its mettle. Most of the game is random, items synergize in unique and unexpected ways, and no two runs will ever be exactly alike. Binding of Isaac is extremely challenging, even for hardcore rogue-lite lovers, but it also shows that its cruelty acts only in fairness. The “one more run” phenomenon comes into play hard here, and it’s not uncommon to play (read: die) three or four more times than you intended, costing you an hour or so of sleep that you really could use at work the next morning. People who don’t mind ambiguous items and hidden mechanics are sure to find many, many hours of joy in this game. Not bad for a game that weighs in well under a gigabyte and costs a couple of dollars on sale.
Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a roguelike with tight mechanics, a wide variation in enemies, challenging, skill based game play, and a unique item synergy system. Some casual and intermediate gamers may be put off by the system’s oft-seen ambiguity and the games overall difficulty, but fans of the genre will certainly enjoy the spot on gameplay and intense depth. Also, poop jokes. Take that or leave it.