The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an infamously strange game, which is why it was with slight befuddlement that we saw Sony include it as a recent PlayStation Plus freebie. Conceived by Team Meat's Edmund McMillen, the title is a twisted take on the twin-stick shooter genre, served with a heaping spoonful of NES-era Zelda. But do its retro stylings make for a satisfying experience, or should it be relegated to the basement?
As you can imagine, the title’s story is a darkly comic retelling of the Biblical parable of the same name. God instructs Isaac’s mother to kill her child, but before she is able to carry this order out, Isaac quickly locks himself in the basement. He then, inexplicably, has to make his way through various levels of the dark and dangerous dungeon in order to extract his revenge.
Combine this slightly questionable premise with intense gore, absurd imagery, and a bizarre preoccupation with faeces, and you’ve got a game that can only be described as an acquired taste; if any of the aforementioned elements sound like they may be a turn-off, you'll probably want to give this one a miss. However, if you like your humour served pitch black, then this is probably the game for you.
Despite this uninviting veneer, Nicalis’ latest actually has a relatively standard core. You’ll wander through a series of increasingly challenging dungeons, twin-stick shooting all of the nasties in your path, while dodging bullet hell-esque barrages. After entering a new room, your job will usually be to simply clear out all of the enemies, and then collect your reward for doing so. This loot will usually be a key, some bombs, or a few coins; however, you’ll also sometimes be gifted with trinkets or pills. The former grants a passive state boost, while the latter usually provides a onetime bonus.
You’ll also find general stores along you merry way, as well as several other non-combat style rooms. Eventually, you’ll find a boss room, and be forced to square off against a randomly selected and incredibly devious enemy. There are several bosses in the game, each more bizarre and uncomfortable than the last. To reiterate, if the thought of fighting massive flagellating hunks of festering flesh turns you off, then perhaps give this title a wide berth.
The game also features several different playable characters, each favouring a slightly different play style. These are unlocked by completing objectives, such as scrounging together 55 coins in a single run, or managing to acquire seven full hearts. There are also several challenges, which, when completed, unlock new trinkets to find in the main game. Usually, these challenges centre on completing the title under a specific set of circumstances.
As this is a roguelike, both the layout of the rooms and the dungeon as a whole is randomly generated each time that you play. While this means that the game has the potential to be endlessly repayable, it can also be frustrating at times. For instance, if you’re dumped in a particularly challenging layout, there’s little that you can do except hope for a good string of special abilities. Unlike many other entries in the popular genre, though, the title isn’t so difficult as to feel completely insurmountable.
However, the real star of the show comes in the form of the aforementioned special abilities. These ingenious augmentations are given as a reward after toppling a boss, and are also scattered throughout the levels themselves. There are an alarming variety of powers on display, with some particular highlights including one which makes your projectiles ignore the laws of gravity, and another which leaves a continuous trail of enemy-trapping glue in your wake. What’s more, these powers stack, so the likelihood of you encountering the same combination of skills is almost impossible. In this way, you’re forced to constantly readjust your strategy, making for a consistently engaging and addictive experience.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the title’s presentation. To be clear, the blocky 16-bit aesthetic is certainly charming, but the juvenile subject matter – as well as the proliferation of scatological chicanery – does get a bit tiresome after a while. Similarly, the music does a good job of increasing the intensity of the experience as you continue through the game’s many dungeons, but isn’t particularly memorable or interesting in its own right.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a fast-paced and fun twin-stick shooter. Its strengths lie in its tight gameplay, and the almost infinite replayability created by its endlessly inventive special abilities. Similarly, its darkly humorous story and visuals are nothing if not memorable. However, if you aren't prepared to truck with this deranged premise, then you probably won't enjoy your time in the basement.