2011’s The Binding Of Isaac was the evil, twisted twin to Spelunky – both perma-death, procedurally-generated games with superficial accessibility masking extreme precision of design and a long path to mastery. Isaac, though, went for an over-caffeinated shmup angle rather than measured puzzle-platforming. A tale of a young boy descending into a hellish world of blood, faeces and religious perversion in search of some kind of redemption, what it’s really about is surviving a horde of monsters with the help of gruesome upgrades. The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth is a new version in a new engine, with new items, art and music. It remains, uh, unsympathetic to Bible fans.
You probably already know if you’re buying it or not.
If you don’t, let’s get this out of the way first: The Binding of Isaac is a brilliant hybrid of twin-stick shooter and roguelike. It’s twitchy and frantic, and the body/religious horror presentation will repel as many players as it amuses, but it’s also an impeccably crafted game. Every enemy requires its own strategy, every item or upgrade can change the course of events significantly, and the greatest rewards stem from the greatest risks. TBOI takes over people’s lives, despite being a short and entirely beatable game, because every new combination of random enemies and random items manages to feel like a brand new adventure, infinitely more important than any you’ve had so far. I’ve put more hours into it than most other games, but rarely write about it because it’s hard to vocalise ten-minute obsessions with fleeting betterment. It’d be like blogging every thought that went through my head during my morning jog. (Of course I don’t go on morning jogs, but sometimes I think about it).
Now, onto what’s changed. Rebirth squats somewhere between remake and sequel, and never quite becomes either. The simplest description is that it’s the same house with a loft extension and a new coat of paint. The heightened (or is it? I’ll get to that shortly) glossiness takes something of a back seat to a general intent of pushing at Isaac’s bounding edges just enough that it doesn’t feel like a straight retread, and for some of us might even become a comfort game for another two or three years.
Unsurprising is a new rogue’s gallery, populated with more gruesome distortions of Isaac’s own image and half-dark, half-silly creatures made from blood, faeces and tumours. Unsurprising too is a new collection of upgrades and mutations for Isaac’s pew-pew ‘tears’ attack.
To some extent, this is a straightforward more on top of what the Wrath of the Lamb expansion for the original game already daubed all over its claustrophobic walls, and half the fun of Rebirth is just finding out what everything does, and how best to use it. Clearly I haven’t seen all the additions yet, but thus far the balance has been approximately 50:50 old to new foes and pick-ups. Plenty to keep me going, basically, and so far nothing’s seemed either over-powered or drafted in from another game. There’s been a great deal of care.
The major change, for me, has been the room layouts, though. BOI vanilla did a great deal with a not a lot, in terms of placing enemies and obstacles around small rectangular rooms in such a way that each one seemed relatively distinct and perilous, but now we’ve got a bunch of new room shapes. There are the vast, multi-screen ones you’re afraid to move too far across while you’re battling something, for fear of dragging another nasty into the fray (I stumbled into one with two Monstro bosses earlier), and there are the ones which restrict you to a small jagged ledge in one corner while enemies float towards you across an impassable chasm which takes up most of the screen. Aieeeeeee, basically.
These are simple tweaks, but they shake things up both in terms of tactics and presentation. This now feels more like an unpredictable underworld than a group of rooms bolted together. The level map resembles a patchwork of odd shapes, not a simple grid, and the sense of being a little guy lost in a big, bad place is heightened just that little bit.
As for the other presentation overhauls, well, it’s a mixed bag. Mostly it looks much-improved, as there’s much more detail in the backgrounds and creature designs, and loads of incidental touches like a godray here or entrails there. Less effectively, it’s also opted to offer either a pixel-edged standard mode or particularly hideous ‘smoothed’ mode, both of which look worse than the clean, hand drawn-like lines of the original game. No matter else what his monstrous, puritanical mother might accuse him of, this new look is Isaac’s most terrible sin. As it happens, I’ve also played Rebirth on PS Vita, and it looks ten times better because it’s not blowing the image up to fill a large, high-res screen. Whether the PC came second place in platform priorities or there’s a very deliberate Make It Lo-Fi, Er, Even Though We’re Adding All These New Shiny Bits ethos at play I don’t know, but it’s sad porting the game out of Flash seems to have resulted in even more visual handicaps. Perversely, it now looks like a Flash game upscaled to fullscreen.
The music’s had an overhaul too, throwing whining guitars, skeletal piano and synthesised eviiiiiil into the mix, and sometimes winds up sounding comically overblown as a result. It’s taken an effective soundtrack and tweaked for the sake of it, rather than because it needed it. I never muted vanilla Isaac’s music, but Rebirth’s has felt grating at times.
All of this is said from the perspective of someone who spent dozens if not hundreds of hours with the original game, of course, so like a hifi gonk comparing the same record on different speakers I’m looking for the differences rather than having a general sense of how appealing the whole thing is.
Oh, there are two more entirely positive changes. The developer’s bullish refusal to code in gamepad support is gone, and now you can use your pad without any third-party fiddling required. Though I’m still playing it on keyboard, of course. The other big addition is a very welcome ‘Normal’ mode, easing the way in for newbies – The Wrath of the Lamb expansion had made the original a pretty brutal endeavour from a cold start. ‘Hard’ mode remains, and will be where the Isaac faithful spend their time. Which, I very strong suspect, will be an awful lot of time. This is a feast of a game.
Without question, this is the version of The Binding Of Isaac that I’ll be turning to for the forseeable future, and the version I’d recommend buying if you’re new to the series. Given it’s much broader of content than the original and still packed with surprises I’ve yet to uncover, let alone master, Rebirth very much lives up to its name. I do feel it makes some stylistic misfires that let the side down, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. Just one more go. Damned forever.
The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth is out now.