The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is everything I could have hoped for. I wrote two articles in 2012 and 2013 about how much I loved the original and its expansion, so I spent much of 2014 anticipating this remake. I was not disappointed.
Rebirth is a roguelike-like, meaning that the levels, items, and enemies are procedurally generated. This can mean getting screwed over by the RNG or getting a free win, but the your skill is what generally decides your fate. This isn’t a real Roguelike (not to denigrate that genre; I grew up on the original Rogue) where you can lose instantly due to things outside of your control. Rebirth is an action game; skill alone could potentially take you to the game’s end. Yes, a large amount of the game is randomized, but you can win even if the numbers are against you.
My two articles on previous editions of the game suffice in detailing why I loved it so much. This article will comment on the changes to this newest revision/remake. One thing I noticed is that the general speed is a bit faster, especially Isaac’s movement speed. In the original, stepping into a spider web is almost crippling with the amount it slows you; they are potentially deadly traps. But in Rebirth, with how fast Isaac moves now, I barely notice it.
Maybe it’s because I’ve poured hundreds of hours into the original and Wrath of the Lamb, or maybe it’s the new items, but things seem a bit easier around this time. Fortunately, there is a hard mode available as well as 20 unique and clever challenges, all of which offer new in-game items upon completion. These challenges are some of the most fun I’ve had in my many hours with The Binding of Isaac. Many of them present entirely new methods of play, methods that require a different set of skills than are necessary for playing the game normally.
Rebirth offers an enormously satisfying amount of bonus content. If you’ve never played the original Binding of Isaac or its expansion, you might play Rebirth for an hour or two, but if you don’t keep playing, you’ll miss all the best parts. There are heaps of new items, new enemies, new bosses, new levels; this is everything a sequel should be. Though Rebirth is more remake than sequel, it has enough new stuff to make it seem like the latter.
There are several new characters: Lazarus, a slight upgrade to Issac until the latter unlocks the D6; Azazel, an easy mode flying engine of death; and The Lost, a zero hit points waif whose method of unlocking is as convoluted as the Sheng Long rumors for Street Fighter II. These are just a few examples of the cavalcade of extra stuff in Rebirth.
Another addition is “seeds”, which are essentially cheat codes you can enter at the beginning of a game in order to give specific items or alter the game’s characteristics in one fashion or another, though they cannot uncover new items or other unlockables for you. Their purpose it to make the game’s “random” nature more predictable by controlling the procedural generation. There is a Binding of Isaac wiki that has a list of these if you want a significantly less random game. It’s interesting to share seeds with people so they can play the same levels, though one should not do this exclusively.
Other reviewers have made a big deal of the built-in Xbox 360 controller support. I can’t imagine this was ever a problem for anyone who could get JoyToKey to work, and in fact the built-in controller support has caused me a few problems with the game not recognizing the controller and/or thinking I was player 2. Maybe this is one of the potential bug fixes that McMillen is looking at. I unfortunately haven’t had the chance to play multiplayer; it looks pretty rad to have another player as a baby/option/satellite thing, but multiplayer in Rebirth is offline only at the moment, and none of my roommates game.
I was skeptical of the “retro” pixely graphical scheme because I’ve seen so many other indie games use it as a method of disguising low effort visuals. But in Rebirth it is functional and unobtrusive. In motion, everything looks nearly identical to the old Flash version. I have no complaints in that department; the game looks good despite my complaints in the next paragraph. It even offers the option of changing the gamma in the options menu. The change from Flash also opened new options for the creators, including a severe reduction in bugs (though some still exist) and a much-needed save option, though the game sometimes doesn’t save unlocks when it should.
If there is anything to criticize in Rebirth, it is the disgusting and juvenile aesthetic. Everywhere you see blood, human waste, maggots, shoehorned Biblical references, and other junk that a 10 year old would find edgy. The creators are more obsessed with feces and Satan than Fred Phelps. Isaac wants to have both deep symbolic religious references and cheap lazy scat humor, but the two clearly don’t work together. But despite the game’s intentional visceral ugliness, the astonishing gameplay makes it rise above anything as relatively unimportant as looks.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is the definitive version of an already excellent game. The heavy amount of new content, the new engine, the multiplayer, and the creator’s seeming desire to continue adding more; all of these improve upon an already brilliant game, one that I can recommend without hesitation, except to those with weak stomachs or mature senses of humor*. It is the finest Roguelike-like in the world, and one I will enjoy playing for the rest of my life. Best game of 2014, hands-down.
*Given how deliberately provocative The Binding of Isaac is, I’m surprised that neither conservative Christian Protestants nor leftist SocJus cultists have found any reason to protest it. Not that it needed the publicity; it succeeds on its own merits without the need for manufactured controversy.