I have what some may call an abusive relationship with The Binding of Isaac (and roguelikes in general, for that matter). It hurts me repeatedly, and yet I still keep coming back for more. I have 88 painful hours logged on the original Binding of Isaac, and I would go as far as to call it the mascot game of my freshman year of college. The remake, The Binding of Isaac Rebirth, had its big DLC update, Afterbirth, come out last month, so now’s a good a time as any to discuss the game as a whole, as well as expound on the new features for all of you prospective pain seekers.
The game has plenty of story, but it’s not the central focus of the game. In a nutshell, you play as the young child Isaac, whose mother has gone mad with perceived messages from God, and has now been ordered by this disembodied voice to murder her son to save his soul. Isaac, in a panic, finds a hidden trapdoor in his bedroom, and flings himself into the dark basement below, where all manner of horrors and abominations seek to end his life and impede his escape from his deranged mother. There’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s the kind of story you have to dig a little to uncover, and as I said, it’s not the focus anyway, so let’s just move on.
The Binding of Isaac is a dungeon-crawling roguelike with a layout vaguely reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda’s dungeons. The only weapon Isaac has at his disposal is his tears, which shoot from his face as small, round projectiles in four directions. When you enter a new room, monsters will appear, and you’ll need to run and gun to kill them while avoiding their attacks in return. The game is procedurally generated, so no two runs are ever quite the same; room layouts change, monsters change, effects of pills you can pick up change, and the powerups you receive change. Speaking of powerups, the powerups you find in the golden treasure rooms (among other spots) are where things get interesting. Each powerup you find will modify Isaac’s abilities in some way. Some provide minor effects like changes to Isaac’s stats (health, damage, shot speed, etc.), while the rarer ones can completely change how Isaac attacks, like turning his tears into a giant blood laser beam, or making his shots boomerang or home in. Every item is accompanied by an amusingly dark cosmetic effect on Isaac himself, like a clothes hanger jammed through his head, or rubber cement poured into his eyes. The controls are very responsive, and you have nearly full control over everything Isaac does. In this way, the game creates that much sought after flavor of good difficulty where you know that almost every failure is your own fault (and trust me, you’ll fail a lot), which only makes you clutch the controller harder in a thirst for revenge. Even beating the game is only the beginning, since the first successful run of the three primary dungeons isn’t even that difficult. After that first run, that’s when the game starts to take the kid gloves off. More dungeons are unlocked, harder enemies begin to spawn, new, terrifying bosses appear, and stranger, rarer powerups are granted to you. The replay value is almost infinite, especially with the implementation of daily runs in Afterbirth, in which players compete for a high score on a pre-generated game seed. There’s also other characters to unlock, each one playing slightly differently, but not so differently that things become unbalanced.
On the aesthetic side of things, the phrase “amusingly dark” I used earlier is quite appropriate. Defeated monsters explode into little clouds of assorted gore, and the monsters themselves are rather grotesque, ranging from such monstrosities as children with nests of spiders in their swollen heads, or decapitated bodies that fire blood lasers out of huge gashes in their torsos. The art is also, however, very cartoon-y, so it never really gets to the point of being outright uncomfortable. I would even go as far as to call some of the designs funny, at least if you have a somewhat off-brand sense of humor like mine. Sometimes I would pick up an unfamiliar powerup just to see what kind of horrible thing would happen to Isaac as a result. The music is also surprisingly catchy, ranging from soft synth tunes to start you out to powerful guitar ballads that create a tense atmosphere for battling monsters.
In addition to the normal features I’ve discussed, the recently released Afterbirth DLC has added a ton of new content, including new monsters, new dungeons, new powerups, and even a new game mode. This new mode is called Greed Mode, and instead of navigating dungeons, you face constant barrages of monsters to earn coins for powerups, working your way through an increasingly difficult spawn pool. I haven’t managed to beat Greed Mode yet myself (the special final boss is quite challenging), but like with the main game, I feel no inclination to give up.
I’m a story gamer primarily, but doesn’t mean I’m above good old fashioned run-gun-fun. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is most certainly that; a challenging and fun (not to mention highly addicting) game that’ll bend you over and spank you til you ask for more, and with the Afterbirth DLC, there’s even more mildly-masochistic joy to be had. Go pick it up, but remember to set aside some time. Don’t be surprised if you start playing, and then suddenly realize you’ve attempted ten runs and several hours have passed.