Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X and Linux

I play a lot of games, but in many ways I’m not really a ‘hardcore’ gamer. Putting aside the fact that gamer is a ridiculous way to identify yourself, I do find myself largely enjoying games for the story and don’t mind easier difficulty if it means I can experience all of a game’s content. Therefore, the ‘roguelike’ genre isn’t one I really deal well with and any game with permadeath is guaranteed to piss me off. The Binding of Isaac is the first roguelike game I’ve been able to enjoy, which for me is a big deal.

To call the premise of The Binding of Isaac dark is an understatement. Isaac is a young boy who lives happily alone with his mother. One day, Isaac’s evangelical mother begins to hear voices from God telling her that her son is corrupt and so must be punished. This escalates until she eventually moves to sacrifice his life to God, before a panicked Isaac escapes through a trap door in the floor of his room to a series of mysterious dungeons where the game takes place.

So, yeah, pretty horrible. The game is replete with Biblical references and imagery, not least in the title itself which refers to the story of God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice his son, also named Isaac. When videogames normally tackle ‘dark’ themes this often means misguidedly ‘edgy’ scenes such as GTA Vs torture scenes or Modern Warfare 2’s airport massacre. The Binding of Isaac is dark in a more insidious and effective way and this horror weaves itself very well into the gameplay.

The Binding of Isaac is essentially a journey through a handful of short Zelda-esque dungeons, each ending with a boss, before confronting the Mother at the end. When you die you start again from the beginning. The dungeons are always randomly generated but end up feeling well constructed, lacking that looseness that can often creep into procedurally generated games. The combat is all done through Isaac’s tears (yeesh), which are shot out to tackle the enemies. The boss fights are fun and frantic and the whole thing is very satisfying to play. The best element of the gameplay is to be found in the upgrades that Isaac can gain to help him fight, with The Binding of Isaac having no problem letting you end up ridiculously overpowered if you stumble across the right upgrade. Some are fairly standard health/damage/speed upgrades, but some a more interesting, such as a foetus connected to Isaac by an umbilical cord which will spread out and attack enemies. Each run genuinely feels really different and fresh and you’d be unlikely to come across the same combination of upgrades twice. For a game with such a nasty subject matter, The Binding of Isaac is a really fun and satisfying experience.

The graphical style has been changed from the original to a 16bit influenced style, which looks great to me, but then again I never knew the original. The whole design is unpleasant from the ground up (in a good way), with some really horrible looking creatures and environments. My absolute favourite element of the presentation is to be found in Isaac himself. He starts every run as small and naked, but each upgrade changes his appearance and by the end Isaac appears transformed into a monster as each upgrade stacks on top of the other. It’s surprisingly affecting seeing Isaac forced by necessity to turn from something so innocent to so horrifying and brutal.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is definitely my favourite roguelike game I’ve ever played, although that isn’t really saying much. It’s a fascinating game and one I can see myself sinking a worrying amount of time into in the future.header

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