The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

Mentioned in the Ares Extinction Agenda EX review, game remaking can be considered sketchy business; especially when you remake something that’s only a couple of years old. Just what justifies a remake? What separates a remake from a sequel so much that developers feel the need to reconstruct something few can call a “successful cult hit” instead of focusing their effort into a proper continuation to the franchise? Some people speak of hardware or software limitations, but back in the NES days we didn’t get MegaMan the Remake after each new iteration that came out; and those were the days of limitations. I concede that indie developers can operate with a different mindset to large companies since taking these decisions when the number of people working on something is small. There aren’t as many opinions to struggle with, and if the creative director (in this case Edmund McMillen) happens to be the one calling the shots it’s a lot easier to do what they want. It’s this tendency to just go ahead and alter or modify what a solid fan base already considers good into a “shiny new version” that worries me, but after playing my first 48 hours of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth I now see that certain remakes are worth happening.

For those that don’t know: The original Binding of Isaac is a flash-based game. Now, with my little knowledge on the engine, I can tell you that it’s great for simplistic flash games one can typically find on Newgrounds (where the original came from), but as evidenced by my quad core laptop struggling to run it at even a solid 30fps, flash isn’t what you want for a game you intend to be bullet/contact-damage hell. Now that things have changed and the graphics, music and everything else was reworked, even an aesthetically disgusting game like Isaac can look good; disgustingly good.

Players who tried the original will immediately notice that The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth implements 16-bit pixel-based graphics, and it’s all rendered into a darker, more environmentalist background. Just the Basement level will look more than one kind of awesome as they tread through each of their favorite rooms hosting a plethora of new enemies and all of the returning ones. The music has been all re-recorded, giving players a great soundtrack to go along our quest for survival. Each level has its own soundtrack that sets it apart from the rest; even the parallel levels (The Cellar being the Basement’s parallel for example) have noticeably different music that add to the variety and prevent the music aspect from stagnating. Most of the sounds, noticeably the voices, have been tweaked and while I don’t agree with Mom’s new voice, I do like how Isaac’s “nngh!” on damage doesn’t feel as monotonous anymore.

A bunch of items from the last game have been modified, while Rebirth also adds its own share of 150+ new ones, including consumables, trinkets, passive and active items. Just like in the original, many of these will be unlocked as the player continues to beat the different tiers of bosses with each different character, so this isn’t a game for people who want to beat the final boss and pack it away. No, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth offers more than 50 hours’ worth of gameplay dedicated to learning and re-learning tactics and strategy in order to win. The random aspect that characterizes the game makes it essential for a player to not only be good at making hard choices when it comes to buffs, but also to know how these interact with each other as item synergy can make or break a run. However, even the most thought-out setup will fail before the tier 3 final bosses and onwards, so the game also encourages players to get good at dodging and timing their attacks.

Speaking of bosses, I won’t talk about the ones they added since that is up to each player to discover, but I was impressed by the changes they made to the Cathedral and the Chest bosses. Back then, one sadly had to have the “right” combination of items and definitely not have certain others in order to beat those two. The reason for this was due to how the boss reacted to each attack, making it retaliate while dishing its own attacks constantly. This coupled with unpredictable attack patterns made the fights into annoying bullet hells the player had no hopes of adapting to unless they had a counter-measure for it or outright killed the boss in three or four shots. Now the player can slowly start noticing the patterns to the attacks and, with proper adaptability, learn how to make it out unharmed if they dodge nicely enough. But don’t expect these two fights I’m talking about to not be bullet hell, because they totally still are. And after you’ve made it to the true final boss (tier 5), you’ll see what true bullet hell is; although admittedly the Dark Room’s final boss is very spammy with bullets as well!

The balance changes have been awesome so far. Gone are the days of scraping for damage up items in a run, and now they’re more plentiful and more likely to appear in addition to all the others, so even the weakest of characters can eventually become a power house instead of a wasted run after the later levels turns every little thing you encounter into a goddamn tank. The highlight of these changes though has to be the powerful new combos you can build that I mentioned earlier. With enough experimentation, your shots can end up becoming tele-directed airstrikes whose normally self-damaging properties will now heal you instead and poison enemies to boot. Or if you’re playing the new Brimstone-firing character Azazel and grab the newly implemented Ludovico Technique, prepare for what I have personally dubbed the Fatal Ring of Pain.

To add to the terror of the rogue-like, rooms twice and four times the size of common ones are now present. These larger rooms pit the player against bigger amounts of enemies and/or traps, and they don’t always reward them accordingly, so one has to be very choosy when they actually have the choice to avoid these during exploration. One of these large rooms in particular that is unlocked by beating the tier 1 final boss in under 20 minutes (rewarding fast runs) gives the player the opportunity to choose one of four items. If they take this deal, the other three items will vanish and the player will instantly be locked into an amazing double-trouble boss gauntlet covering every non-final boss in the game, unable to escape until they complete the gauntlet or die. It’s a great way to give grinding players the motivation to instead dash through picking up only their essentials and making it to the gauntlet room as fast as possible.

I mentioned Azazel earlier, he is one of the five new characters added to the roster of returning ones. Just like the others before them, the newbies have their own kinks and stats that show the great care that went into designing them for gameplay. Eden, in particular, inherently becomes the most interesting and frightening one to play as due to him costing an in-game token (acquired in units each time the final boss is defeated by any character) to play as and getting random starting stats and item load-outs at the start. This can mean getting the most overpowered character right off the bat or wasting a token on a character that can’t get hit without being teleported out of every room. Annoying!

A welcome addition to the game is the presence of local co-op, giving friends the opportunity to take up a controller and join you in your adventure. I haven’t had the chance to toy around with it yet, but from what I’ve seen the second player can drop in and out at will as long as Isaac has enough heart containers and this makes a floating baby spawn, controlled by 2P. This allows friends to engage the challenge together for extra fun and achievements, where no doubt item shenanigans and situations will ensue. I would’ve preferred online co-op, personally.

There’s plenty new content for The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. With a whole new area to explore and conquer in tier 4 and its corresponding boss, you now have a reason to fight through Sheol once more and truly master each and every character. A list of 20 challenges provide alternative runs that pit the player against different conditions such as going in with bad or outright hilarious setups from the get go or being cursed in every room. These challenges each unlock a new item as well, so there’s also content to be had here! For a completion lover like myself, there can be no greater fun!

With references to internet memes and oldie video games like Zelda even in the gameplay, Rebirth doles out the dark humor with adequate amount of sane entertainment, making it a quirky yet enjoyable experience even for the pickiest gamer. A simple rogue-like shoot’em up adventure with tons of replay value that manages to add so much to its original incarnation that I can say without a shadow of doubt that, yes, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was worth remaking. Get it, play it, love it!