Did you ever run across a strictly stereotypical basement? The kind where you can play the pipes like an organ across the ceiling and the floor is a cracked cement keeping the worms warm beneath? That was my turf growing up with spiders and dust mites doing their best to ignore me while I constructed an imagined world that far outgrew the poorly-built claustrophobia. I can see possibility in a dank, solemn room like a new moon in the night sky.
I have the feeling that Ed McMillian can too, and his vision of a dark room you’ve been shoved into is…certainly a one-of-a-kind experience.
Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is the second iteration of this twin stick hellscape with the first major wave of added weapons and content and the iteration I have the most experience with personally. The magnitude of the influxed content is lost on me as an organic experience, but I can say that on the black-and-white of the screen ahead, it appears to have been an impressive, worthwhile re-release in an era where such an act is seeming more and more rare.
Isaac is basically Harry Potter. He’s shoved into the basement by his family, who think he’s the devil, where he’s free to practice his form of blasphemy. Where Isaac and Mr. Potter split is…in nearly everything else; we have here a roguelike with randomized elements that expand further and further out as you become more successful. Not unlike Minecraft, you can seed certain runs for certain results but in the game’s sequential state, you’re running through basements, caves, and eventually, much worse places.
You control your avatar with both sticks in a ballet of bowel-based evasions and trickery. Your attacks or defense can be one of a dizzying amount of slow, instant, or spontaneous avenues that appear, or not, during each run. You have lists online a mile long on which items, pickups, buffs, debuffs, walls, deals with the devil, holy gifts, golden doors, key doors, money doors, arcades…I’m sure I’m missing a few…make for the best Isaac or friend. The content of system, not of item, is what I find completely engrossing; each go of it is inherently attached to highs and lows wherein the hope that a certain combination of systems will lead you to victory drives you through even the worst of runs.
More than a few times, I thought I was boned and seeing the worst run that Binding of Isaac: Rebirth had to offer. My hearts were down and none of the items were falling my way – keeping my close-range character slow and weak, giving me more luck when ain’t no one got time for that etc. – when I’d get a funny feeling about a wall, lay a bomb, and boom: I’m flush. Well, not flush, but I’d have gained the equivalent of a two-player sway and felt life halfway through a run. That feeling of a refocused injection of hope never felt artificially ebbed or drug along by an unseen fishing reel. You feel the hope when you see the light, and that’s helped so very much by the surrounding darkness.
The environments I touched on before are more just backgrounds and hazards than real pieces of your playthrough, with a few exceptions (bomb walls, side areas, and the like). Only the last main area of every standard playthrough sets itself apart visually in a way best seen yourself. The landscapes are littered with changing obstacles that will bring the pain/inconvenience in all sorts of ways, and while some may seem impossible to navigate, it’s interesting how those improbabilities can lead to huge payoffs when you find just the right item later on, many sessions away. The enemies are working with rotating systems themselves behind their increasingly grotesque designs from smiling poo piles to satanic hellspawn. As you enter the square arenas, you may spot the bats in each corner, but you’ll have to wait until they attack to see what kind of damage you can expect to counter. Each procedural angle is rearranged on every pass, and in such a compressed grouping of arenas, that randomization shines.
I’ve touched Has Been Heroes and a few other rouges with random elements, but the feeling of sterility, ironically, overwhelms my memory of them. Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is about as unclean as one can imagine visually, playing loosely with terms and concepts that make it inherently dark despite the up-beat artistic stylings. If this is what Ed McMillian imagines in dark rooms and basements, then I applaud him for his unrestrained journey through some purely gross stuff.
The Binding of Isaac Rebirth Score: