Binding of Isaac Rebirth: The Most Brutally Effective Survival Horror Game I’ve Ever Played

Type of game: Roguelike RPG/Shoot-em-up
Designed by: Edmund McMillen
Published by:  Nicalis
Year: 2014
Played on: Steam

This doesn't look so bad; it's somewhere between The Legend of Zelda and Muppet Babies.

This doesn’t look so bad; it’s somewhere between The Legend of Zelda and Muppet Babies.

The starting room doesn’t look so bad, but I advise you skip the rest of this post if you’re disturbed by gore, Satanism, more gore, poop, aggressive sentient poop, yet more gore, Oedipal nightmare fuel, & even more gore. If horror games and gross stuff aren’t for you, don’t click the “Read More”.

So. Binding of Isaac Rebirth, henceforth BOIR, is a remake of Edmund McMillen‘s seminal horror game Binding of Isaac. As far as I can tell, the goal of the remake was to solve some stability and performance problems in the old engine, and the new engine required a change in art-style so a shed-load of new content was added in the process. Both games play like a fusion of the room-by-room dungeons in The Legend of Zelda, and the random/procedural dungeon-design of roguelike games. The big random element makes each game different – and as the game is played, new items, bosses and playable characters can be unlocked, which are then added in (randomly) to subsequent play-throughs.

Playable Character Eve has been unlocked!

Playable Character Eve has been unlocked!

Isaac, or another player character, runs through a maze of interconnected rooms “shooting” enemies with streams of his tears, until reaching a final confrontation with his Mother, who has been ordered by the voice of God to offer up Isaac as blood sacrifice. Mother’s pills are scattered around the dungeon, and it’s clear that she hasn’t been taking her medication when the voice of God demands she stab Isaac to death. The poor little tyke dives down a trapdoor into the basement, trapping himself in a 5-floor labyrinth filled with the undead, hostile insects and poo-monsters.

Wow, that's really gross.

I was joking about the poo-monsters.

The undead are the real stars of BOIR: the basic zombies behave so unpredictably that they can continually surprise and shock you: sometimes “Removing the head and destroying the brain” is the best anti-zombie technique, but sometimes that’ll just result in a headless stumbler coming at you spraying a fountain of hot zombie blood from its neck. Sometimes a flurry of shots to the body will result in the zombie’s head detaching and floating towards you gnashing its teeth and making menacing noises. Sometimes knocking a zombie into a fire will kill it, sometimes its very bones will peel themselves off the burning flesh and attack. It’s not just the zombies who play head games, though, there are lots of other bait-and-switch moments – like the miniboss Greed sometimes replacing “shop” rooms – to keep you on your toes. This unpredictability contributes to a constant sense of discomfort that is one of BOIR’s strengths. The other super-creepy thing is that an awful lot of the monsters have Isaac’s face. Are they real, or are they hallucinatory? To what extent is Isaac fighting himself? I’m not going to spoil the plot for you, but its got a really nasty twist in it that I find very pleasing, but that can only be appreciated by playing (and winning) the game multiple times.

Thankfully for Isaac, you can acquire items, weapons and allies in-game to help him through his ordeal. Some of these allies appear to be the undead forms of his murdered siblings and pets, or even more traumatic and horrible things. Most of the items you can pick up will alter Isaac’s appearance in some way, either by visibly equipping him, or mutating him. The strongest items can be obtained only at the greatest price: increase Isaac’s “Evil” score and defeat a boss monster, and a horned door may appear, opening into a room wherein Isaac may trade fractions of his life-force/souls to an impassive devil in exchange for potent weapons – appropriately, almost all the Devil Room items will mutate Isaac into monstrous horned, red-eyed forms. This is the price of giving up part of your soul for power.

Isaac considers the benefits of selling his soul.

Isaac considers the benefits of selling his soul. Satan is offering him the Necronomicon – a potent evil spellbook.

Various alternate player characters can be locked by different means, and the unique challenges of playing each character extends the life of the game somewhat without feeling too artificial. Of course, I have a favourite. Making repeated deals in Devil Rooms can unlock Azazel, a bat-winged brimstone-spewing little devil – who is pretty awesome.

Azazel is pretty awesome. His attacks lack reach, but his maneuvrability more than makes up for that.

Azazel is pretty awesome. His attacks lack reach, but his maneuvrability more than makes up for that.

The various other characters, monsters and levels are scattered with Biblical references, which may be generated from Isaac’s Mother’s psychosis, or perhaps from some other, much worse source. Stephen King wrote in Danse Macabre that there are 3 types of fear; terror, horror and revulsion.

  • Terror is “…when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute…”
  • Horror is “…the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.”
  • Revulsion is “…the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs…”

The balance between creepy Terror, simple Horror and sordid Revulsion in BOIR often tips firmly towards Revulsion, with giant animate turds attempting to smother you, blood everywhere and some monsters being basically tumourous piles of meat; but this works really well with the game’s simple mock-16bit visual style. the player is forced to imagine Isaac’s fear and disgust. I actually think that this approach suits the style of horror in this game better than some high-polygon visual flash that 1st-person games often rely on. Being made to imagine a monster is so much scarier than being shown one, and being given minimalist cues that your brain can finish off is exquisite… even when it’s just exquisitely gross. This isn’t to say that Terror and Horror aren’t there: they’re present and they work well, but BOIR isn’t too proud to make you go “ewww” every other room just for shits and giggles.

To round up, BOIR is super gross, quite scary and as addictive as crack. I’ve delayed this review a dozen times because I keep playing it, and I fully intend to wring every ounce of nightmare out of it because it’s just that fun. I wholeheartedly recommended it to anyone who’s got the stomach for it.

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"

Splendid! There’s no way that acquiring this handy book can go spectacularly wrong,

This disgusting Satanic orgy of fear, murder and defecation can be played on Steam, on The PS Vita and on Playstation 4.


5 thoughts on “Binding of Isaac Rebirth: The Most Brutally Effective Survival Horror Game I’ve Ever Played

  1. So I finally got around to playing this… Honestly, it is so disturbing – yet I feel encouraged by that effect, that I end up wanting to delve deeper!

    Great post that I should have commented on sooner 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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