The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is humorously disturbing, potentially offensive and unapologetically gross. This is a game about a boy named Isaac who's scrambling through the depths of his basement to avoid his pursuing mother. But instead of delivering a spanking or a timeout like most mothers do, Isaac's mom is intent to sacrifice her son following the voice of God commanding her to do so. If the subject matter sounds like something that will offend you, it might be best to turn your attention away now. This retooled version of the cult classic The Binding of Isaac has been transplanted onto the New Nintendo 3DS and it hasn't been censored in the slightest.
Rebirth is a 2D roguelike dungeon crawler, which means that whenever you die it's back to the first floor of the dungeon to do it all over again. But thanks to procedurally-generated maps, no two descents are the same. The enemies, items, room layouts, and bosses all vary from session to session, and the more you play, the more of Rebirth's best qualities become apparent. Initially, Isaac is armed only with tears, which can be lobbed forward, back, left or right by using the face buttons or directional nub on the New 3DS. But thorough exploration is rewarded with projectile upgrades and entirely new weapons. Even though the game might appear bland from a gameplay perspective in the very early-goings, it shouldn't be long before Isaac obtains abilities that leave his foes expelling excrement in his presence, and we mean that quite literally.
Considering the New 3DS doesn't technically have two joysticks, it feels somewhat inaccurate to refer to Rebirth as a twin-stick shooter. Additionally, where most twin-stick shooters provide players with immaculate 360-degree precision and sharp movements to quickly eradicate an enemy presence, Rebirth is less exact. That's not necessarily a knock against the game, but it is a warning to those of you that seek something more twitch-based, like Geometry Wars or Nano Assault NEO. Since shooting is restricted to four directions, using the face buttons is much more reliable and sensible than the C-Stick, which can occasionally misread inputs.
The mechanics function as they should and there's little to gripe about when it comes to responsiveness, but there is a fundamental aspect of gameplay that might rub some folks the wrong way. This has to do with the perspective from which the action is presented. While the rooms are framed from a top-down view (think 2D Legend of Zelda), the characters are displayed from a 45-ish degree angle. We're well aware that most top-down action RPGs and such are typically presented the same way, but in Rebirth it lends to a deal of deception when it comes to throwing tears at enemies or dodging incoming fire; this is exacerbated by enemy hitboxes that feel a touch too small. Thankfully, once the weapon physics and movements are understood by the player, it's easy enough to wrap your head around. Plus, certain advanced weapons travel in a much more direct fashion than Isaac's tears, so it's not always complicated to line up shots.
Each floor of the dungeon is made up of a maze of rooms – filled with enemies, obstacles, locked doors, items, secrets, etc. – and each culminates in a boss battle. While in some cases it's entirely possible to stumble onto a boss's chamber relatively quickly, making the effort to search the rest of the floor will result in not just new weapons but also money, passive abilities, and one-time-use items that temporarily modify the circumstances in some way. It's in these outlandish powers/pickups that Rebirth truly comes to life, ensuring there's always a surprise not far out of reach. Not only are a vast majority of the weapons a lot of fun to use, but acquiring them feels like a worthwhile reward for putting yourself in danger, which instils an eagerness to explore. With hundreds of these weapons gradually incorporated into the mix, the curiosity of what else could be out there serves as a further motivator.
By surviving the dungeon with Isaac and accomplishing feats, a slew of playable characters will be unlocked, and each one has unique attributes. This adds a lot of replay value to the package, and it serves as a compliment to the nature of Rebirth's roguelike design. Other unlockables include challenge stages that place players in very specific circumstances that require serious skills. From fighting through darkness to using a very slow-moving weapon, there are plenty of thrilling scenarios in the challenge stages to keep you plugging away at Rebirth until everything's unlocked. That, surprisingly, is going to take countless hours to do, so if this is the type of game that clicks with you, expect to lose yourself in Isaac's plight.
When it comes to presentation, Rebirth does a great job being attractive despite the army of repulsive monsters and a somewhat humble visual style. The colour palette is one of dry browns, grays, and skin tones, but the splattering of blood, body parts and other gooey substances is where things liven up. Regrettably, the stereoscopic effect of the New 3DS hasn't been utilized, which is very disappointing. But overall, the combination of distinct art style and ominous music & sound effects lends to a unique atmosphere. It's weird to say given the theme of the game, but there's something charming about Rebirth that makes the seemingly disturbing imagery pretty harmless and easy to swallow.
Before concluding, it would be remiss of us not to mention the rocky road that Rebirth has been on since its release. First off, it launched with a bundle of bugs that ranged from ignorable to bad enough to require the game to be rebooted. Thankfully, just a few days later, those issues were corrected in an update – but that wasn't the end of it. With the new update came a new bug, one that would randomly cause the system to lock up entirely, forcing a restart that could result in a loss of progress depending on the mode you were playing. After waiting for nearly a month, yet another update was released to fix the freezing issue, and now everything finally appears to be smoothed out. In the five hours we've logged with the latest update, we haven't encountered a single hitch. From what we've seen, Rebirth's worst days are behind it, and now it's ready for your attention.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is one of the most addictive roguelikes we've ever played. It's the kind of game that might appear a bit rudimentary at first, but it becomes more and more compelling with each subsequent session. With unlockable characters and challenges, an insane number of weapons and abilities, and many other discoveries to be made, there are a multitude of reasons to keep coming back for another game. A few quibbles do keep Rebirth from even greater heights, but it's nothing that should deter anyone drawn to this type of twisted dungeon crawling, which works so well as a portable experience. Go ahead and bind Isaac to your New 3DS, just don't blame us should you disappear into the depths of his basement, never to return.