5 Reasons The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is the Best Indie Game of 2014
Release Date: November 4, 2014
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, PC, OSX, Linux
When thinking of the characteristics of an indie game, many will come up with the same list: a small studio/development team, quirky and innovative gameplay, and unique, sparse -- if any -- overt storytelling. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth hits all three nails with one swing, doing so under the familiar guise of a standard top-down shooter. But the game is anything but "standard," as any player will discover within seconds of picking up the controller. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, a remake of the popular flash-based Binding of Isaac, deserves a nod for the Best Indie Game of 2014 due to five critical aspects of the game.
1. The Story
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth follows very closely the biblical story of the same name. This is all but spelled out for you in the game's intro sequence (you can find the video below). Basically, baby Isaac's religious television-watching mother, known simply as Mom throughout the game, hears a "voice from above" telling her to cleanse her son of his sin. When removing his clothing and taking away his toys doesn't do the trick, the voice tells her to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac, seeing his knife-wielding mother charging at him, hides in his room. When his mother enters, Isaac finds a hidden trap-door to the basement, and with no other options, flings himself into the unknown.
It's all the story you get at the start, but it's all the driving force the game needs. The endings (of which the game has sixteen, including the epilogue) slowly reveal more pieces of the puzzle, but in the end the entire story is left open to interpretation, and will have you thinking for hours after you've finished.
2. Character Design
Indie games can star some really out-there protagonists, especially when compared to blockbuster titles. Lately, we've seen flowers, sand-ninjas, suit-wearing octopi, and even common goats take the stage in their own eccentric adventures. But criminally underrepresented are the young protagonists, from whose view the world is a stranger, scarier place. We got a good look at a baby's view of the outside world in Among the Sleep, which manages to show the horror in the mundane as only a toddler could see, but Rebirth does something slightly different. In Rebirth, we see horror from horror, the workings of an undeveloped psyche dealing with traumatic events the only way a young child could-- by taking refuge in real-life objects near and dear to them, which manifest themselves in disturbing ways. The terrors of the inside world.
It's hard to read too much into the psychological stuff as you're destroying smiling poop monsters by farting on them using a magic bean, as you might be for the first few levels, but as the endings are revealed and you learn more about Isaac, the dynamics of his family, and the dark nature of his internal struggles, you'll realize that Isaac is much more than a naked crying child. People have gone really, really in-depth with their analysis of the game; just take a look at this Reddit post (WARNING, heavy spoilers). And that's just Isaac-- as much can be said about some of the other playable characters, what they represent, and how they tie in to the story as a whole.
Like most top-down or multidirectional shooters, Rebirth takes minutes to learn and days to master. There are 343 collectible items according to the wiki page, and each one will alter your character, making each run feel like a fresh experience. Some of the items alter the game in dramatic ways-- your Isaac could go from shooting tears to laser beams or bombs, gain the ability to fly or turn to stone, even speed up or slow down time. And then there are a ton of items which have a passive effect on your current run: items that increase health, luck, or attack damage, for example. It takes a long, long time to experience and remember what each of these items has to offer (or, if you want to cheat, you can look up the items in an online database-- I recommend this one (spoilers!), as it's very phone-friendly). Once you learn what each item does, you can start experimenting with item combinations to see how powerups interact with each other. Some runs will make your character nearly invincible to enemy attacks, while others might make you powerful enough to kill any enemy, even bosses, in seconds.
However, it's the randomized level layout that makes the game so challenging. The game contains a number of room layouts, each with dozens of enemy, obstacle, and item layouts. These rooms are randomly placed on each floor of your current playthrough, meaning that each time you play the game, you're experiencing that combination of items and monsters for the first time. You might find yourself breezing through the current floor only to find yourself facing two sub-bosses and a swarm of leeches right before the main boss door. This keeps the game exciting, as you never know what to expect from the next room. That being said, if you happen to play a run that you really like or want to share with a friend, you can take the run's seed -- a series of eight letters and numbers -- insert it at the main screen, and play that run again any time you want, although you won't be able to unlock new items or achievements on seeded runs.
Even with all of the variables, the game never ceases to be a crisp, challenging experience, run after run.
4. Details and References
Edmund McMillen, the mind behind a number of great flash games including Meat Boy and Aether, crams his games full of detail to fulfill even the most discerning fans' expectations, and Rebirth is no exception. Each of the 343 items in the game has a unique description that appears when you pick the item up; these descriptions range from one-liner jokes to allusions to popular culture to references from McMillen's other games. They add a sense of humor to an otherwise very dark game (again, aside from the smiling poop monsters), but they also show how much thought went into every last detail of the game.
Aside from these original details, there are many, many allusions to religion and the bible scattered throughout the game. A majority of the unlockable characters are direct biblical references (not a spoiler- you can see their names from the character select screen from the get-go), many of the collectible items deal with religious symbols, artifacts, or fables, and even some of the enemies are derived from biblical stories. As explained in the "Story" section, Isaac's mother's faith in God is the driving force behind the action, and as the player unlocks more items, characters, levels, and endings, the religious undertones come closer and closer to the forefront of the game's true meaning.
Does Rebirth make your top 5 list?
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was free during November to PlayStation Plus members, and it was included in a Steam sale at around $5 (the sale has since been reduced to 2/3 the normal price, $10.04), but even at its normal price of $15, the game is worth that and more. I've played the PS4 version nearly fifty hours already, and I expect at least another ten before I've collected even seventy percent of the collectible items the game has to offer. The game's 16 endings take numerous playthroughs to unlock, many of the items require specific scenarios to obtain, and a few of the unlockable characters require a great deal of skill and patience to both unlock and use effectively.
After you've mastered the game's normal mode, there is a series of challenge modes-- runs that start you with a specific set of themed items while adding other challenges-- to complete, and once you've proved your mettle by completing those, the game offers a hard difficulty setting to appease your masochistic side.
Even with all of this content already at our fingertips, McMillen has announced plans to release an expansion with even more items, characters, enemies, and levels in the near future. To show appreciation to the fans, he's even launched a Community Item Suggestion forum, from which he will pull ten ideas for items to include in the game.
With its nearly endless replayability, plans for future content, sharp, precise gameplay, and thought-provoking story, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth easily tops my list of best indie games of 2014. And unlike most once-and-done indie games, I don't see myself putting this one down for a long, long while.
But what do you think: does Rebirth make your top five? What do you consider the top indie contender? Leave a comment with your thoughts below!