The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a provocative and heart-pumping dungeon-shooter

A hardcore game about a naked kid who attacks monsters with his tears? Go on…

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These days, keeping up with games can be a full-time job. So how do you separate the signal from the noise, the wheat from the chaff, the Temple Runs from the Temple Jumps? Allow us to help by regularly selecting a game You Should Play.

Video games have evolved and matured dramatically—particularly over the last decade—opening up new kinds of experiences that deliver far more personal and risqué stories than we could’ve imagined years back. It’s a marvel that something as raw and excruciatingly beautiful as That Dragon, Cancer can coexist on the App Store with a game as polished and purely fun as Super Mario Run, but here we are. 

Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t always see the value in games that make bold statements, delve into social issues, or have the potential to court controversy. Games that fall into any of those categories have been routinely blocked from the App Store, including immigrant-smuggling game Smuggle Truck—which was hilariously rebuilt and published as Snuggle Truck instead—and last year’s Liyla and the Shadows of War.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was almost one of those games. Already a smash indie hit on PC, Mac, and consoles, the game was planned for release on iPhone and iPad about a year ago… until it was rejected for its content. That’s not entirely surprising: it’s a violent and unnerving game about a woman who hears voices from God, and thus decides to kill and sacrifice her young son. As the apparently naked son, you’ll retreat into the basement and fight through rooms of grotesque, anxiety-fueled monsters using your tears as a weapon. And there’s a good chance that you will perish.

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Wield super-powered projectile tears to fight these frightening basement beasts.

It’s strange, sure, but also imaginative and unique—and it’s a pretty great action game, as well, constantly testing your skills as you find new abilities and threats within the dungeon-like basement. Luckily, as with Liyla, Apple changed its mind and The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is now available on the App Store, apparently fully intact.

Like the sound of this curious concoction? Here’s why you should give it a shot.

It’s a taut, tense roguelike: The Binding of Isaac is an arcade-style shooter that finds you fighting for survival in each claustrophobic room and floor of the rather expansive basement. You’ll run around using one virtual stick and use the other to fire your tears in four directions, attempting to blast the myriad gooey-looking creatures to bits. The enemies are tough and unforgiving from the very start, forcing you to deftly maneuver around each tight space, figure out the strategy of each new foe, and try to discover new skills to harness in battle.

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These spiky brown blocks zip quickly shuffle around the confined space, challenging you to sneak through without injury.

And if you fall in battle, that’s it. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth doesn’t mess around: like many other “roguelike” games, death is permanent and you’ll lose all of your items and abilities in the process. That’s initially frustrating, but ultimately it makes each run through the game feel more precious, which gives you more incentive to stay alive and try to maximize every attempt.

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Playing in portrait mode gives you a smaller game screen, but also ensures that your thumbs never obscure the action. It’s a trade-off.

It’s always a fresh experience: Dying in The Binding of Isaac isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however: each new attempt dumps you into a basement with a totally fresh, randomized layout, filled with different enemies, items, and opportunities. So while you’ll lose the progress you made, you’ll also be dumped into something entirely new—and that version of the game could be easier, it might grant you more powerful abilities, or it may just lead to unexpected new areas and encounters.

And that feeling keeps going on and on, potentially through hundreds and hundreds of attempts. The Binding of Isaac has such a massive stockpile of content in play that you’ll often find very different experiences from game to game. Add in unlockable player characters and varying endings, and there’s plenty of motivation to keep at it.

There’s nothing quite like it: The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is weird and grotesque, sure, but it’s also really enticing. It is inspired by the biblical story of Abraham, as well as creator Edmund McMillen’s own experiences growing up in a heavily religious family—and while I hope he didn’t actually have to pummel disturbing monsters to evade a murderous mother, his vision here is surreal and unsettling, and constantly intriguing. It pairs well with the ever-evolving action, and just as I found myself hooked by the gameplay loop of gradual improvement and ability, I also was excited to explore as much as I could and find new types of abilities and enemies.

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Isaac’s anxiety-plagued nightmares serve as interludes between basement floors. Yeah, it’s all grim.

The $15 asking price is a lot more than you’ll usually pay on iOS, even for a premium game, but this is a full-bodied and highly creative experience that is priced the same as on other platforms—and if the (positive) furor over those previous versions is any indication, this might be a game that you’ll play endlessly. Also, Apple TV support is coming via update, so that might help sway your wallet here.

However, there’s one thing worth noting: playing with a physical controller feels much more precise than using the virtual sticks. If you have an MFi controller for the Apple TV, like the stellar SteelSeries Nimbus, it’ll easily pair with your iPad or iPhone; otherwise, they run about $50 apiece. You can play in either portrait or landscape orientation with the virtual sticks, giving you some choice in the matter, and the touch controls are fine but feel a bit loose and floaty. If you have a controller handy, however, it’s a significantly better experience. 

Developer: Nicalis
Platform: iOS (Universal)
Price: $15

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