Don't cry to me, oh baby!
Over the years, I’ve grown to have almost an obsession with Edmund McMillen’s games. They typically are fiendishly simple ideas with tremendous complexity in execution. Super Meat Boy is just a platformer, but the level design follows a Mario Bros. style approach to teaching through mechanics and the art design reflects a personal belief that McMillen felt games were failing to live up to. Any meager description doesn’t do the game justice.
The same can be said for The Binding of Isaac, which is almost like an autobiography of McMillen’s childhood. While he obviously wasn’t killing weird creatures (or his own mother) in a disgusting basement, the naivety of childhood shows in the grotesque depiction of biblical figures taken through an almost literal description.
And while the remake for Isaac, dubbed Rebirth, felt like a definitive edition of McMillen’s magnum opus, we eventually saw the release of an expansion that basically doubled the game’s content. A little over a year after that and we’re being treated to a second, and supposedly final, expansion called Afterbirth+.
Does this final chapter live up to fan expectations and is it worth getting for the uninitiated?
Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ (PC)
Developer: Nicalis, Edmund McMillen
MSRP: $9.99 (DLC), $35.99 (Bundle with Rebirth and Afterbirth)
Released: January 3, 2017
Let me answer the most pressing issue upfront; if you aren’t already deep within the rabbit hole that is The Binding of Isaac, Afterbirth+ is not the place you should start. This expansion is for the tirelessly devout and the more patient among you. Each new addition is added to raise the difficulty while also providing something fresh to keep returning players coming back.
That isn’t to say someone couldn’t start off with Afterbirth+, but you probably would have an easier time learning all of the nuances of Isaac’s trinket and item system without such a gigantic pool of potential combinations floating around. I know I acclimated to Rebirth so well because I had experience with both the original game and its expansion, Wrath of the Lamb, but Rebirth did feel like a great beginning for those unfamiliar with the original.
That being said, what is new with Afterbirth+? While the official description states things like “55+ items” and “new bosses,” the additions with this expansion are more minor than before. The biggest thing for returning fans is the inclusion of a definitive final chapter for Isaac, something that I’m very eager to actually dig into.
Like I said above, Afterbirth+ really ratchets up the difficulty quite a bit. Despite being a pro at Rebirth and having spent a lot of time in Afterbirth, I can’t seem to make it past Sheol or The Chest too often in Afterbirth+. Some of the new enemies introduced (one being a portal that endlessly spawns foes until you defeat it) seem to be a bit unbalanced with the general flow of items you’re receiving.
I’ve started a few runs where I’ve died on the second floor due to just being overwhelmed by the amount of foes on-screen. I would expect that later on during a level like The Womb, but to be so underpowered and trying my damnedest with little help from items feels a little unfair.
Edmund McMillen has been active on his Twitter account and is listening to fans, tweaking the damage ratios of all the new items introduced, so there is little reason to assume that Afterbirth+ is going to remain brutally challenging. Isaac fans are mostly masochists, but the series was always based on having a fair chance instead of massive hordes of enemies.
I haven’t noticed much in the way of any new bosses, but a few of the ones introduced in Afterbirth have new variations. These differences range from an increase (or decrease) in size to doubling the actual boss numbers. There are also “champion” versions of enemies from the previous games. “Champions” are mostly just foes with greater health, which is always nerve-wracking.
The most noticeable addition to the game is a new character, called Apollyon. His starting health is a bit low, but he has tremendous power and begins with a new item called “The Void.” This item allows you to destroy pedestal items and receive their bonuses when you recharge its meter. I never quite understood the comparison to traditional RPG archetypes with Isaac, so I’m not sure what Apollyon would be classified as. All I know is that getting a new item right off the bat does help in showcasing the minor tweaks brought to the game.
There is also a harder difficulty for “Greed Mode,” though I’ve always found the original to be insanely hard. “Greedier” is insane from the offset, so more power to anyone who can finish that. Along with the ramped up challenge, there are also daily “Greed” runs, which provides a bit of Spelunky’s charm for Isaac, which is fun.
So with all that said, it sounds like Afterbirth+ is mostly just for fans with little to offer anyone else. This is the final version of The Binding of Isaac, so anything you wanted to see isn’t going to make it in…or is it? One of the most-requested fan features since the launch of the original game, mod tools, is finally available with this update and it rounds out the package quite nicely.
Finding the tools may be a tiny bit convoluted for people unfamiliar with the Windows explorer, but they are contained within the install directory for the game. After locating them, you’re given the ability to edit literally any file associated with the game, from animations down to item descriptions. If you don’t like the impact that the new items have on the main Isaac experience, you can just tweak them to your heart's content.
Being a fully supported Steam title, Afterbirth+ has Steam Workshop support. People are already uploading mods en mass to the service, so you’ll more than likely never be starved for new content in the future. One of the most notable newer mods, Antibirth, is also going to be getting a fully supported launch in the future, so there is that to look forward to.
So even if you are left a little cold or annoyed by Afterbirth+ and its seemingly small pool of additions, the package does have something for everyone. New fans may need to look to mods to even make progress in the “story,” but older fans should be more than pleased with this final chapter of Isaac’s tale.
As for me, I know I’ll be returning to this for a long time to come. I still occasionally boot up the original Flash game and I’ve put more hours into Rebirth between the PC version and the PS4 version than I’m proud to admit. The finale of the whole saga may not be so cut and dry, but Isaac has never had an easy life. The poor kid is still crying, six years after his introduction to the world.
Maybe I’ll make a mod where he finally smiles.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ reviewed by Peter Glagowski
Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth most people's time and cash.
How we score: The Destructoid Reviews Guide