Review: Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+

Posted 5 years ago by Peter Glagowski

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
Publisher: Nicalis
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.]

8.5

Great

Impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.

Peter Glagowski
Former Dtoid staff member.

Review: Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth

Posted 6 years ago by Nic Rowen

Deal with the Devil

The Binding of Isaac has always been a game of contradictions to me. It’s both a game that embraces the fickleness of chance and the purity of skill. That encourages you to play around, explore, and experiment, but also rewards players who can coldly dismantle and manipulate game mechanics. It’s juvenile in the most grotesque ways, featuring enemies made of poop and items based on diseases, but it’s also slyly hides a deeper message shared with an almost confessional intimacy.

Last year, I put my name on the line and gave Rebirth a coveted 10/10 score, I said it was as close to perfect as possible. Now Afterbirth, a massive DLC expansion to the already monstrously sprawling Rebirth is out, ready to drag players back into a world of shit, piss, and gaming bliss. Does it give Isaac the final bit of lift necessary to ascend to all the way to nirvana? Or is it hubris to try and improve on something already so good, and only serve to drag it down into the abyss?

Bewilderingly, it does both at the same time.

Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth review

Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth (PC)
Developer: Nicalis, Edmund McMillen
Publisher: Nicalis
MSRP: $9.99 (DLC),  $24.99 (Bundle with Rebirth)
Released: November 4, 2015

Afterbirth‘s “back of the box” bullet points are impressive – 120 new items, new level variations for every floor, a pack of new bosses and enemies, a new character, and an entirely new game mode to round it off – but those numbers only tell half of the story (maybe only a quarter). Any game can just add a bunch of new stuff, a crate of duplicate items, a pack of palette-swap enemies, a few coats of paint on some old levels, whatever. What makes Afterbirth so special isn’t just how many new little doodads have been dropped into the game, but how perfectly the new additions entwine themselves into the experience. How they fit right in, but at the same time dramatically warp and twist the classic Isaac experience into an entirely new entity.

Afterbirth takes a lot of risks to introduce new wrinkles and mechanics. Almost every new item does something wild, or weird, or aggravating. The Glass Cannon lets you fire a powerful mega shot every few seconds, at the cost of depleting your health down to a perilous single half-heart. The Fruitcake randomly changes the type of tears you fire with every shot, constantly shuffling between spread shots, homing tears, holy bolts, and the occasional randomly exploding fire shot (always a treat when you’re not expecting it). Items like the Scalpel, an infinite use ability that lets you make portal style tunnels between two points (either in the same room or different ones) complete changes the way you approach room exploration and some boss fights. Things like the occasional “Item Recycler” in an item room that will let you pay coins to change the offered item to another random selection, lets you make smarter, more interesting choices about how you play. This isn’t just “more stuff;” it’s all different, surprising, and exciting stuff.

Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth review

As someone who spent an ungodly amount of time with the original game, one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about Afterbirth is finding new combinations and synergies with old items. There is more of an emphasis on layering and blending items rather than just replacing them in this expansion. An old standby like Mom’s Knife can now be combined with the laser beam spewing classic Brimstone to create a spray of butcher knives that will travel across the screen. Or a mix of old and new, like the freshly introduced Incubus pet, a little demon that will mirror Isaac’s tear effects, combined with a traditionally poor item like Soy Milk to scrub a room clean with hundreds of tiny, but rapid, tears.

Further encouraging fresh experimentation with old items are a slew of new transformation effects. Collecting certain items that belong in the same set will result in a character-changing new look and a bonus ability or two. Rebirth only had two transformations (including the much beloved Guppy transformation that would change Isaac into brokenly powerful manifestation of his dead cat). Afterbirth comes correct with nine entirely new transformations to mutate poor Isaac.

The effects of these transformations are weaker on average than the Guppy buff, but are sourced from item pools that are far more common, including several junky items. It’s a smart change, instead of being monomaniacally focused on becoming Guppy, there are now potential advantages to picking up so-called dud items, encouraging smart play with a long-term vision. Or they can just serve as a consolation prize for a few limp item rolls.

Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth review

The new boss enemies follow the same philosophy, not just “new,” but “new and different.” Some of them are entirely fresh Afterbirth originals, while others are revamps of classic monsters. All of them are humongous jerks (often to the point of feeling overly difficult and imbalanced compared to the original cast of bosses) and they’re all pitching curve balls.

Even lightweights like Little Horn, a mere first floor boss, introduce crazy new tricks. He’s a diminutive imp who spontaneously creates cartoon black holes for you to fall in which he’ll try to herd you towards with slow moving tracking shots like a devilish sheep dog. Bigger bosses (telling would be spoiling) get even crazier, assaulting Isaac with entirely new mechanics as well as blatantly unfair levels of firepower. One particularly crazy fight involves a boss that will buff himself and summon allies if you don’t destroy the icons he is constantly spiting out, making it a frantic race to stay on top of them before things gets out of hand. The new fights are wacky, crazy, and occasionally frustrating, but most of all, they’re all fresh.

Greed Mode, introduced in Afterbirth, turns the traditional Isaac dungeon exploration experience into a much more tightly focused, wave-based horde mode. I like to think of it as Isaac for the person who only has 15 minutes. Get in, kill a few waves, get some money, try to cobble together a build, and get out (by death or by victory) before your lunch break is over. I don’t know if it will have a ton of staying power, but it is a fun alternative to getting deep and dirty in the basement.

Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth review

New floor variants and room layouts keep things fresh. Themed floors like the Burning Basement or Dank Depths have their own flavor, unique obstacles, enemies, and (universally killer) soundtracks. There are plenty of new room types, varying in all manner of size, shape, and hazard, making the dungeon crawl feel more natural and less like moving through a grid. Many of these layouts introduce new trap and puzzle elements, confronting players with spike floors that rise and lower in alternating patterns and need to be shut down by pressing different buttons, or explosive TNT chambers that need to be set off in the right order to avoid damage. Again, smart and exciting.

There are also innumerable smaller changes to go into, some of which are obvious niceties (like expanded HUD options to display collected items without pausing) while others you can’t discuss without sounding like a crazy person to non-Isaac nuts. Little things like “Devil Deal rooms will convert to soul heart prices automatically if you sell your last red heart!” or “the co-op baby can place bombs again, hallelujah!” I know, it sounds like gibberish, but to the diehard Isaac fanbase, these are big deals and welcome changes.

Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth review

Like many roguelikes, Isaac has always had a slightly masochistic bent. I’ve always said that the unforgiving and random nature of the game is something you have to lean into, have to embrace to really enjoy Isaac. Sadly, Afterbirth takes that bent and presses on it until it breaks, reaching a peak of difficulty that has even an roguelike-apologist like me throwing up my hands in frustration on a regular basis.

For every clever, interesting, and fresh idea Afterbirth has, it also has some dickish, spiteful, little aggravation to throw at you as well. Those handy item room recyclers I mentioned earlier? Sure, you could get one of those in an item room, or you could get an item surrounded by spikes, or a “bonus” room infested with monsters, what a cute joke! Those new rooms and traps? Neat, until you wind up in a boss room the size of a closet with TNT barrels or spike blocks in all four corners, have fun with that! The new bosses? Sure, they all have new and clever mechanics, but many of them also flood the screen with nearly unavoidable shots and a legion of minions in addition to whatever fresh hell they’re also bringing.

I imagine the idea was to challenge seasoned players with this expansion, to push the skills of hardcore Isaac players to their upper limits. But the difficulty in Afterbirth goes so far it loops back around on itself, ending up with a game that feels more luck based than ever. In Rebirth, I used to feel that any run, no matter how unlucky, could be saved by smart play and excellent dodging. In Afterbirth, I’ve had several rounds that felt so hopelessly stacked against me that instead of galvanizing me to play better, they just demoralized me into throwing in the towel, hoping for better items in the next run. That’s not a great way to feel after 200 hours of experience in a game.

Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth review

The nastiness of the difficulty spike leaves me in an uncomfortable position with this review. I think that the vast majority of changes made in Afterbirth are superb. The astounding creativity of the new items, modes, and rooms is flat out inspiring, as is the sheer amount of new additions. Afterbirth has found ways to significantly add to and improved on a game that I already considered to be a nearly flawless. I don’t want to diminish that accomplishment at all – in a perfect world, this is what all DLC would be like. I’m still having tons of fun with the game and I’ll probably be playing it for another hundred hours or so, but I’d be lying if I said I was having as much fun with Afterbirth as I did with Rebirth. It found my limit.

You should absolutely play Afterbirth. If you’re already an Isaac diehard, or someone fresh to the genre, Afterbirth has hours upon hours of genuine joy in store for you. But you should know it will also have moments of soul-annihilating frustration. Maybe that’s the price for flying so close to perfection.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]

9

Superb

A hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage.

Nic Rowen