The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ (on Switch)

Isaac has been a lot of things to me over the years.  This is a game that I’ve been playing off and on, in various forms, for 7 years.  It’s important to me in ways that are hard to articulate.  I’ve been frustrated with it, given it up and come back to it, I’ve loved it, had fun with it, and alternated between grudging acceptance of its flaws and embracing its unique personality and gamefeel.  I feel like it’s finally time to put down some words on this thing.

I’ve got a lot of the same damage that I think Ed McMillen has probably dealt with.  A lot of baby boomers were terrible parents in a weirdly specific way, and so a lot of my millenial cohorts have similar damage, it turns out.  I was an introverted kid in an extremely conservative Christian family.  I’ve suffered my share of abuse (of all kinds) at the hands of adults who were supposed to love and care for me, but mostly saw me as an extension of themselves, if they saw me at all.  I retreated into fantasy to cope.  Et cetera.  It’s a tale of bullshit and narcissism, eternally retold.  In 2011, I was in my 20s and still working through a lot of that stuff more actively, and playing Isaac helped a bit.  It was nice to know that I wasn’t the only one who’d gone through it, that that darkness and pain could be channeled into something constructive and fun.  For a thorough and on-point analysis of the themes of Isaac, I recommend everyone check out this article and this Reddit followup if you haven’t already.

When Rebirth came out in 2014, I was initially pretty lukewarm on it.  I’d spent the intervening 3 years growing accustomed to all the little quirks of the original flash game and its Steam release, and Rebirth’s tweaks and additions were not always welcome, even though some were objective improvements.  I found the new large room types to be far too big for their own good and usually quite annoying.  I missed Danny Baranowsky’s soundtrack, and thought Rebirth’s OST was too self-serious and not fun enough.  I found the new enemies irritating, and felt like overall the direction the game was going was too different.  The changes to character balance also rubbed me the wrong way.

I kept playing, because the game occupied a special place in my heart, and I couldn’t bear to just stop entirely.  There was a time when I played both the original Isaac and Rebirth alongside each other, picking which one to do runs in at random on any given session.  After a few months, daunted by the increased difficulty of Rebirth and how crappy the item pool was, I got fatigued on the game and stopped playing for a while.

Afterbirth reinvigorated me on Isaac, and finally won me over to Rebirth’s new engine upon its release in 2015.  Rebirth had taken a very simple, Zelda-inspired dungeon crawler, and made it really complicated without updating the item pool or the characters enough to keep up with the power curve of enemies, making for a daunting and frustrating experience.  Afterbirth rectified the balance of power, with a bunch of new items and synergies, and tweaks to characters that made the game more fun again (Azazel and Samson became actually playable again, hooray!).  This was a very different game than classic Isaac, with bullet hell style bosses, frantic rooms packed with difficult enemies, and all kinds of crazy items to use.

By comparison, Afterbirth+ was a relatively minor update in terms of content.  Initially, I was bitter that Plus contained so little but was marketed at “full expansion price” (oh, how naive I was) based on promises of future content and item packs.  I’d heard this song and dance before, with Rock Band, Left 4 Dead, and other such “content platforms”.  I never ended up buying the expansion on PC, actually.  Shortly after its release, I entered my longest Isaac slump.

This was about the time when dungeon crawling roguelites were seeing a massive explosion in popularity, and I was playing a lot of them.  Starward Rogue was a particular standout, and my review of that game on Steam (as well as my review of Deathstate, another favorite) shows that I was looking for a game to replace Isaac in my life.

Here’s the thing about the Binding of Isaac, particularly Rebirth and its expansions.  At the end of the day, it’s a really janky, weird game.  They took this little flash game about a disturbed kid imagining himself a dungeon to overcome, with very simple mechanics, and tried to turn it into this big epic Thing.  The transition did not go smoothly.  Isaac pioneered an entire genre of games.  As the progenitor, it didn’t have the benefit of hindsight or other examples to learn from.  Lemme tell you about what I thought of the game prior to giving it up back then.

Items are weird.  There are so many of them that are just terrible picks, things no sane human being would ever pick up.  Treasure rooms are locked and you’re not guaranteed keys, so if the game decides to screw you, you’ll miss out on an item for that floor.  Period.  The power curve of enemies, which grows with each floor and stratum, is tight enough that missing out on an item can completely screw your run, or turn it into a slog.  It’s not quite as bad as Enter the Gungeon was at launch, but the game can be really mean sometimes.  Some items that you would think have synergies, just don’t.  Bosses – and even some enemies – can have ridiculous amounts of health, which means if you don’t find a lot of damage upgrades, you’re not going to have a good time.  But if you do find damage upgrades, you can get to a point where you melt everything by just looking its direction.  Also, item descriptions are so obtuse, and there’s so many of them, that you basically need a wiki open at all times while you’re playing.

If you’re really hardcore, you might be able to retain information about what a few dozen of the hundreds of items do, and be able to call that info up in your memory on a moment’s notice to make a decision in a run.  But then they added things like dice rooms (and I can never remember which room does what), and variants of existing items that look almost identical.  Can you tell the difference between Adrenaline and Synthoil from 3-4 feet away from the screen?  This isn’t such a huge problem for that pair of picks, but sometimes the bad pick of the similar-looking group is one that’s devastating to your run.

I burned out.  I got sick of looking stuff up in the wiki, sick of wrestling with underpowered characters like Lazarus and Samson for the sake of Steam achievements.  Individual runs were, I felt, taking much too long with all the new stages that had been added.  And, even though I liked having an open-ended story that was told mostly through implication, I was increasingly frustrated that there wasn’t a definite and final ending to confirm all the suspicions I had (keep in mind, I had yet to play AB+ at this point).  Greed Mode felt like a slog, devoid of any sense of pacing or progression akin to Greater Rifts in Diablo 3, and just as detrimental to my love for the game.  I made a final attempt to unlock The Lost based on the data-mined instructions for doing so, just to mix things up and challenge myself more.  After numerous unsuccessful attempts, I considered that the last straw.  I was done with Isaac.

Then the Switch came out, and with it, the game was back on my radar once again.  I hemmed and hawed about it, but in the end I think my husband and I both knew it was gonna happen.  I picked up Afterbirth+ on a whim, out of a combination of nostalgia and masochism.  Much to my surprise, I’ve been loving it.  I’ve played more Isaac in 2017 and 2018 than I think I’ve ever played before.  Marathon sessions and binges are not uncommon.  Even my days with the flash game are only just barely ahead in terms of playtime, and – I’d venture to say – a bit behind in terms of the fun I’m having.  So, what changed?

First and foremost, I’ve changed a lot since 2011 and the days of flash Isaac.  I think it’s safe to say I’m over my troubled childhood at this point.  Consequently, Isaac isn’t some totemic symbol of healing and catharsis to me anymore.  I’m able to have a little more distance from it, now, and enjoy it just as a video game.  I don’t pine for the bygone days of “classic Isaac, which has been RUINED” the way I used to.  And the extended break I took from the game prior to 2017 allowed me to cool off on it somewhat and restore some of my love.  I’ve had flirtations with a lot of Isaac-likes in the intervening time, and their various successes and failures shed a lot of light on the things I liked so much about Isaac in the first place: its relative simplicity, its strong sense of its own identity, its art and sound design, its world and characters, the heavy lore implications of its items, enemies, and bosses.

Secondly, Isaac changed a lot since the last time I played it.  For one thing, those “small monthly content updates” did trickle out, just as promised; the sum of what we’ve gotten through these updates has become pretty substantial.  Afterbirth+ added a lot to the game in the end, much more than I had previously thought.  Victory laps, new characters, and a plethora of new items and rooms, to name a few things.  The game has an actual for real final boss now, and a definitive ending that just so happens to confirm everything that was previously left to implication, in an extremely satisfying way that can’t be overstated.  I LOVE Delirium and The Void and everything about that final chapter.  It’s everything I could have asked for from the true last boss of this game and its ending.  And the sheer number of items in the game has finally reached a point of saturation where the bad picks are overshadowed by stuff that’s fun to use.  That power curve, which was so shaky in the early days of Rebirth, has finally been smoothed out, without destroying the delicate sense of difficulty and progression.  The characters have also undergone a lot of patching and rebalancing, and everybody feels pretty good at this point.  New additions like Apollyon, Lilith, Keeper, and The Forgotten are very welcome as well, adding dramatically-different ways to play that were sorely needed.

To put it simply, Isaac has matured.  The game is very different than it used to be, but it’s different in a way that finally feels good and fun again.  Bullet hell bosses?  Bullet hell player abilities.  Tough enemies?  Tougher player.  It’s a great dynamic, centered around a race to see who can be the MOST overpowered.  It’s no longer a question of scraping by; now, the idea is to see just how broken and ridiculous you can be.  And that’s great!  I finally feel like the game deserves its completely overblown, po-faced, epic OST.

Finally, having the game on the Switch is, I feel, the way this game was meant to be played.  The flexibility of being able to play the game on the go or in longer couch sessions is just perfect.  The list of challenges is very robust these days, and Greed mode is always there, giving you lots of ways to play the game in shorter bursts.  If you want to sit down for a longer session, just fire up a regular run and aim for Mega Satan.  The timer that encourages you to play quickly to reach the boss rush room and a chance at extra items has been there for a while, but in a portable context, it finally makes sense to me.

The Switch doesn’t have Steam’s achievement system, and I couldn’t be happier with this.  Now, you don’t have some reminder hanging over your head like a to-do list of everything you have yet to accomplish.  You can just start the game up and play it.  You know, for fun.  You remember fun?  It’s hanging out on the Switch these days.  Every so often, you’ll do something and get an in-game popup telling you you unlocked something new.  That’s cool; hope I find it next run!  And there are now just so many items on offer that it’s wrapped around the other side to where you don’t really need a wiki anymore.  Just pick up the items!  Who cares?  You’re going to find so many things, and most of them are fine.  So a relaxed approach actually works again and is fun.  Oh, and those dice rooms?  An AB+ content pack added little icons onscreen that clue you in to what they do.

I hope I can encourage those of you who have been through a similar arc with this game, but may not have picked up its latest incarnation, to give it a shot.  After 7 years, Isaac has finally grown the hell up.  This is the grand-daddy of the roguelite boom, and it has absolutely earned every gray hair on its head.

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