The Binding of I-Success!
Where to begin with The Binding of Isaac? A game so beloved and with such longevity that it still boats a huge and bustling playerbase today, almost five years after the release of its original incarnation. Firstly, oh dear Lord how have five years already come and gone? Secondly, how does a game inspire such clear devotion? The first question is a mystery, but the second is far simpler: it has to be as enjoyable, have as much mechanical depth and variety, and be as subversively intriguing as The Binding of Isaac.
What is The Binding of Isaac? Well, to begin simply, it’s a game about clearing rooms of enemies in a manner that acts as an homage to dungeons in The Legend of Zelda. The overriding complexity of it all, particularly the manner in which you can upgrade the playable character, is really where Isaac sets itself apart. But before getting into all of that, let’s have a history lesson! Don’t worry, it’ll be brief.
Team Meat, the studio set up by Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, released the original Isaac as a flash game. People were stunned by the fairly grotesque visuals made palatable only by the overtly cartoony aesthetic, and by the startling macabre mechanic of killing monsters by crying on them. The first major change, leaving aside the Wrath of the Lamb DLC for the base game, was the release of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. This marked a welcome move away from Flash, with better performance, fancier lighting and subtle yet undoubtedly vital graphical details such as having little bits in the poop.
In terms of gameplay, it was a huge overhaul. Many more enemies, bosses, pills, trinkets, cards, items and characters were introduced. It made a game that could already reasonably claim to contain unmatched levels of replayability seem akin to a bottomless pit of discoverable content, and they didn’t stop there.
So, with that summary over, we arrive at Afterbirth: the most recent DLC and, arguably, an even more extensive revamp than Rebirth.
For the basics, which basically means the first few times you play, we need focus only on Isaac and his method of survival. You are flung into a remarkably labyrinthine basement after fleeing from your murderous zealot of a mother and, as previously mentioned, your tears are the only defence against the creatures that lurk within. For those playing with a keyboard: WASD moves Isaac, while the arrow keys handle the direction of shooting. It’s not only simple but intuitive, and helps with getting into the flow of a game which can be fairly unforgiving with its difficulty spikes.If you are able to cry on enough monstrosities without getting hurt too badly, you will reach a boss room containing a Big Bad attempting to preclude your traversal into the next level. Each boss has a unique method of attack and movement scheme, along with varying levels of difficulty. If after the first level you get Pin, for example, then you can count your lucky stars for a relatively simple introductory boss. If you end up with The Haunt or Rag Man, you won’t be enjoying such an easy ride.
If you’re able to successfully navigate your way through all six initial levels you’ll face off against Mom. Successfully dispatching with this ‘final’ boss means you’ll have completed your first run through The Binding of Isaac. Congratulations! You’ve now experienced quite possibly a fraction of a percentage of what Isaac has to offer.
We find the true extent of Isaac when we look at the items, trinkets, cards and pills that the main character can unlock and collect throughout the course of the game. One of the most striking elements of Afterbirth is the staggering amount of doo-dads which can be equipped or used in the game. There are a total of 436 items in Afterbirth. Some of those are simple skill upgrades, others change the size or form of Isaac’s tears, others change how Isaac controls, and others have myriad effects which I can’t exhaustively list here. This is without mentioning the huge array of pills, trinkets and cards which can also change the game in profound ways.
Clearly, if you’re hoping to utilise each and every item in Afterbirth’s gargantuan pool you’re going to be coming back to the game over and over again. This is the loop – and it is a wondrous loop – in which many players currently find themselves. Once more though, simply saying that Afterbirth contains a lot of items is only scratching the surface of its true complexity.By collecting consecutive items, the effects don’t override one another – they synergise.
These item synergies can make or break a playthrough, but more importantly the results are always inventive and often hilarious. For instance, if you collect ‘Rubber Cement’, which makes your tears bounce against walls, and ‘Brimstone’, which replaces your tears with a stream of devastating hell flames, then congratulations! You now have bouncy hell fire! Now imagine thousands upon thousands of variations on that theme, and you’re beginning to understand what makes Afterbirth endlessly compelling.
Items can be acquired primarily from treasure rooms and shops. There’s also ‘Deals with the Devil’ which randomly spawn after boss fights dependent on how much damage you’ve taken through the level (although predictably it’s not quite that simple), random chest drops after each room, ‘Curse Rooms’ which force you to take some damage upon entering and leaving, and a few others. In order to get at them all, you’ll need a liberal amount of all three consumables: coins, keys, and bombs.
Progression through the game is bit-by-bit. Defeating a boss unlocks further challenges, delving deeper and deeper into the basement depths – so deep, in fact, that the definition of ‘basement’ begins to lose all meaning. Defeating mother allows access, distressingly, to the womb. Later still, in-game depictions of heaven and hell are introduced with all new bosses there too. In what has become a running theme for Afterbirth discussion, this too isn’t the whole picture with regards to possible routes for progression.
So the gameplay is simple but hugely rewarding, and progression is inherently linked to replayability in a glorious melding of the two. What of the other additions in Afterbirth?There’s Greed Mode, an entirely new style of play in which one has to get through waves of enemies, accruing coins as rewards for successfully dispatching with each onslaught. It’s a well-realised and tremendously gratifying game mode. At the very end you are able to deposit all of your coins (or at least as many as the game will let you) into a central fund, thereby allowing access to certain unlocks at key pecuniary milestones. This presents an interesting compromise as you have to decide whether to spend coins, making your character stronger and better equipped to actually reach the end, or save your money, allowing more to be deposited into the fund but putting the likelihood of defeating the final boss in jeopardy.
Also added are Daily Runs. These are multiplayer-focused challenges which, obviously, are refreshed at the end of each day. These runs require you to tackle a particular set of levels with a particular character – both of which are exactly the same for every player on that given day. As if Isaac needed to entreat you further to keep it installed, this adds a competitive angle to replayability, with global and friend-only leaderboards maintained for each and every run in which you participate.
Unfortunately Afterbirth is unable to improve the soundtrack which, while not awful and always in keeping with the tone of the game, still pales in comparison to the giddy heights set by Danny Baranowsky’s effort for the original Isaac. Still, that really is a trifling matter with regards to the game as a whole.
Afterbirth is a weighty expansion, filled to the brim with content, to a game which was already no slouch when it came to things to do. What may be regarded as ‘the base game’ is challenging, enjoyable and intriguing and worthy of the purchase. What sets Afterbirth apart from those foundations is the mechanical minutiae, providing hundreds upon hundreds of hours of exploration, competition, and manic fun.