Afterbirth+: The Crying Game
The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ plays like a cry for help.
Ever since those halcyon days of Newgrounds.com, The Binding Of Isaac has been high on my list of must-plays on the indie circuit. With an absolutely unique aesthetic that plays like the bastard child of Jacob’s Ladder and The Legend of Zelda, Isaac’s bleak lore twists along with a load of sophomoric in-jokes into a bloodstained double helix of good god this metaphor is getting bloated, isn’t it?
See what happens when you cram too much into a good thing?
- New bosses should not be tanks. Bullet sponge does not equal fun challenge.
- The new crop of items is unspectacular and uninspired.
- Apollyon is as dull as his color palette and his active item, The Void, is a dull letdown.
- Plan C is an item that somebody should be slapped for. Not hard.
- The new secret boss (the one with its own floor) is an awesome experience despite largely being a glorified boss rush.
- The new ending is lengthy and possibly the best in the series.
- This expansion update is unnecessary and it’s time to sequel, for real, or get off the pot.
- Greedier mode is a slog that emphasizes fast resets more than skill.
- 63/100. It’s like Jason X and not in a good way.
Ever since Rebirth came about way back, I felt a sort of disappointment with the title. I should note I nearly typed the word “series”, but it should be pointed out that Isaac has never had a sequel. The team at Nicalis brought a different look to the Flash art of Isaac’s birth, a new rockin’ sound and plenty of new enemies, pickups and so on.
I liked the Flash art and Danny Baranowsky’s soundtrack was the stuff of dreams. Isaac felt immediately larger but somehow less artistic, less important. Despite loads of new (and often terribly cool) items to play with, it became immediately more difficult to put together my favorite combinations from the original. I enjoy beef stew largely because I love potatoes cooked in beef broth. I also enjoy pork, chicken, fish, oranges, kale, gummies and raisin bran cereals. Put them all in a pot and the likelihood of finding a bite of potato and beef together is lessened.
Welcome additions such as new endings and characters to help illuminate Isaac’s lore overcame the shortcomings Rebirth presented. Rebirth was, despite the painful downgrade in sonic quality, worthwhile and fun. Then, there was Afterbirth. It was at this point that the cracks were starting to show in the Isaac cake. Further item additions muddied the water beyond necessity and an interesting (if frustrating) new character in Lilith felt more like padding than anything else. New bosses began displaying a troubling trait in common:
New bosses began displaying a troubling trait in common, exemplified best by the ludicrous bullet sponges Hush and Ultra Greed. The novelty of Hush was soon overshadowed by the realization upon every encounter with it that the battle was going to be intensely boring and time-consuming even with the mighty Guppy transformation in tow. Super versions of Mega Fatty, The Gate and other bosses combined with the ridiculous tankiness of first-floor boss and constant pain in my ass Rag Man to cultivate an environment requiring, more than anything, a lucky first floor set of pickups to overcome. I know, I know. They can be beaten without pickups, but why would I spend three or four minutes plinking away at a boss like that? That’s not fun. That’s not challenging. It’s boring.
The addition of daily runs for high score spiced up gameplay enormously, but any run set to progress past Mom’s Heart absolutely required defeating Hush to score well, and now …
I know it’s taken a bit to reach this point, but with the release of Afterbirth+, a slew of new items and the best ending the game has offered yet to balance, I find myself unable to recommend The Binding of Isaac anymore. Let’s talk about why.
How many single-heart health increasing items do we need? Why on earth would anyone waste time coding and drawing the Midnight Snack item when we already have Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Old Bandage, Maggie’s Bow, The Body, Meat, and other items that either do exactly the same thing or something better? Why do we need Mom’s Razor, a basic and mostly ineffective orbital that is immediately inferior to Cube of Meat and whose only other trait is contributing to the weak Mom transformation?
Why is the D1 such a waste of a slot? Single random consumable duplication for four energy units? I understand not every item in a roguelike can be a world beater, but we already have dozens of filler items. Adding more filler items is only a sign that this property has lost its legs. There are interesting pickups in the mix, but none of them stand out like Brimstone, Tech X, Diplopia or any of the dozens of items one can alter an entire run style to suit.
That said, I want to highlight one new item in particular that can go straight to hell. That little red pill is Plan C, without a doubt the worst item ever introduced into Isaac and in the running for the worst pickups in all of high-level game design. An active-use item, the little red pill pickup initially was met with the sort of rush of new exploration I loved about Isaac. Naturally, its flavor text tells the player nothing useful about the item, and the first order of business was to try it out immdiately.
I pressed space bar. The room bloodied a bit. “Huh,” though I, “okay. We’ll figure out what this one does. It’s not immediately apparent.” And then Isaac dropped dead, ending my run. “The fuck?”
So I went Internetting, and discovered Plan C kills or heavily damages all enemies in the room, killing Isaac three seconds later. This pickup, I can only imagine, is some designer’s idea of a joke, something to troll players with. Now, items that damage or kill Isaac are nothing new and can sometimes be used to great advantage. Let’s look at the Suicide King card, which kills Isaac while spawning a number of pickups. On its own, this seems useless and just as tricksy as Plan C, right? That might be the case if the word suicide wasn’t plainly in the name of the item.
Pickups that waste the player’s time are unforgivable.
Afterbirth + introduced a couple of new bosses, but the ones I’ll focus on are Big Horn, the Sisters Vis and the new secret bosses. Each of these bosses is tanky as all hell. The first time I encountered Big Horn and shot it with a medium-strength tear, I watched in great annoyance as its health decreased by about .5 percent. I didn’t even attempt to complete the fight. Instead, I ended the run. I could not be bothered to shoot a new boss 200 times.
The Sisters Vis were almost as spongey as Big Horn, but the first time I encountered these boring Cage clones there were also four of them. Just like what happened immediately in the new Greedier mode, I was simply buried in enemy real estate. I’ll simply say of the new secret bosses, they are both awesome to fight but display the same 10-minute fight situation.
A new addition to Isaac also is the portal, aesthetically disparate little holes in reality that appear in rooms and spawn in numerous foes. The portals themselves have been toned down in updates since release, but these things only serve to lengthen rooms without new challenge. When I have a portal on the first floor spawning fat bats that take 11-13 shots to kill each, again, I might as well restart the run and hope for a powerful item pickup that will balance that stuff out.
Finally, my old buddy Rag Man has super forms that appear on the first floor. Just imagine a very bored player holding the reset button again.
Speaking of the reset button, there is almost no point whatsoever to even attemptin the new upgraded Greed runs without resetting over and over for a perfect start. So many times I’ve fought through the ridiculously heavy first floor only to reach the boss portion and end up facing, with reduced pennies and likely the minimum of power-ups, a god-forsaken ultra Mega-Fatty or something that leaves me desparately trying to reach the boss through its waves of generated minions.
One problem Isaac has always had is one it shares with Enter the Gungeon: The run often lives and dies on the first two pickups. Now, it simply dies. Unless the player is willing to spend a ridiculous amount of time plinking away at tanks in the hopes of accumulating a powerful Isaac, that R button is one’s best friend.
The new guy
Apollyon, when initially I read about him, sounded like a character whose native active item could convert unwanted pick-ups to useful powerups or consumables. It’s something like that, but the item, The Void, is an item I consider among the most useless among the hundreds available. To quickly run it down, The Void requires six units of energy to use. Upon activation, if there is a power-up item (not a consumable, but something like Breakfast) in the room, the Void destroys that item. If the item is an active item like the D6 or The Book of Belial, for the rest of the run that items effect will trigger anytime the Void is used. Non-active items like Breakfast are destroyed and a miniscule, random stat upgrade is applied.
Now, that sounds like it has the potential for plenty of amazing combinations, and it does. Combining multiple books such as the Books of Sin, Revelation, Shadows and Satanic Bible could create a heart-generating unstoppable beast. Imagine using the Void on Diplopia and creating a power-up duplication factory?
Actually, don’t. It doesn’t work with Diplopia, which was an enormous letdown.
All that said, functionally the only thing the Void does is force the player either to swap it out as quickly as possible or be saddled with an active item that will not be useful for a minimum of two completed floor. Additionally, items like Shoop da Woop that require a small amount of energy to use can be assimilated, but the Void always will require six units to use. To put it simply, the Void is representative of Afterbirth+ as a whole: It wastes the player’s time for nothing. The item actively requires investment to be of any use, forcing the player to continue on in a handicapped state for a portion of the game.
Apollyon on his own is weak, but otherwise unspectacular. He’s no Keeper, but apart from filling out another completion card there is simply no reason ever to use him.
In summary, you know what? I loved Isaac, but it’s time either to create a genuine sequel with a new (or continued) story, a new location and real progress, or to let the game stand and move on. The fan-made Antibirth mod, which is jerky and weird without Afterbirth’s good points, nevertheless displays innovative and interesting new items and item combinations that add flavor rather than muddle. The idea well is as dry as Isaac’s dusty corpse, and it’s time to bury the body.
I give specifically The Binding of Isaac Afterbirth+ a 63/100. We’ve walked this road already, and now you’re just piling the path with junk.