Entertainment industries thrive by repacking and reselling iteration. Often, the practice is an easy way to pad the company coffers while keeping the brand relevant. From movies offering an extended cut, music extending the remix or live album, nearly every medium has their own type of money-making modifications. Games, of course, are no different- with the port, remaster, or proposal of downloadable content suggesting an experience that’s a comforting mix of the fresh and familiar.
With the release of The Binding of Isaac: Afterbith+, developer Nicalis has ventured into uncharted territory, with a batch of post-release content that requires previous DLC, making for an expansion of an expansion. For players who have spent immeasurable hours plumbing through Binding’s procedurally created rooms, across the original game, 2014’s remake Rebirth, and the Afterbirth expansion, Afterbith+ is likely to feel like a hodge-podge of ideas. While there’s certainly enjoyment to be found in the package, there’s also a puzzling number of design decisions that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Ironically, it’s Isaac’s devoted audience that are the ones that can redeem the effort.
Delve back into the basement and one of the first additions you’ll notice is the incorporation of portals, which act like the generators from the classic coin-op, Gauntlet. Untouched, they’ll spawn a continual succession of monsters, endowing rooms with a sense of urgency. In theory, they’re a worthwhile addition, goading gamers into adapting a precariously rushed approach, or else they’ll quickly be surrounded by a horde of adversaries. But in execution, portal frequency- especially in the early game can be frustrating, with more than half of basement rooms flaunting the new feature. Until you’re augmented your damage output, becoming overwhelmed is all too likely.
And largely, that’s one of the fundamental problems with Afterbirth+’s launch. Without the expansion, Isaac can sporadically recover from a blunder, giving gamers the sense of tenacity they’ll need when tackling the ensuing floors, mid-bosses, and bosses. Yet, with Afterbirth+ in place, a misstep in the basement is almost always devastating. While Binding of Isaac was always difficult, for the first time it’s converging on the unfair, which undermines the whole “just more game and I’ll get it right” allure.
Sure, developer Nicalis could quickly patch the title, reducing the frequency or portals and their respawn rates. But the portals are just one of a number of misguided additions. Mimic chests would be an interesting supplement if there was a way to escape taking damage when they were triggered. But they’re not, adding another irksome element as players hope to scrap together enough currency to survive. Likewise, the new Greedier Mode is puzzling, escalating the level of difficulty but extending no tangible incentive for undertaking the challenge. In fact, the number of coins you’ll find is noticeable reduced. But even in the main campaign, you’ll find another lack of balance, with early shop prices set so high that it’s often impossible to spend any of your hard-earned money.
The expansion’s other additions are a rather mixed bag as well. Apollyon is the game’s new playable character, who is equipped with The Void, a tool that destroys items but grants random stat boosts in return, similar to Nuclear Throne’s robot character or Enter the Gungeon’s gun munchers. While hardly essential, he’s an interesting addition to the roster, ushering in gratifying variation, even if he’s not the conqueror Nicalis once hinted at. Less successful in the game’s new final boss, who not only lacks animation frames, but cribs the clichéd strategy of morphing into the game’s other baddies when he’s not sending out a plethora of projectiles. Afterbirth+’s new quartet of elements opponents are curious, with some being pushovers while others undoubtedly summon a string of expletives from Isaac experts. Newcomers Sisters Vis and Big Horn fall into the latter camp, with both seemingly tuned to challenge the very highest-level players. Hopefully, some of the bosses will be mollified, so mortals with jobs will still be able to enjoy the game.
Another section of the new content are sixty-seven new active items, and twenty-seven new passive trinkets. While often derivative, the new pick-ups extend appeal, as you figure out the benefits and any drawbacks for each object. At least some of the amusement stems from how each with within Isaac’s unique brand of fire-and-brimstone dysfunction, with amusingly named items like ‘Plan C”, a pill that kills everything onscreen before ending Isaac’s existence as well. Another minor addition is the inclusion of new room arrangements, which extend only a modicum of change.
If it sounds like I was underwhelmed with Afterbirth+ at launch, you’re right. In essence, the expansion feel like Nicalis threw in every idea that could think up and the end result is a game that feels out of tune. Fortunately, the inclusion of modding tools has the potential to remedy that problem, allowing users to use the Lua programming language and the Steam Workshop to craft their own items, room designs, and creatures. So far, the offerings have been minor but might help to mitigate Afterbirth+’s stifling difficulty, with perks like an item that causes tears to melt rocks. In the coming months, the developers will be permanently adding user-created content to the game. So ironically, Isaac’s best chance at salivation is now in the hands of the public.
Largely, the purchase of The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ is a dicey proposition. Beyond content and changes that ranges from constructive to balance-breaking, potential lay dormant in the pack’s mod tools, which give players the power to take the game in different, and potentially remarkable directions. As such, it’s hard to recommend Afterbirth+ right now, but like an Isaac playthrough, this could all instantly change.
The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ was played on the PC with review code provided by the publisher.
Developer: Nicalis Inc, Edmund McMillen
Publisher: Nicalis Inc.
Release Date: January 3rd, 2017
Price: $9.99 via Steam, currently on sale for $6.66