Four years after its original release, The Binding of Isaac [official site] is still one of the games I’m most likely to turn to given a spare fifteen minutes (or couple of hours). The recent release of Afterbirth, a DLC/expansion/semi-sequel has rekindled my love, and I’ve spent most evenings since locked in a basement of shit, blood and tears. Whether you want to classify it as an expansion or an entirely new game, it’s one of my favourite things released this year.
In case you’ve managed to miss out entirely, here’s everything you need to know: loosely based on the Genesis story of Abraham and his son Isaac, The Binding swaps out the Biblical patriarch for a fundamentalist matriarch; she removes all possible worldly corruptions from her son, including his clothes, and then receives the instruction to sacrifice him; Isaac escapes into the basement and must use his fears, sorrows and insecurities as weapons against the horrors that await.
Either that or it’s a top-down action game about shooting the shit. Literally shooting the shit, with bullets made of tears and piss. It’s a gallery of grotesques, each run stitching together a few rooms per floor from an enormous selection, and filling them with spiders, flies, possessed corpses, the furious unborn, turd mountains, the manifestations of sin, and the occasional decomposing shopkeeper or blood-letting casino.
Afterbirth adds more of everything. Much more. I’ll probably never see it all, the unlock and discovery systems requiring a combination of hard graft and good fortune. The new rooms seem like the most important addition, during the first few trips down into the depths. There are large multi-screen chambers that require a different approach to the familiar single-screen arenas, encouraging kiting and then, often enough to keep you on your toes, punishing any overconfidence. Narrow, confined areas force a rethink of existing strategies when enemies you’ve encountered a hundred times before flex their exposed muscles within, quickly becoming bubbling cauldrons of lethal blood.
Then there are the new enemy types, which are more than simple reskins (most of the basement’s denizens don’t have skin to redo in the first place), and heaps of new items that not only offer buffs and new attack styles, but force you to think about how you’ll manage your progress. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the game has always been the bafflement and obscene wonder that each new build of Isaac himself can inspire. There are thousands of new hideous possibilities in Afterbirth.
One run provided me with a steroid-pumped swollen body, an implanted laser eye, a covering of weeping pustules and a face full of furious gingivitis. During my next attempt to reach one of the new bosses I resembled an infant version of Marvel’s Sabretooth by the time of my death, albeit Sabretooth with one eye transformed into a hideous bloodclot. With over 500 items to collect, it says something about how spoiled I’ve become that I’m disappointed whenever I collect something and it doesn’t change Isaac visually.
Whether intentionally or not, the initial release of The Binding of Isaac was perfectly suited to these additions. Due to the simplicity of its twin-stick shooting and, more importantly, the construction of each chapter as a series of connected but discrete arenas, Isaac can comfortably accommodate new additions in a way that a game like Spelunky can’t. The interplay between each element- whether an item, an enemy or a trap – is vital to Spelunky’s reactive environments. Five additional enemies that fly or hop would dilute or disrupt, whereas in Isaac they are absorbed into the untidy heap of oddities and ends.
That apparent untidiness is not a defect. Digging into Afterbirth over the past few days, I’ve found all manner of items that seem ridiculously overpowered at first but soon reveal drawbacks. I usually snaffle up everything I see but I’m learning to be cautious, knowing that collecting whatever happens to fall out of the first lump of throbbing gristle I sob to death might lead to an undesirable combo effect later on. The interplay of effects within each build of the player character is at the heart of the game’s appeal, and by focusing on that rather than a world of chain reactions and consequences, The Binding of Isaac almost feels modular.
To use a typical example from the game’s official blog, knowing that “midas touch + ecoli = golden poop on touch”, if I snag Midas Touch early in a run, I’m going to be delighted if I find ecoli down in the depths. But if I’m attempting a specific challenge or the rest of my build inclines toward a certain style of play, some item combos might be a pain to manage, and some, such as Ludovico Technique + Tiny Planet or Trinity Shield lead to unhelpful clashes. There will be so many more beneficial and punishing combos to discover in Afterbirth.
Afterbirth may well end up being the definitive version of one of my favourite games of recent years and I haven’t even dived into the new risk-reward Greed mode yet. The game is more attractive than ever and since Rebirth has benefited from the move away from Flash, which caused occasional slow-down and prevented the incorporation of certain items and features that had been planned since the creation of the original game. Aside from an ill-advised jump into 3d, for which there’s a shuddersome prefix awaiting, I can’t imagine where else Nicalis could take Isaac. Maybe that’s the limits of my own imagination though.
For all of its faeces, flux and fleshiness, I’ve always maintained that there’s a thematic solidity to Isaac that touches upon shame, humiliation and dysmorphophobia. The way in which items fit into those ideas makes them more than buffs and power-ups – items that Isaac associates with shame about his appearance and uncertainties about his body often cause the range and strength of his attacks to increase. That those attacks are in the form of tears lends support to the notion that the foundations of the game are more than toilet humour and messy memes.
Isaac, taught to despise his body and its functions, eventually finds strength where he once felt shame. There’s also a critique of Biblical fundamentalism rather than religion as a whole, with some positive items related to faith in both the Christian God and His opposite number. Isaac’s mother misunderstanding of corruption stems from television preachers, and that she strips and abuses him in an effort to remove sin and contamination only forces him deeper into dirt and violence.
Some of the additions in Afterbirth break whatever thematic cohesion might have existed more than what has come before. Laser-cyborg Isaac doesn’t quite fit with my reading of the game but then, what the hell, maybe it’s just a game about shit, blood and tears after all. And it’s a fantastic example of the form.
The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth is available now.