Wot I Think – The Binding Of Isaac: Afterbirth

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.

44 Comments

  1. metric day says:

    I keep finishing a run, closing it… staring at the monitor… launching it again. Such an addictive game with so much more depth than an initial glimpse notices.

    • Monggerel says:

      Curiously enough, that’s exactly what it was like to be a chain smoker.

      • Monggerel says:

        No it wasn’t. But I get fucking pissy when buzzwords (like “buzzword”) are thrown around like we’re just PEOPLEOID ASSEMBLY LINES BREAKING OUR BACKS LIFTING MOLOCH TO HEAVEN

        • metric day says:

          So an addiction is like an addiction? Thanks for the update.

  2. welverin says:

    Alice too busy playing the game to tell us what she thinks, or is she too biased?

  3. NoImFartacus says:

    I’m actually slightly underwhelmed. It’s vastly more chaotic now – which makes it much more of a hodgepodgy game and the music is a quite a step back from that of Rebirth.

    • grrrz says:

      I actually find the new tracks to be better over the default ones in Rebirth.

  4. vorador says:

    In the original release, you could see all the items after a few dozen runs. In this one, it’s likely you won’t see them all even after a hundred hours of play. It’s absolutely massive.

    The only drawback is the music. In my opinion, is much weaker than the original release.

  5. mukuste says:

    Wait, this is not in Flash anymore? Does this mean it doesn’t feel so laggy and clunky anymore?

    The main reason I never got into the original was just how unsatisfying the moment-to-moment movement and combat felt due to this issue. If this improved, it would be worth a second look.

    • Procrastination Giant says:

      Nope, it’s been running in its own engine since they released Rebirth – Moving on from Flash and porting it to an engine that actually supports Edmund’s original vision was actually the main point behind Rebirth’s developement.

      Rebirth is super slick, smooth and very polished for the most part. It runs at stable 60fps even with the craziest combination of items and comes with perfect controller support out of the box – with analogue movment and all that jazz.

      • Kitsunin says:

        Analogue movement was such a lovely addition. I miss the old music, but in every other way Rebirth really was a dazzlingly lovely step ahead (even the old music isn’t terribly missed since you were likely to hear it so, so, so many times with how ridiculously replayable Isaac is)

      • Jackablade says:

        Afterbirth feels like it has an even higher frame rate than Rebirth. Maybe it’s illusory, but everything feels just a little bit smoother.

        • noom says:

          I thought it seemed smoother as well. I’m running on a 144Hz monitor so maybe it’s running upward of 60 now. That’s just a guess though.

      • mOrs says:

        Coded in C++ iirc.

  6. caff says:

    I’ve played both the original flash and this version, and it doesn’t seem to click with me. I love the dark themes and feel of it all, but the action is so old skool arcadey bullet hell, it puts me right off.

    I can see why people love it though.

    • grrrz says:

      This was my inital reaction. then You get hooked to the rich up to the point of being silly item interaction mechanism. then you get better at it.

  7. SuperDion says:

    Do we get an update later down the lane about greedmode, or is it just up to the fantasy gods?
    And coop. Can anyone tell me about the coop. Is it any good? Did someone try the coop. Heard it was punishing

    • Kitsunin says:

      Greed mode is pretty fun, I have to say. It feels like the whole experience distilled into a gauntlet mode, with a bit of an extra risk-reward flair drizzled on top.

      Incidentally, I got 3 flies + BFFs and literally won it on my very first try. Which feels kind of bad, actually. I was hoping to work for it.

      • Jackablade says:

        Yeah, my biggest complaint at this point is that Greed mode could be a lot more difficult. I think I’ve got about a 33% success rate at this point.

  8. noom says:

    Loving this expansion so far. Just found a new level which I think is a new ultimate boss and good god was it difficult.

    Got that Midas touch & E-coli combo you mentioned once. In addition, I had the gnawed leaf, blood penny trinket, and whatever the thing’s called that lets you spend money to do room damage. If you can’t get your head round all that, I could basically walk into a room, stand still, turn everything into gold poos, then get about 5 hearts back from taking all the money. That was on the occasions that I didn’t just spam the room damage item to spend 10 or so pennies to clear the room straight away.

    Amusingly though, that build was pretty much useless against bosses, so I actually didn’t complete the run :(

  9. Abattoir says:

    “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.”

    And in the game?

  10. BluePencil says:

    I’ve never played but have watched a few games of this and the earlier versions. Can someone tell me if you can find out what items do as you play or do you have to go to a wiki and/or do a lot of “science”? Is there an in-game way to find out what an item does when you’re in the middle of a run?

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      Lexx87 says:

      No, but that’s kind of the point. The fun is in collecting it and seeing crazy effect it has.

    • Procrastination Giant says:

      If you want to know what an item does before picking it up you’d have to visit the wiki, since there’s no list of items that has an explicit description. There are also a lot of items with pretty vague on-pickup descriptions or side effects that aren’t immediately obvious, so some science-ing is required, but most items are rather easy to figure out or downright say what they do on pickup. And i’d argue that “figuring things out” is pretty much what the game is about anyway and it’s at its best when it throws an item at you that you haven’t seen before. Unlike something like Minecraft or Terraria you really don’t need to use the wiki.

      And despite the ridiculously large list of items it’s actually remarkably easy to keep track of what most items do once you’ve used them a couple of times and it’s also pretty easy to remember which items might have run-ending consequences in particular combinations once you’ve encountered them at least once. (And early runs only last 20 minutes or so anyway, so even if you do pick up an item that messes with your build it’s not the end of the world, really)

    • Artiforg says:

      I tend to have the cheat sheet open when playing. For the majority of items you tend to remember but there’s the odd occasion where there’s something you don’t know or haven’t had enough that you need to look up.

    • bunyoka says:

      You can quickly find info of each item in this site platinumgod.co.uk/rebirth
      Well it’s only useful for rebirth not afterbirth, but I think around 66.6% of them exist in the later as well.

  11. namad says:

    one factual mistake here: afterbirth did not add larger rooms, that’s something rebirth added. Rebirth added 2×1 1×2 and 2×2 sized rooms. Afterbirth added skinny rooms, tiny rooms, and L shaped rooms.

  12. ephesus64 says:

    Thanks, I appreciate the second to last paragraph. I’m glad to know that it contains even the smallest balance in its critique of certain aspects of religiosity, rather than what I feared it was. When I first saw Binding of Isaac, I was suspicious that it would just be a “statement” game, a vulgar, purposefully blasphemous stream of vitriol directed at all religion and Christianity in particular, wrapped around a video game. I didn’t have time or funds to investigate it myself, but maybe it’ll turn up on a GOG sale soon and I can form my own opinions. Does sound a bit relentlessly gross, but whatever.

    • Babymech says:

      There’s no defense of religiosity in the game, and if you play games based on their support of faith, you’re wasting your free time on the wrong hobby.

      Many of the symbolically Christian items in the game give you advantages, but they’re always sacrilegious in the bigger picture. The Bible is a powerful power-up that helps you beat the ‘first final boss’ but so is the Necronomicon, and the Bible is useless in your subsequent quest to murder Satan and the True God(s). It’s primarily good for murdering your mother.

      And the game is relentlessly, inventively, appropriately, entertainingly, cleverly, splendidly gross. Thank god for that.

  13. DD says:

    “Laser-cyborg Isaac doesn’t quite fit with my reading of the game”

    The lasers were in the original game so I don’t think that’s a good example.

  14. CurseYouAll says:

    If you are into roguelikes, Isaac is probably the best in the genre.

    Afterbirth is an amazing update, the only thing I miss from the original flash version from 5 years ago is the music by Danny Baranowski – much more memorable than the one in the newer version.

  15. Wowbagger says:

    Any game that inspired Mansaac is glorious in my book.

  16. Stevostin says:

    It’s really exotic for me to read that thread. I understand, on an intellectual level, that some people really find interest to this but I can’t connect in the slightest. It’s gameplay challenge without “you win” validation (I picked “beating mum” as “you win” but I understand for some silly reason in the mind of the designer it was just a start). Recombination was mainly just that and in consequence just as interesting as watching dice rolls. There was a bit of challenge in the adaptation sometimes but rarely (which was a mandatory constraint of gameplay – you nearly always should be reasonably able to get through a room for the game to be worth playing. As a result, loose gameplay.)
    Also, gameplay alone rarely captivate me for very long.

    • Kitsunin says:

      How is the “you win” validation not present? Because for a while, the goalpost moves each time you get it? Because that’s completely different than it not being present.

      It makes a huge amount of sense to me. When you first play, even reaching mom is a huge challenge, so when you beat her and get an ending, you get the wonderful catharsis of a victory well earned. When you start again, the new final boss is yet another huge challenge, and so on and so forth. By pacing things this way, you reassure the player that they are winning, and that even if they die in the new area, they’ve still gone beyond that goal they once thought insurmountable! If Satan (etc. etc.) were the final boss from the get-go, you’d have an overwhelming experience the player can do little more than chip away at. If mom were always the final boss it’d be too short and too easy for an experienced player.

    • grrrz says:

      You have to pick for yourself where winning the game ends and OCD begins. I’m satisfied with the fact I played every end, and won’t obsess with unlocking every item and doing every end with every character. The theme of obsession is fully integrated in the them of the game. The idea is going for it again and again, and you pretty much win when you stop playing the game.

    • Minsc_N_Boo says:

      Have you played any other “Rogue-like” games? Or something like Diablo?

      These games are designed to be replayed over and over. The enjoyment for me comes in how each play through is different. As Kitsunin said, the game unlocks more items and levels as you get better at it. For me this adds to the replay value.

      This is a classic game, like the arcade games or early console titles, where you play it for the shear enjoyment of playing. Now the industry norm is to finish in 5-10 hours, see the cut scene and move onto the next AAA game

      I know what I prefer.

    • Nevard says:

      I can understand the sentiment, but the game does actually present some rather clear completion goals.
      Each character has a “post-it note” displayed on the character select screen, that gains a mark every time you achieve a significant goal (black if completed on normal mode, red if completed on hard). If you’re a completionist, filling the whole page for every character gives you definite things to aim for.

  17. MikoSquiz says:

    The thing that always leapt out at me thematically: becoming more powerful also makes you more deformed and visibly corrupted.

  18. keenblade says:

    I want to like it so much – it should hit all of my “wants” from a Rogue-like but the aesthetics/theme I just can’t gel with.