The RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 23rd: The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth

What is the best expansion pack of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is…

The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth!

Adam: The original release of The Binding of Isaac was one of the first games I reviewed here at RPS. Here’s wot I said, in brief:

For the meagre sum of £3.59 there’s an embarrassing amount of entertainment here. In many ways, it’s a small game. There’s never more than one-screen in play for one thing but every screen has something to offer, whether an ecstatic discovery or a terrible way to die. That’s fundamentally all I ask from a game – fill my screen with something interactive and interesting. It’s a very rare moment when Isaac isn’t doing that. As I was playing, I kept thinking how unlikely it was that this thing exists, in all its deliberate depravity and simple pleasures. I’m extremely glad that it does.

I didn’t expect to be writing about a gargantuan remake four years down the line. Everything that I said back then is still true, the single screen rooms aside, and every element that I loved has been expanded. There are more things to collect, more secrets to discover, more monstrosities to kill and more mutations for Isaac to graft onto his body.

Even though I don’t like to disagree with myself, describing Isaac as “a small game”, in any way, seems a bit daft. I’ll never complete it – no matter how many times I beat the final boss(es) and no matter how much time I spend unlocking new items, after four years I still feel like I’m scratching the surface. And the additions since that original release, culminating in Afterbirth, have increased the number of surface layers as well as digging deeper into the basement (and what lies beneath the basement).

Isaac is a modern classic. There are many games that I love and among those there are a few that I reckon deserve to take a place in my list of desert island discs. If I had ten games to play for the rest of my life, or ten games to plant in a capsule for future generations to learn from and to enjoy, The Binding of Isaac would be one of them. Invisible, Inc. as well, on this particular Calendar. Both are games that I knew I’d love within minutes of loading them up for the first time, and I fully expect both to be just as enjoyable ten or twenty years down the line.

It may have a Greed mode in its latest incarnation, but The Binding of Isaac is an extremely generous game. It won’t waste your time, it won’t punish your efforts and it will consistently reward you simply for spending time in its company. I adore it.

Alice: New items are fairly typical expansion fare, but they come as bigger swords or guns with fancier art and higher numbers. You do the same thing, only now it’s fancier. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a new class with a few new tricks. In Isaac, where every run is different and one item can massively change how you play, additions are a huge deal.

Gosh oh golly, it adds so much. A game I’ve played for over 200 hours feels minty fresh. I still don’t even know what half the new items do, and find runs taking strange and interesting new directions I only figure out once I’m done. Even the new room shapes can make or break runs, with the narrow ones especially trashing runs that might’ve been a breeze in vanilla Rebirth. And new characters. New bosses. New alternate floors. New transformations.

My old strategies, reliable techniques and builds, become obsolete and suddenly I find myself doing the unthinkable. I pick up the awful Experimental Treatment, every time, in the hope that it’ll get me the damage-boosting Spun transformation. I’m even warier of anything that might give me exploding shots – death in these narrow rooms. I’m feeding sacrifice rooms to fight angel statues and get key pieces. Yeah, sure, I’ll even take ranges stat upgrades for weird synergies and chances for other transformations. It’s the Isaac I know and love, only I barely know it anymore. I’m awful again, and it’s great.

The new Greed Mode is pretty fun too, offering 20-minute arcadey runs where you get to fight a load of monsters and create overpowered builds. It skips a lot of the long-term planning and inquisitive bits, but I find myself weeping through a quick round most lunch breaks.

And then Daily Runs! The… Daily Runs I haven’t done nearly enough of. I’m worried, see. If I start competing, as bad as Isaac as I am, it’ll only end badly. I know I’d ruin some of Afterbirth’s mystery by researching around new things to maximise scores. But I adore that they are there and, one day…

Isaac is a Scrabble bag. Shake it, take out a few letters, and see what you can spell. Before you’d come up with some pretty cool words. Now it’s spitting out letters I’ve never even seen, creating words I barely understand – some written in blood.

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

18 Comments

  1. kwyjibo says:

    Fallout 4: snubbed.

    • trashmyego says:

      Not really. Compared to other options from the open world realm, Fallout 4 doesn’t have a place on this year’s best. It’s not a bad game, but it’s anything but groundbreaking or polished. The modern Bethesda formula is showing its shortcomings more and more with each new title. Though the story telling improved some, a majority of it is still wooden and chore-like. Too many games this year did it better.

    • daphne says:

      One can only hope.

  2. unitled says:

    Is Alice lost for words…?

    I loved this, breathed new life into what is already one of my favourite games of all time. A worthy choice!

  3. grrrz says:

    well, I’ve simply taken the decision to stop playing other games, it would be a waste of time not playing isaac.

  4. Fungaroo says:

    Edmund can do no wrong ^_^

  5. ChairmanYang says:

    Somehow, despite loving the original BoI (+Wrath of the Lamb) and playing it for more than 100 hours, Rebirth/Afterbirth lost me. On paper, there’s so much to like.

    In practice, the game feels like an overly punishing, tedious, no-fun-allowed chore to me. Where the old game would occasionally allow the player to get away with overpowered combos and strategies, the new one rarely does. Where the old game added powerful player options to compensate for added difficulty, the new game doesn’t, and instead adds mostly weak fluff. Where the old game felt generous despite its challenge and encouraged experimentation, the new game feels punitive, cheap, and seems to promote reliance on degenerate strategies.

    I think Darkest Dungeon had a similar sort of trajectory for lots of players. Through a slow accumulation of hassle and difficulty, it started to become a worse game. A subset of hardcore players were catered to, and others–like me with BoI–were left behind.

    • Kitsunin says:

      Wow, I’m really not seeing it. Have you been playing on Hard only? I’m quite sure Afterbirth is as difficult as the original on Normal, perhaps slightly easier even, though utterly OP combos may be a smidge rarer simply because there’s more stuff in general.

      As far as being punitive and lacking good options, that doesn’t sound like my experience. Before unlocking It Lives I had managed a 6 win streak on Hard, and I swear I’m not an especially good player.

  6. bambusek says:

    Well, interesting choice. For me, the best expansion of 2015 was Eternal Lords for Age of Wonders 3.

  7. Kitsunin says:

    It really says something that Isaac’s weakest expansion would still be worthy of “Best expansion of the year”.

  8. Vacuity729 says:

    I own the original game and have played it for about 40 minutes total, but wasn’t hugely grabbed by it at the time. At this point, is there any point in buying the Rebirth expansion pack? Looking at the Steam store pages doesn’t make it clear in any way shape or form whether the Rebirth expansion pack has any relevance at all if one buys the Afterbirth expansion.

    • ExitDose says:

      If you hated Rebirth, then I can’t imagine Afterbirth is going to change anything. I’d recommend giving the base game another shot, if after another couple of hours it isn’t clicking, then it’s best just to forget it. However, if you come around on it, then you should absolutely pick up the expansion.

      • Vacuity729 says:

        That’s not quite what I was asking. I mean is there any point in buying the Rebirth expansion? If one doesn’t buy it, and just buys the Afterbirth expansion, what is missed? As far as I can see, nothing, which seems… strange, hence the question.

        • meepmeep says:

          Rebirth is not an expansion, it is a complete remake of the original game (as the name suggests) in a new engine with new graphics, but also has a lot of new content not available in the original.

          Afterbirth is the DLC for BoI: Rebirth, in the way that Wrath of the Lamb was the DLC for the original BoI.

          So you cannot buy Afterbirth without also buying Rebirth, as Rebirth is the base game for which Afterbirth is the DLC.

          • Vacuity729 says:

            Ohhhhhh, I get it now. Okay, thanks for the explanation! I guess I’ll try and set aside time to play the original for a couple of hours to see whether I really like it or not.

        • Viral Frog says:

          I’m not sure why, but I hated the original Binding of Isaac. I got Rebirth as a gift from a friend and it had me hooked. The addition of controller support eliminated that awkward feeling I got from playing with keyboard. And I’m not sure, but I feel like other things had changed, because it has a much better ‘feel’ to it. I have yet to play Afterbirth, but I highly recommend giving Rebirth a go.

          • Kitsunin says:

            It also runs at 60 FPS, is generally more stable, and allows for analogue movement. Those all make huge differences.

  9. bunyoka says:

    Well, for me Afterbirth was the end of playing BoI. Not because it’s bad, nor it has not enough features. It was about the issues when updating to Afterbirth and later no achievements and unlocks were unlocked. No reinstall, no deletion of config file helped and it is a real pain restarting after 200 hours of gameplay…