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The time-tested roguelike ramps up the difficulty in its newest (and most portable) expansion.

Let’s be real here: chances are, you’ve played The Binding of Isaac in some form or another. Whether it was the original release or the expanded Rebirth version, you’ve at least heard of the game. It’s a huge indie success, from one half of the team that developed Super Meat Boy. The little roguelike dungeon-crawler is know a well-known property, and has seen two DLC additions to its Rebirth re-release. The game has stayed amazing, but by adding on so much content, Isaac has made itself a little less accessible to the casual audience.

Dying sucks…but it’s also the funnest part of the game.

Isaac has always followed the philosophy of “easy to pick up, difficult to master,” with great success. You move in four directions, and shoot tears (yes, you play as a crying child) in four directions. You can also nab trinkets, items, bombs, keys, pills, and other goodies to help you in your quest. Isaac does all of this simply to avoid his mother, who has been told by God to kill her son. As such, Isaac illustrates a scary basement from the eyes of a kid, filled with odd Christian imagery and pop-culture references.

While you delve deeper into the depths of your home, Isaac tasks you with killing odd abominations while dodging their attacks. As mentioned earlier, it provides the adequate items to do so, but each room is randomly generated as you play. Maybe you’ll find a cool item on the next floor–then again, maybe you’ll just find the one that makes you pee uselessly.

Despite being a “bullet hell” roguelike, The Binding of Isaac feels so smooth to control and never asks too much of you. “Dodge a few bullets. Kill a few dudes.” That is, until you die, and everything resets. The world rebulds itself anew, and you need to grab new power-ups. Dying sucks…but it’s also the funnest part of the game.

Isaac ceaselessly rewards you for learning the game and getting better. Players learn enemy patterns and random room layouts by playing over and over; however, they’ll also unlock new item drops and bosses.

During your first runs, the game limits the item and enemy pools so that newbies are never too overwhelmed. It saves the crazy stuff for the end: the overpowered stat boosts, the hard-to-hit enemy variations, the screw-you-over-in-a-heartbeat room layouts. As you get better, the game gets harder. It’s the perfect training system; in fact, put an AI in there, and you’ll have a cliché anime war machine in no time.

How many unfair runs will it take for me to have one in which I stand a chance?

I’ve played The Binding of Isaac since its original Flash version, which released in 2011. Granted, I was never amazing at it, but I could get the job done. The same can be said for its updated re-release, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, and its first DLC, The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth. Both editions boasted unique modes, enemies, rooms, bosses, and items, but also kept the difficulty relatively normal for beginners. They were fantastic in every regard.

Afterbirth+ is the newest DLC (and only version available on the Nintendo Switch)–it definitely changes things.

After speaking with a few friends and playing the Switch port a few times, I can truly say that the game feels much harder from the get-go. It doesn’t hand you very many helpful, awesome power-ups, but does throw you into your fair share of cheap rooms designed to kill you quickly. Progressing through a run usually unlocks varied and more difficult enemies for your next play, but rarely gives you new toys to beat them with.

As I said, I knew what I was getting myself into. I can only imagine what it’d be like for someone who’s never played before.

The Binding of Isaac has always been known for its random generation and difficulty, but Afterbirth+ seems to kick these aspects into overdrive. Sure, it adds a new layer of challenge for veterans. But I fear that this update might make things a little too unfair for newbies. Simply put, Isaac is already a game about overcoming the odds and surviving a bullet storm. Was it really a good idea to make it even harder from the outset?

Afterbirth+ adds a ton of unique powerups and fun bosses, and helps the 6 year old franchise feel fresh.

Once players push past the overwhelming odds and unlock extra characters and upgrades, things begin to turn in their favor. That’s when everything gets fun. The Binding of Isaac shines when you can pick up a myriad of unsettling mutations to test how they work together, and how they might fare in combat.

Unexpected runs are arguably the best ones; you discover something new and exciting, or try an item combination you’ve never seen before. It perfectly captures the wonder of playing The Legend of Zelda on the NES, albeit with a grotesque art style. Sadly, in Afterbirth+, the question isn’t always “Will I enjoy the gameplay loop?” but rather “How many unfair runs will it take for me to have one in which I stand a chance?”

Thankfully, the Nintendo Switch lends itself very well to this difficulty spike. Instead of sitting in one spot for hours to hone your skills, The Binding of Isaac can now taunt you anywhere. It becomes the perfect distraction for car trips, plane rides, and wait times between classes. The pixel art pops on the bright, sharp Switch screen. It’s enjoyable and easy to explore this musty dungeon on the go, and all the more rewarding.

The addition of Afterbirth+  doesn’t ruin The Binding of Isaac, but it will undoubtedly causes its fair share of beginner rage quits. That being said, once the game has been “beaten” a few times, enough items and characters open up to let you truly enjoy everything the game has to offer. Afterbirth+ adds a ton of unique powerups and fun bosses, and helps the 6 year old franchise feel fresh. As it always has been, The Binding of Isaac is a seminal experience for the industry that all should play; it just so happens that the game is greater with portability.

The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+
Addictive levels of replayabilityCharm and quirk out the wazooCreative item combinations and unlockablesSharp graphics with responsive controls
Almost unfair difficulty in the early game


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