The Binding of Isaac is a hauntingly beautiful, disgusting yet addictive roguelike experience. This game genuinely creeps me out, but not because it’s actually scary. The game is uniquely dark, featuring heavy biblical undertones and demonic creatures throughout the game. These themes are based on real religious ideas and stories, like the seven deadly sins, the four horsemen, and even Satan himself. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was wonderfully disturbing, and horrifyingly addictive. Its newest expansion, Afterbirth, deepens the eerie experience of Isaac tenfold, improving your journey through the basement in every way fathomable.
For Cody Orme’s thoughts on the core game, check out his review.
Part of the beauty of The Binding of Isaac is the “I wonder what else is out there” feeling of exploration and discovery. Each journey through the basement would be unique to others due to the randomization of enemies, bosses, and the hundreds of items present in the base-game. Afterbirth adds 120 new items to the already extensive list, plus new level variations for each floor type, a ton of new and altered bosses and enemies, new characters (But shh, one is secret), new character mutations, and a brand new way to experience Isaac: Greed Mode, which I personally believe is the perfect way to learn how to optimize the infinite combinations of items and consumables.
Greed Mode is, in my opinion, the best way to improve at The Binding of Isaac. By no means is it easy, but it strips the regular Isaac experience down to a straightforward survival mode. In Greed Mode, players survive against ten waves of enemies per floor, which is perfect for honing combat skills and memorizing enemy attack patterns to better avoid damage—a crucial skill for any Platinum God-to-be. Greed Mode consists of only a handful of rooms, each featuring an assortment of helpful items. Each floor has just one room for Isaac to take on the horde of demonic creatures and small, annoying poops, and upon defeating each wave, players will earn a handsome amount of pennies that can be splurged in the shop attached to each floor. I hadn’t spent quite as much time with Rebirth as I would have liked due to the intimidating difficulty the game is known for. Afterbirth’s Greed Mode was the perfect way for me to practice, because after each wave of enemies I would be able to purchase new items to help me take on the foes to come. Experimentation is encouraged and necessary in Greed Mode, and it’s more easily accessible than ever due to the vast selection of items in the shop. Within one or two (dozen) tries, I found myself face-to-face with the Ultra Greed, one of the toughest bosses Afterbirth has to offer, and the kingpin of Greed Mode. Despite certain failure, my numerous attempts and masterful collection of items gave me the edge I needed to complete Greed Mode, unlocking more items and content in the process.
The best part of all the new content is how it seamlessly intertwines with the already existing world of Isaac. Greed Mode isn’t hidden in a sub-menu or separately categorized, it’s right there under Hard Mode. One of Afterbirth’s new characters, Lilith, fits right in with the rest of the cast as if she was always there. Afterbirth doesn’t just plop a massive amount of content on top of Rebirth, it mixes the content in with the original so you’d never tell the difference.
New floor variants and layouts introduced in Afterbirth make the crawl through Isaac’s basement feel more fluid and natural. Each themed floor has its own unique feel, with different enemies, soundtracks and hazards. Each room can be one of the many new layout variations, from long narrow rooms to small, box-like chambers. This makes the basement feel like an actual dungeon, rather than moving from one uninspired square room to the next. Some of the new room layouts also introduce puzzle mechanics, forcing players to solve a deadly puzzle before they can proceed. My least favourite example of the new puzzle rooms is the unforgivingly difficult spike rooms. They’re not my least favourite due to poor design or unfairness; I actually hate them because they’re the opposite. They’re simple in theory: sections of the floor will have spikes that shoot up at certain intervals, and the only way to stop them is to hit the switches scattered across the room. The thing is, I would psyche myself out too much and fumble, causing my character to walk over spikes multiple times. If the spikes weren’t my downfall, they would have weakened me to a point where surviving the next room was near impossible. Couple that with annoying, invincible ball-guys (name pending) shooting at you, and you have a refreshing yet blood-boiling way to shake things up in the dungeon.
Actually, let’s run with “refreshing, yet blood-boiling”. While a plethora of new hazards, enemies and bosses certainly do their part in reinvigorating the Binding of Isaac experience, some of them are so mind-numbingly, unfairly difficult that it was hard not to just stick my PS4 in the oven and set it to broil. Seriously, some bosses just kick the life out of you in seconds, leaving you at the game over screen before you can say “Oh God, it’s behind me!” This was especially true with a certain end-game boss, and although I won’t kiss and tell, he’s a total jerk; spawning hordes of enemies and healing himself faster than I can take his health down.
The Binding of Isaac has never been an easy game, and Afterbirth certainly intensifies the difficulty of the original, for better or worse. Afterbirth introduces a level of hatred and frustration in a “go ahead and cry about it, maybe you’ll do more damage” manner, and the content it brings is the pinnacle of what DLC should be: extremely high quality equaled by its quantity. Afterbirth is basically a love letter to the base game, introducing items and mechanics that perfectly entwine themselves with the main game to improve and compliment the already unforgettable experience that is The Binding of Isaac. If you liked Rebirth, you’d be doing yourself a major disservice by not treating yourself to Afterbirth.