The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth +

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The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is the de facto roguelike twin-stick shooter by Edmund McMillen and Nicalis. Personally, I have a complicated relationship with the game. It is good as a time waster and while I definitely haven’t spent as much time on it as the experts out there, 220+ hours is still nothing to sneeze at. However, some of the things in the game feel more malicious than actually challenging and the Lost and the Keeper just sucks ass, okay?

Back in January of last year, the last expansion, Afterbirth + (stylized as a cross) was released, adding some more content and official mod support. At the start of May, what is presumably the last big update for the expansion was released and I thought that I should get back in the game and write something about the expansion as a whole.

Launch Stuff

Afterbirth + introduces a new character, Apollyon, who has Void as a starting item. Using Void absorbs the active effects of some items and lets you change passive items into a random stat boost. In the case of the former, you can stack the effects of active items, which can become really useful depending on what you combine. Even if you can’t make the most out of the stacking active stuff, Void still has a practical use in turning bad passive items into something valuable. Oh cool, an item that just gives ten free bombs when you already got a bunch of them, time to turn that into a stat boost. Apollyon is pretty much defined by starting out with this item and is otherwise unremarkable in other circumstances, but he’s an okay character.

The expansion added a bunch of items in, which I have mixed feelings about. There’s some cool items, like the Smelter (which is Void but for trinket items) and Jacob’s Ladder that creates electric connections between your shots and some underwhelming ones like King Baby… who I honestly don’t understand what the practical use for it is. My main problem with items is that there’s already a whole bunch of items in the game already. The item pools are just bloated. It could take a while for you to even see any of the new stuff pop up in an item room, let alone a new item that’s actually good. More content is good, but the opportunities to see that new content is unchanged.

A few new enemies and bosses were also introduced, though some more were added in later updates. At launch, one of the new enemies, stone statues that walk in your face and block shots until all the normal enemies are dead, were incredibly annoying, especially in Greed Mode.  And the two new bosses, Big Horn and the Sisters Vis, were just awful to fight. For whatever reason, Big Horn had damage scaling (more on that later), something normally reserved for the endgame battles, which made fighting him a complete pain. And the Sisters? Fucking nightmares. I actually have a video recorded of how they were like around launch, but I was in a Discord call at the time and ended up recording audio from that, too, so I can’t really show that off, but my friends reading this understand.

These annoyances all ended up getting fixed, but how this stuff was tested and got signed off anyway is beyond me.

The Void

The Void is the new floor added to the game with a new, definitive final boss. Getting there is, uh, frustrating.

There is a random chance for this void to appear after beating any of the final bosses. Allowing yourself to get sucked in will you take you to the Void, but of course, you probably don’t want to spend 30-50 minutes playing for a random chance. The good news is that there’s a guaranteed way to access the Void. The bad news is that you have to beat the bonus boss, Hush, for that.

Getting to Hush is reasonable, just have to get to the entrance to his room within 30 minutes. You get some mercy in a few gifts before you go fight him. However, the actual fight is a pain. You can expect it to be a bullet hell, but even if you’re an expert at dodging, there’s one thing that makes it incredibly tedious, even if you’re really skilled at the game.

And that thing is damage scaling. Part of the Binding of Isaac‘s identity comes from finding cool item synergies that can make you ultra powerful, that makes you the one unleashing bullet hell. But for Hush, the developers didn’t want you having too much fun. Hush gets armor that scales to your damage, so no matter how busted your character build is, a Hush fight will always take a few minutes. The game essentially subverts its identity for the sake of dragging an already difficult fight and it honestly feels like a waste of time. Mega Satan was hard, but at least he respected your time and effort.

If you manage to beat Hush, you finally enter the Void where…

…it’s just a mish-mash of all the potential rooms that shows up throughout the game. Instead of bringing in some unique visuals or introducing new enemies of its own, the game quite literally recycles pre-existing stuff. From a thematic standpoint, it fits, but from any other standpoint, it’s just incredibly lazy and underwhelming.

The music fucking kicks, though.

There are a bunch of boss rooms strewn throughout the floor, giving you some last chances to pick up items. Eventually, you’ll stumble on the room containing Delirium, the true final boss of the game. He has your standard bullet hell stuff, but he can also shift forms into other Binding of Isaac bosses – except now faster. So in essence, Delirium is actually just a harder boss rush. Oh, and he has some forms of damage scaling. Oh yeah, and Delirium also randomly teleports around, so there’s a good chance of him teleporting right into you, which is just good game design. Good luck trying to do this fight as the Lost, the character that dies with one hit.

It’s just not a fun boss battle. I get that getting to the final boss has to be a struggle, but when every step of the way just feels tedious and uninspired, it’s just bad. The fight itself having random teleportation nonsense is genuinely unfair. You could argue all you want that Delirium should be a long fight to make things feel climactic, but there’s no defense for that.

Greedier Mode

So, I actually liked Greed mode in the Afterbirth. If you’re into Isaac for finding cool items and finding neat synergies, Greed Mode is a condensed way to experience that. You don’t have to waste your time exploring maps, you’re just battling wave after wave of enemies while buying items to keep things rolling.

Then again, there’s Ultra Greed, who does the Hush thing of having damage scaling that sucks ass. Still though, a nice condensed version of the Isaac experience. It’s sorta fun, so I was hoping that Greedier Mode, the new hard mode for it, would be fun.

I don’t like it.

So, Greedier Mode has an added wave and a bigger chance of enemies to be upgraded into tougher versions and I was like, “okay, seems fair.” Then it turns out, oh, you also get less money now. If you did all the non-boss waves in one go in the original Greed Mode, you’d get 18 cents. It’s enough to buy an item directly from the shop, maybe a key too if it’s on sale. Doing this in Greedier Mode (with the extra wave, mind you) only nets you 12 cents, so unless you’re lucky enough to get a discounted item in the shop, you’ll be less equipped. And of course, those waves are also harder, so you’re putting up with more with less.

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First form of the final boss

What makes it worse is that the final boss now has a second form, Ultra Greedier, while you’re also likely less equipped than you would be in normal Greed Mode. Ultra Greedier is more absurdly powerful with large radius attacks in a room that’s cramped in comparison to, say, Hush and Delirium’s. Oh, and like his previous form, he still has the garbage damage reduction. So hey, somehow managed to get a good combination of items despite the odds? You got a tedious fight to deal with, buddy.

Unless you have one of the two items out of hundreds that gives explosion immunity, in which case, it becomes a complete cakewalk because almost all of Ultra Greedier’s attacks are explosion-based. So hey, if you get to Ultra Greedier and were lucky enough to get Pyromaniac or Host Hat, you pretty much win. Fantastic game balancing.

Point is, Greedier Mode is just Greed Mode but Bad. I like the concept of the new final boss, but the damage scaling and huge explosion attacks in a comparatively small room is just awful. I sincerely don’t imagine anybody playing Greedier for any reason outside of doing the unlocks.

Also, apparently when Afterbirth + was announced, they planned to add a daily for Greed Mode. Assuming that Nicalis isn’t going to have any surprise non-booster updates, that seems to have gone nowhere, which is actually disappointing because I was actually looking forward to it.

Mods

So, I’m not going to comment too much on mods. I’m not going to give Nicalis credit for allowing people to make mods, especially since Isaac already had a modding scene to before Afterbirth + released (I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time Nicalis took credit for mods). In fact, like mere weeks before the release of Afterbirth +, there was a big fan mod called Antibirth that’s large enough to be an expansion.

On the subject of mods, however…

Booster Packs

So for about a year and a half, Nicalis has been releasing Booster Pack updates, getting together some of the best mods by the Binding of Isaac community and making it official, which is good for console players that would normally be unable to play these mods.

(Which the game apparently did not officially credit until the fourth one but shhhhh)

The Booster Packs introduced new items and quality of life improvements for the game. There’s items like this neat one that gives you a random small version of one of the horsemen bosses to act as a familiar and a door stop that lets you hold the door open when you enter a room in case you need a quick escape. The developers of the previously mentioned Antibirth also apparently joined in for the last two Booster Packs, which introduced new enemies and a whole bunch of new rooms to accommodate them.

Some people give Nicalis grief for only releasing five booster packs when they were originally promised on a semi-monthly basis, but I don’t fault them in this instance. They probably have to test the new stuff with all of their old stuff to make sure it doesn’t break anything and to make sure it works for the console ports, and considering that there’s a lot of stuff already, I’m sure that there’s a lot of testing and tweaking involved with all this.

I’ve been on and off of the Binding of Isaac for a while because of my initial disappointment with the expansion, so I missed out on most of the booster pack stuff. And you know, bloated item pool means it takes a while to see the new stuff. However, I don’t think a lot of it were huge shake-ups to get me invested in the game like I used to be.

The Forgotten

But that’s where The Forgotten comes in. He’s a new character added in with the final booster update and he is significantly different from the other characters.

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So, his whole gimmick is that you’re technically playing as two characters. You have the base form of the Body, who can detach his Soul. As the Body, you use a bone as a melee attack that you can also toss around like a boomerang, so he’s essentially a “true” melee-character unlike Azazel. If the situation calls for ranged attacks, you can switch to the Soul. The Soul is tethered to the Body so you can’t go far – however, the Body can be used as a shield and the Soul starts out with tears that can pass through stuff, so feel free to hide behind your inanimate corpse if you don’t feel like dodging bullet hell.

It’s a really interesting dynamic because both forms are actually really useful depending on the situation. The Body initially carries the duo, though you can switch to the Soul to grab faraway objects (since he could fly, so he’s pretty much the Lost, but not bad). As the game goes more toward bullet hell territory and you have more items, you’ll probably start using the Soul more and hiding behind the Body. However, the Body doesn’t risk getting overtaken in power by the Soul either because his melee attack also synergizes with stuff. Get Polyphemus and the Soul not only gets huge tears, but the Body gets a big fucking club, too. Get Lost Contact and your melee attack can now cancel enemy tears. Pick up Mom’s Knife and the club becomes a cool scythe with longer reach, both forms of the Forgotten becoming fun murder machines.

The Forgotten also runs on an unusual health system. With the Forgotten, the new bone heart system is introduced, with the Body being powered by them while the Soul can only pick up soul and black hearts. Bone hearts can take can take three hits, but if they’re not healed before the third hit, they’re gone forever. They don’t count as red heart damage, so your chances of going to the Devil and Angel Rooms (which are also buffed by Booster Pack updates) are much higher, though only the Soul can get devil deals. This health system actually shifts item getting priorities. With other characters, getting heart containers exists solely to fund devil deals and any item dedicated to dropping red hearts are deemed unimportant as you shift health toward soul and black hearts. Now, however, you want those things to sustain the Body and those items are suddenly viable.

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And like, what really makes me happy about the Forgotten is that he’s the only secret character that feels worth unlocking. The Lost is a one-hit point hell with some benefits. The Keeper just isn’t fun to play and is so unfun that some people would rather play the Lost over him. The Forgotten? The Forgotten is genuinely cool. He’s exciting to play, he has reasonable risks and rewards and brings a new way of playing the Binding of Isaac. I am completely sincere in saying that I think the Forgotten is better than the rest of Afterbirth + combined.

Really, the only thing I hate about the Forgotten is that his unlock method is ridiculous. But then again, it’s not as bad as the Keeper, who takes dozens of hours to unlock without cheating, since you have to deposit 1000 coins into the Greed Mode machine that also has a chance of randomly breaking down for no good reason other than the fact that Nicalis likes to waste your damn time.

Conclusion

The best new part of Afterbirth + is definitely the Forgotten… but of course, that came out almost a year and a half after release. Speaking from a past standpoint, Afterbirth + was underwhelming, with my favorite things being items in an already over-saturated pool of items.

From today’s standpoint, things are better. A bunch of bugs have been fixed, a lot of the bad stuff in the original release has been tweaked, there’s more stuff and as of several days ago, a genuinely fun new character. A lot of the endgame stuff is still fucking unbearable (been trying to go for the Forgotten’s unlocks, lately) and some stuff is still just sort of “eh”, but still, the state of things are better than they were at launch.

My take is that you should play normal Afterbirth stuff to see if getting Afterbirth + would tickle your fancy, since it’s pretty much an extension of that. If you’ve played nothing from the Binding of Isaac, just play the original Rebirth for now. Afterbirth + feels like a hard sell for people that aren’t already invested in Isaac to begin with, especially since most of the new content is “more of the same” or “the same but with more bullshit.” Afterbirth + may arguably be worth it now, but back when it launched, I regretted buying it, even at its discounted price.

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