The Binding of Isaac: Repentance – a novice’s take

“Isaac and his mother lived alone in a small house on a hill.” This line is the start of a game that became the gold standard for indie roguelikes. Isaac, even years later, continues to wander around a horrible, symbolic, randomly generated underworld. However, will Isaac’s journey finally come to an end?

The Binding of Isaac: Repentance is the latest expansion to The Binding of Isaac, and may actually be its last expansion. And honestly, it better be the last expansion because this game absolutely feels like a finale to a huge game built up over the years.

So, a long time ago I wrote about the Afterbirth+ expansion and how it was kinda underwhelming at launch. Well, the sting from that was mitigated by a lot of fans because around the same time, some fans released a fan expansion: Antibirth.

Besides the usual new items and enemies that would be expected from a fan expansion, Antibirth went above and beyond by creating a whole alternate game path. Antibirth introduces a bunch of unique new levels to counter the canon ones, all with their own unique enemies and bosses, ending with a whole new intense final boss. Antibirth was an impressive bit of fan content, to the point that a lot of people preferred it over the canon expansion (at least in its initial iteration).

Unlike other certain companies that like to take down fan games, the creators of Isaac decided to do the best possible thing: canonize it. And so, The Binding of Isaac: Antibirth ended up becoming the centerpiece of Repentance, bringing over its many new ideas while mixing in some original stuff, and I can easily say that this is the best expansion for Isaac.

So, let’s start out with Antibirth‘s alternate path. In exchange for resources you find, you can diverge from the main path to Antibirth‘s original content. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m used to the normal route content, but the alt path stuff feels like a hard mode path. A large part of it is that the new enemies bring new behaviors previously unseen in Isaac. You got flies that orbit around you while firing inward, you got enemies that spit little bomb flies, you got an annoying melee enemy that attacks with a whip. Going down the alternate path provides a fresh experience for fans of Isaac (unless they already played Antibirth, I guess) that really shakes things up.

The bosses are also more fun because some of them bring completely unique tricks to the fight. Like there’s Hornfel, a funny little guy that rides around in a minecart in an arena filled with railroad tracks, tossing bombs and summoning more threats down the tracks. Then there’s also the Siren, who’s a unique threat in that she can charm any familiar you have to use as a weapon against you. Sure, these fights are harder, but they’re hard because they present new challenges instead of just being arbitrarily hard, so they’re genuinely enjoyable.

The alternate path is also home to a lengthy sidequest that leads to a whole new final boss. It, uh, feels kinda tedious, if I have to be honest. And apparently, the final boss is arbitrarily harder compared to her original incarnation because they shrank the size of her room to make it harder to dodge her attacks for some reason? It’s still a neat thing though, and really, the original Antibirth team should be commended for the stuff they brought to the table.

Is there any reason to go on the alternate path if you aren’t gunning for it’s alternate final boss? Actually, yes. Treasure rooms on the alternate path now present two items, with one of them being obscured. It may actually be worth taking the chance of getting the obscured one if the known one is particularly bad. It’s actually kinda nice because it somewhat addresses my problem with The Binding of Isaac as a whole in that item pools are bloated despite the opportunities to get new items remaining about the same.

But, item bloat is still somewhat of an issue. According to the wiki, more than 130 items were added into the game. Sure, a fair amount of them are probably unlockables, but still, good luck actually getting to use the new stuff when they’re lost in Isaac‘s pre-existing pool. In the past two weeks alone, I played 20 hours and I’ve only seen this handy 4.5 Battery item once despite always visiting the shops when I can. In fact, the item bloat becomes glaring when trying to unlock the Planetarium. The Planetarium was a unique room in Antibirth that unlocked when you collected three items related to astrology, which becomes way way harder in this game due to the existing bloat.

And it’s a shame because there’s a lot of neat new items available. There’s the Member Card, which opens a second, more expensive shop that offers a greater variety of items. There’s the Ocular Rift, which gives tears a chance to open up a void that sucks enemies in toward it. There’s the Intruder, a fun little guy that has the chance of bursting out of your character’s head when they take damage to chase enemies around and shoot at them. And some of the new trinkets are actually really nice finds worth keeping. There’s a lot of cool ideas, it’s just that it could be a while before you see any of them.

But, well, enough about items. How about those new characters?

One of the new characters is Bethany, a holdover from Antibirth. She starts out with an item called Book of Virtue. When it’s used, it creates a wisp that orbits around her and fires smaller tears. The wisp gets destroyed if it bumps into an enemy, though you can create as many wisps as possible. Unlike Apollyon, Bethany isn’t defined by her starting item in that she has a mechanic unique to her where instead of acquiring Soul Hearts, those hearts are stored away and can be used as extra charges on her current item.

It seems underwhelming at first… until you pick up another active item. The Book of Virtues combines with that item, generating wisps whenever that item is used. Additionally, any wisps generated from this will take on special characteristics based on the item used. And so, the game’s balance shifts toward acquiring lower quality items that happen to have short charge times, allowing Bethany to amass a huge wisp army and encourages experimentation to find items that best fits the wisp playstyle. I particularly had a fun run with the Dead Sea Scrolls – an item that I would never normally use – as its low charge time and randomized effects wound up giving me a small bizarre army that helped take down Mega Satan.

Bethany offers a genuinely interesting new playstyle for Isaac that veterans may appreciate. She’s one of those characters that takes some effort in building up, but when you get the ball rolling, she can be a fun killing machine.

Then there’s Jacob and Esau.

So. I’ve been saying that Antibirth/Repentance has a lot of cool ideas. Jacob and Esau is not one of those. So if the name doesn’t tip you off, you’re actually controlling two characters simultaneously. On paper, this seems good because you have double the firing power. They can also each individually hold different active items and consumables, allowing you to access more things to use.

But then you remember, oh right, this is a bullet hell game and now you have two hitboxes. Epic. Well, just have to keep them together, right? Oh, except if one of them gets stuck on something they can easily get misaligned, so unless you’re really good at multitasking, one of them is bound to get hit by something before you realign them. Oh right, and they have separate health bars despite the fact that one of them dying is an instant loss, so unless you’re good about distributing health between the duo, the one with lower health winds up feeling like a liability (usually Esau).

Additionally, when getting items, only one of them can take an item, which means that taking the safer, normal path will leave them weaker than a standard character unless you let one of the duo take all of the items – which essentially just leaves the other to be a walking hitbox. Now, that problem can be solved if you take them on the alternate path because you can actually grab both item pedestals simultaneously with them, but then again, you’d be dealing with a harder floor with harder characters.

Ultimately, I would rather play The Lost – the guy that dies in one hit – over Jacob and Esau, because at least I’m only worrying about one fragile hitbox instead of two. In fact, it helps that Repentance also buffed The Lost to make his “take one free hit per room” item an innate ability. I just feel that Jacob and Esau don’t fundamentally work well in a game like this and aren’t very fun to play as a result. Like, if I wanted to have a character with double the FPS, I can just achieve that with Lilith and her default Box of Friends items.

But those aren’t the only new characters. With that, let’s finally talk about the other new ending. This is a path that’s completely original to Repentance and it’s a path that acts as a definitive conclusion for Isaac.

Following the true ending route, the game’s story is pushed to the forefront. Now, a lot of people clearly don’t play Isaac for the story, but the bits of story that’s there informs a lot of the game’s elements. Based off the original biblical story of Isaac, Isaac fears of being murdered by his parent (his mom, in this case), who became a huge evangelical in light of her divorce. From there, the story becomes muddied, with endings implying a lot of different things about Isaac. Isaac could become demonic, proving his mom’s beliefs or symbolically showing that he’s giving into those beliefs. This also ties into his own increasingly clear belief that he blames himself for his family falling apart, seeing himself as a monster that ruined everything. Isaac may be implied to be trans in some way with some between level cutscenes and the characters he dresses up as (especially Eden), which may provide another reason for him to fear his mom’s fundamentalism.

Whatever the case, all endings lead to the previously definitive ending of Afterbirth+: Isaac locked himself into a chest and suffocated himself out of guilt for the destruction he believed he caused, with the entire game implied to be a dying dream.

And then you find Dad’s Note and you’re guided to go back through every floor you went through. In going back, Isaac remembers the arguments between his parents, loudly playing over the now distorted background music. In doing so, he remembers that he’s not responsible for his dad leaving the family and that he didn’t ask for his mom’s abuse. His parents were flawed people that fought and just couldn’t gel with each other.

That said, it’s implied that Isaac’s mom is still genuinely abusive to an extent, with the ending for the alternate path depicting her throwing Isaac in a closet for his view of her as a monster. And that fact becomes significant when you reach the new final level, Home. This is where you can unlock the special Tainted characters, who are alternate variations of the characters you’re familiar with that look fucked up and broken, found in a side room that can effectively just be a closet. More on them later.

In coming to terms with the reality of what actually happened, Isaac faces the symbolic representation of the televangelist preaching that changed his mother and warped his own self-image: Dogma. Dogma is a staticy being attached to a television screen, and upon being detached for its second phrase, becomes a biblically accurate angel that starts shredding through Isaac. It’s actually a pretty intense battle, especially when the music becomes accompanied by angry, passionate preaching on the second phase. For me, it’s downright cathartic to beat down the representation of fundamentalist preaching.

After defeating Dogma, Isaac is granted flight to fight the true final boss, a giant monster called the Beast, who’s accompanied by superpowered versions of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. As if to yell at you that “this is the final boss, for real this time, we promise,” the game’s perspective shifts to that of a 2D shmup. It’s a really cool effect, though it doesn’t necessarily work perfectly; any item that works on a Z-axis feels wonky in the new perspective, builds that rely on spiders and creep become near useless, etc. That said, the Beast and the Horsemen provide a genuinely great final battle that also feels completely fair. It’s a far cry from Delirium, who was essentially a glorified boss rush that can also telefrag you (and he unfortunately still does, cool).

In defeating the Beast, Isaac dispels the self-image of himself as a monster and finally ascends to heaven, seeing his life go backwards… and then the story stops. Isaac’s dad, who’s been implied to have been the narrator of the game, asks Isaac if that’s how he wants things to end. And together, they start a new story: “Isaac and his parents lived in a small house on the top of a hill…”

The ending of the game can say two things. If read literally, The Binding of Isaac may have been a story of a kid coming to terms with his parents’ divorce and setting his sights on a happier story. If read symbolically, Isaac is dead, but he finally finds peace with a vision of his father telling him a comforting story as he passes on. Or heck, maybe it could be both and Isaac being told stories by his father is his own personal heaven. Either way, The Binding of Isaac ends on a surprisingly emotional note and combined with its stellar final bosses, Repentance acts as a great definitive ending for a series that’s existed for nearly 10 years.

And the game doesn’t end there. Besides the self-imposed goal of beating every big boss with each character, there are now those Tainted variants. Now, the Tainted characters may look fucked up and miserable, but they’re hardly alternate costumes. Each character has a completely unique mechanic inviting different playstyles. They are pretty much new characters, essentially doubling the playable cast. Tainted Isaac can only pick up eight passive items, but he’s offered more choices to choose from, encouraging you to figure out optimal builds. Tainted Magdalene has constantly draining health, but she does powerful contact damage as lethal hugs and every enemy drops quickly disappearing hearts to accommodate her playstyle. Tainted Jacob and Esau… are apparently more agonizing than their normal counterparts. I fear the day I actually unlock them. Jacob and Esau, don’t interact.

Personally, my favorite is Tainted Cain, who may be the most unusual character out of the bunch. Do you like crafting systems? Guess what, Isaac has one now. Cain can no longer pick up items on pedestals, as they’re instead converted into pick-ups. Cain can swipe pick-ups into a bag, and upon being filled, the bag can generate a new item. If you look up the possible recipes, you can easily break this game in half. I know somebody that’s somehow managed to accomplish dozens of hours of progress in one run solely because of her nuts min-maxing of Cain’s system that allowed her to switch between characters and reset runs as she pleased.

On one last note, there’s now a revamped co-op option. I’ve never touched co-op myself, but looking at the old co-op, it sounds kinda underwhelming. Originally, a second player would just control a separate baby that couldn’t really collect items and was essentially just supporting fire (barring special effects certain babies had). Repentance however allows for “true” co-op with a second player controlling a proper separate character. Items still need to be split up between both players… but also bosses now drop two items to accommodate the number of players? Both players have separate health and you don’t lose if one of them dies? Yo, if you wanted the joy of tearing stuff up with two characters, why would you ever play Jacob and Esau when you could hang out with a friend and play co-op?

It goes without saying that Repentance is a must-have if you’re an Isaac fan, but as somebody that became jaded on Isaac, I genuinely like it. The Binding of Isaac: Repentance is a pretty fantastic expansion and is a great conclusion to the series. Barring Those Two Characters, my biggest issues with the game are mainly problems with Isaac as a whole. This is a game that I’m willing to visit every so often, and I’m sure that it’ll provide hundreds of hours of entertainment for the roguelike diehards out there.

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