We never reviewed The Binding of Isaac back when it first launched in 2011, nor when it was subsequently re-released and updated with expansions in the years that followed. Therefore, when we were offered the chance to take a look at the newly released version of the game on Nintendo Switch, we decided to right that wrong and give Nicalis and Edmund McMillen's macabre roguelike shooter some proper attention.
We're certainly glad that we did, because The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth + is, all told, an exceptional video game, and we've had a thoroughly enjoyable time in its company this last couple of weeks. This new version of the game that we've been playing in our spare time has revealed itself to be a remarkably deep and wonderfully variable roguelikian experience. Thanks to several updates made during the intervening years between that first launch and this one, adding new enemies and items to the mix and keeping things fresh in the process, The Binding of Isaac has evolved into one of the best games of its type, and it's one that we'd heartily recommend to anyone who thinks they can stomach it.
The "it's not for everyone" tag is being slapped on Isaac's pink backside for two reasons. One the one hand this is one of the grimiest, nastiest, most absurdly offensive games that we've ever played. On the other, permadeath mechanics and an initial difficulty spike or two will test your resolve to the limit. It would be easy to bounce off this top-down dungeon crawler turned shooter and move onto something flashier, something more relaxing, but those who wade through the waves of excrement and the bloody tears of demonic fetus-shaped creatures will be rewarded with one of the most surprising and fulfilling roguelikian experiences that money can buy.
There's a troubling story that frames the action. Isaac is a baby, yet his mother decides to expel him from the house, banishing him to the basement where all manner of deadly things lurk. With little in the way of physical fortitude, and with nothing but his own salty tears to protect him, this wide-eyed bambino must venture further down into the depths, exploring each floor until the exit is found and its gruesome guardian defeated.
If that's all there was to it, The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth + would be a limited game with little in the way long-term appeal. However, thanks to a huge array of items and weapons, many of which can complement each other in new and interesting ways, it's far from limited, and even after many, many hours spent in its company, it still has the ability to dazzle you with something outrageously and disgustingly original. Just as soon as you think you've got its measure, this game will turn the rules by which you've been playing on their head and once again you'll have to scramble to find a solution before the increasingly dangerous enemies you meet overwhelm your best efforts.
The enemy designs are so grim they're delightful. You can tell that these are the constructs of a twisted mind. The art style - which looks great on the Switch's small screen - looks like something out of a school notebook, the kind of private tome where the imagination is left to run riot in strange and borderline perverse ways. The world is equally unsettling, littered as it is with both piles of literal shit and environmental dangers there to test your focus during the most frantic moments.
Isaac - or any of the other characters you unlock as you play - fires tears at his in enemies, and these watery projectiles can be enhanced in a number of ways via the items waiting to be discovered in the world. At times the action borders on bullet hell, with enemy attacks coming from all sides while Isaac dances this way and that, avoiding damage as best he can. It's challenging, at times punishing, but once you find the groove even the limited four-directional shooting starts to feel natural and you adapt. You'll need to, especially during the boss battles, which can be very tricky, particularly when you get closer to the final dungeon and where early bosses are reworked to make them more potent.
Forget the brilliantly disturbing art and the pulsating combat, it's the sheer variety in terms of items and weapons that steals the show. There are so many different things to pick up along the way, and so many of them are game-changing. It makes for a constantly evolving experience that's fresh nearly every time you play, and as you descend deeper into the basement and find even more items, the combinations can end up being brilliant. From time to time you might even stumble across a selection of things that come together to make you hideously over-powered, but even then the difficulty will eventually rise to the point where there's still a genuine challenge, and there's always one boss that perfectly counters your brilliant build.
The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth + offers unparalleled depth when compared to its more casual peers, and you have to look to the community of hardcore purist roguelikes to find something that offers the same sense of freedom. The game's biggest flaw is the lack of transparency in certain areas, and better descriptions for items would be helpful, as your options are either to leave the game and conduct some research, or experiment on the fly in a game that's already pretty high stakes. That aside, we find it hard to fault this brutal and bloody shit-filled top-down shooter. Maybe some of you will baulk at the price, as we did at first, but after a few hours, this criticism will fade to black as a result of the richness of the experience and the dizzying amount of variety waiting to be discovered more than justifies the price.