The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth / Afterbirth
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is the sequel of “The Binding of Isaac”, made by Edmun McMillen and Nicalis. It’s a dungeon crawler, similar to Rogue, that also shares some mechanics with classic The Legend of Zelda dungeons.
Everything great from the first game is here, expanded and polished to perfection. It’s far more than a remake (too much new content and gameplay is tweaked), but indeed it replaces the old game. There is no reason to play vanilla The Binding of Isaac anymore.
For sure this is the masterpiece of Nicalis, a hardcore dark-themed game like no other.
Everything about this game is gameplay.
- Gameplay is a rethinking of The legend of Zelda with Rogue inspired elements:
- Roguelite: roguelike-like random dungeons means that every game is unique. Multiple levels with a boss on every one.
- Many items, some used to discover secret rooms, like in classic Zelda for NES but on a new level.
- Combat is (given some exceptions) ranged (while Zelda was melee too).
- Great replayability: there are hundreds of items and pickups of various types, with many synergies and mechanics. Everything is found across various room types, depending on the level. Everything randomized.
- Story telling is subtle, enigmatic. But there is story. You must replay the game to slowly unveil it.
- There are many playable characters to choose from. Some may be easier if pla
- The sound effects are very good. Background sound track is nice too.
- To success in this game you need luck, skill and knowledge (to play smart and choose best items and asset risk):
- It’s a delicate equilibrium that can quickly ruin a game run. In classic Zelda you can just with with skill, minimum knowledge and zero luck.
- Items play a huge role: using a single key or a bomb, finding an item or even leaving an item can just define the rest of the run, specially during the first levels.
- The game is very reliant on risk-reward mechanics. The best example is the “devil pact”, where the player trades at least a heart container for one devil-pool item (which is usually powerful or potentially useful) but there are more.
- It offers a good variety of weapons to attack the enemy. The normal ranged attack is the tear but here are other ways of dealing damage.
- BoI Rebirth has some special mechanics like spawn pickups (e.g. by using Caffeine Pill, cards and Blank rune), clone room items (space bar items and Jera rune), refill energy (e.g. using pills or batteries), rerolling (e.g. few spacebar items like D6 or D20, Dice Shard consumable and Perthro rune), copycat other item effects (Blank card, Placebo) and stat upgrade (lots of passive items, Void item, Back rune).
- Given the right items and a bit luck, the player can combine those mechanics to duplicate and reroll items ad eternum. This can lead, if done right, to “break the game” and make it ultra-easy to beat.
- The patches/expansions reduced the player capacity of abusing them but it’s still possible.
- The game doesn’t end when you “win” first time. That just open progress to new bosses. The real end boss comes much later.
- Game progression is achievement-driven: perma-death doesn’t mean to lose all progress, as achievements unlock new items, bosses and floor levels. Those take place as the player do certain things with characters or beat bosses.
- It’s a complicated game in the good way. Lots of things to learn, hours to play.
- Co-op mode. This isn’t the strongest point because the coop player is a pet, but there is.
- Game is moddable and there are many mods in Steam.
- Other game modes:
- Greed mode (Afterbirth): an interesting game mode, focused on boss killing and build making by spending coins.
- Challenges and daily missions: the challenges are usually easy-but-fun or just hardcore pre-arranged runs, where the player has to deal with some item synergies or handicaps.
It’s hard to consider the next points as flaws, because those are side effects of randomization. The rest of points are related to expansions, so this is a flawless game for me.
- Gameplay depends a bit too much on luck to get a good build of items. Or, at least, items that don’t suck and rooms/enemies not too annoying.
- Most secret rooms are a bit meh, too random and varied. Zelda secret rooms were interesting or amusing. In this game the secrets are outside secret rooms.
- Some items can slow down the gameplay (e.g. lower tear rate means killing slowly). It’s good to have “bad” items and synergies, but it’s a bit annoying to fall on it.
- Expansions aren’t newbie friendly. There is already a lot of hardcore content in vanilla and expansions complicate things too much for rookies. But expansions are optional, so it’s fine.
- Expansion item pools are too big. Too much boring passive items. That makes harder to get fun synergies.
- The expansion Afterbirth adds some rooms with unavoidable (guaranteed) damage, usually small room and with quick enemies or a explosion. Very unfair to player.
I must add that, even with all random stuff going on, the procedural generation is balanced and it works flawlessly.
Also by design, there is no overworld. The game is meant to be like this. This is a pure dungeon crawler, without the adventure side of exploring an overworld.
Why to play?
Because this is the best top-down roguelite ever done. If you like classic The Legend of Zelda or dungeon crawling, this game is great.
Just don’t expect:
- A RPG game. This really isn’t that. No stat development (you don’t choose, just pick passives), no NPC conversations, there isn’t a narrative or story telling (only end-scenes)…
- A pure rogue-like. Yes, there is perma-death and random dungeons, but there is no role playing (e.g. kick a door or picklock as alternative actions), no RPG/adventure resource management like food, monsters can’t do actions like Isaac, no step turn-based, etc.
The game is published by Nicalis, so if you don’t trust my words, trust them instead. It’s worth your time.
How to acquire
The vanilla game was released for Steam, XBox One, 3DS, Wii U and PS Vita. The game expanded with Afterbirth † is also released for PS4 and Nintendo Switch.
Version / Platform
I’m reviewing vanilla BoI Rebirth for PC (Steam), as Rebirth is probably the game version that’d interest you, but the screenshots are from Steam’s Afterbirth DLC.
There are two official DLCs (up to 2019):
- Afterbirth † (plus)
It’s also worth to note that there is a mod called Antibirth that is very popular and there is demand to be included/released as official.
BoI Rebirth was released in 2014, so after 5 years with 2 official expansion DLCs, what is going to happen? It’s unlikely there will a new sequel/remake, everything seems already done or invented here.
Surprisingly, Edmun McMillen released a “prequel” game called “The Legend of Bum-bo”. Sadly, it’s a puzzle game that is ok but it doesn’t live up to the name “The Legend of” like Isaac.
There is an announcement for a new expansion, The Binding of Isaac: Repentance. From what’s shown in the demo, it seems good. It’s also supposed to include the mod Antibirth, which is great as far as there is a good amount of new content worth to pay a full DLC. Repentance is likely to be the last DLC for BoI Rebirth and the last title on the Isaac dungeon crawling saga. But it’s totally welcome.
Games like Binding of Isaac Rebirth
BoI Rebirth drinks from many game genres so it’s pretty unique. There are other games that share similarities, so let’s consider them:
- The Legend of Zelda (NES). Probably this game is the main inspiration for BoI, as both share some basics. Worth playing it too. There is dungeon crawling but it isn’t roguelite: no randomization and no perma-death.
- Rogue Legacy. A side-scrolling roguelite RPG that is well known. More on the RPG side than BoI Rebirth.
- Ultima Underworld. This isn’t roguelite, but it’s a 2.5D dungeon crawler realtime RPG. If you prefer to replace randomization for a more finely crafted exploration and deeper RPG elements, this is for you. Probably the dungeon crawler I most enjoyed and it has a sequel.
- Diablo. The classic Diablo was an action-RPG with some dungeon crawling. If you like the concept of going down level after level, randomized, but with more RPG and lore (and no perma-death), this might be a good pick. The sequel Diablo 2 is better, of course, but it trades off the pure dungeon crawling by an improved hack&slash gameplay.
- Minecraft. Minecraft has no real differentiation between overworld and underworld and it’s a sandbox action-adventure, not an RPG or a roguelite, but it’s still procedurally generated and there is dungeon crawling.
- Spelunky. Considered the first roguelite, it’s a platformer. This game also inspired BoI and other posterior games.
The Binding of Isaac is one of the best games I ever played. I’m not a big fan of roguelites and perma-death games in general but BoI is an exception for me.
- Lots of passive and usable (space bar key) items! In the hundreds. And there are synergies between many of them: overpowered, fun, ineffective or very bad.
- As in Zelda, there is a pool of (refillable) red health containers. But there are also holy (white), blue and black one-use hearts (those act more like a shield).
- There are utility pickup items: small hearts (to refill health like Zelda), coins (instead of rupees), keys, bombs and batteries (to refill space bar item charges). But also special one-use pickup items: runes, pills and cards (Q key). And trinkets (switchable passive items).
- Items can be found in floor, traded, dropped by enemies or found in chests/sacks (BoI Afterbirth).
- There are secret rooms on almost every level, usually contain money or pickups but, rarely, also items.
- There are also shops and treasure rooms (free item), common on most levels.
- There are other uncommon rooms: arcade (for betting), library, etc.
- The tear is shoot from both Isaac eyes. The weapon can be replaced with a Scythe, various Laser, a plasma ray called Brimstone, etc. All those ranged, but there are Mom’s knife or the Azazel’s Brimstone as melee weapons. It’s also possible to replace just one eye attack by a laser.
- Given the right items, Isaac can spawn blue spiders and flies. There are two types:
- Kamikaze homing missile, meant to attack enemies on short-mid range and die. Those are actually powerful.
- Orbiting invulnerable flies, meant as minor defense but may be used as melee weapon.
- Isaac can have many pets. There are two basic types:
- Orbital pets: those are usually defensive, good at blocking enemy projectiles, but may be used as melee weapons too to kill enemies.
- Follower pets: those are usually offensive pets with a weak ranged attack. There are few exceptions, like Dark Bum, that don’t attack and act as support pets instead.
- Isaac can transform in other “things”. Those transformations can just give passive stats or powers but also attacking capabilities like Gruppy spawning flies.
- Trinkets aren’t used to attack directly, but some affect Isaac tears and even have fun synergies with other weapons like Brimstone.
- Offensive space bar objects: many objects are directly offensive but those usually need to recharge after one use.
- Bombs: bombs can be used offensively as do a ok damage, but they’re too useful for finding hidden stuff. The are amazing synergies with other items, so it can be actually very powerful. And indispensable when Isaac can’t use tears.
If you want to know everything about this game, the best place you can look is the Wiki.