The Binding of Isaac is a popular rogue-like/rogue-lite indie game, and is probably the pinnacle of the modern iteration of the genre. The series has been extremely successful, with the original flash game being ported to Steam, and later gaining an expansion, Wrath of the Lamb. This was further expanded on with a remake of sorts, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, an expanded version of Wrath of the Lamb. Then came the previous expansion, Afterbirth. All of these expansions have been positively received, but with Afterbirth+ seeming to be the final expansion, does it have the same level of quality?
The biggest selling point of Afterbirth+ was the official mod support. Unfortunately, I am not exactly experienced enough to actually comment on them in educated fashion. Going by the thriving nature of the mod workshop (built into Steam), the tools are clearly usable, but I do hear complaints about it. There does not seem to be any clear examples of instructions, especially when it comes to setup. Because of this the inexperienced may have trouble setting the tools up. Upon actually doing so, it seems as if the tools are not that great. As previously stated, I’m not knowledgeable about modding, so I cannot really talk about this conclusively or in-depth.
The newest character, Apollyon, is a great addition to the roster. Apollyon has lacklustre statistics, but starts with an item called Void. It is unique being that the item can suck up found items. Active item effects are added to Void. Hence, whenever Void is used, all of the collected effects will be used. Passive items are absorbed, but instead of granting the effect, a statistical change. It’s very similar to an item reroll, except you have to commit to the reroll. Passive items will make random minor stat changes, acting like a reroll, although you need to commit to it.
Apollyon isn’t “unlockable”, however. He is instantly unlocked upon starting the game. It helps create variety upon the start of a new game, since you do not need to play purely as Isaac upon beginning a new game anymore. This makes Apollyon a definite starting pick over normal Isaac, though, no matter what for casual runs. It makes more sense for Apollyon to be an unlockable character. His active item has ties to the new final chapter, so perhaps discovering this chapter, or clearing it, would have been a justifiable unlock condition for Apollyon, in terms of challenge and thematic consistency.
Speaking of the new final area, I feel (as well as others) that it is somewhat lazy. The layout recycles rooms from previous floors, and has you tackle them in an way that lacks variety. There are multiple boss rooms, but only one hides the final boss. You then have to face off against it to get the final ending of the game. Despite the lazy feel, when it comes to design, it does add significantly to the lore of the game, as does the actual final boss and ending. Not only does it deal with themes typical of Isaac games, such as a fear of God, handling abuse and divorce, and suicide, it also starts to feed into themes of mental illness.
The final boss is incredibly controversial. This is not one that I particularly want to spoil, but the nature of the fight will feel extremely lazy to some from a gameplay standpoint. I’m personally fine with it, and it is definitely a challenging fight, but I take issue with it. It’s handle poorly compared to Afterbirth‘s two big bosses, Ultra-Greed, and The Hush. Both of these bosses have scaling health to make the fights challenging, regardless of the power of your run. This boss has incredibly high health, and so the fight will not have an adaptable difficulty, as it were. As such, it will only be feasible to take on this boss with a really good run. You can beat him with a weak run, naturally, but it will take a long time, and as the fight goes on, it gets faster, making it progressively harder, since your focus will be primarily on dodging.
When it comes to new elements added to the basic runs, most inclusions are pretty good, in concept. Portals act as spawners, and can generate three enemies at a time. As soon as one dies, a new one can be produced. This is an entertaining new dynamic which was unfair at launch (due to them being extremely common and tanky), but this has since been patched. Another controversial addition are mimics. These chests will transform into spiked ones upon being approached. These were also considered unfair, but are currently less so. Now these chests have been given a visual cue to help distinguish them from a regular chest.
The other new addition in Afterbirth+ is Greedier Mode (a harder version of Greed Mode which debuted in Afterbirth) which is a horde survival mode. Greed Mode’s inherent problem is that it didn’t really encapsulate the notion of choice that is present in the normal mode. Greedier Mode, unfortunately, does not particularly fix this problem. The issues that many had on launch (with enemies spawning too quickly, and money being paid out in a lesser fashion) has since been remedied. However, Greedier Mode does not fix the lack of choice, nor does it make the game massively replayable. Greed Mode was primarily played for the character unlocks, and it is boring to replay Greed Mode. Greedier Mode, so far, seems as though it definitely falls into this same trap, which is unfortunate.
The new items added to the game are incredibly fun. There is, obviously, the more mundane ones, which are always going to be added by such an expansion, but the interesting items are really novel. The Clicker, for example, is a TV remote. Upon using it, you will be randomly changed into another character. This can keep being used too, and is not a one-time use item, similar to the Forget-Me-Now and Diplopia. There is also the aforementioned Void, and also Plan C, that will instantly kill anything, but will result in your death after 3 seconds. The same applies to trinkets, thanks to the locust trinkets. These new trinkets will spawn flies that each have a unique effect, such as exploding, poisoning, or marking the enemy so that you deal double damage to them.
Also, heading to The Dark Room is now almost just as attractive as going to The Chest. The victory lap feature allows you to keep looping through the game, so long as you go to The Dark Room and beat The Lamb. As you loop more and more, difficulty is added, and it is really not bad at all. This incentive has made me shoot for The Dark Room whenever I feel it to be possible, especially when you are playing a powerful run, and want that power trip to last a bit longer.
At launch, Afterbirth+ had pushed Isaac into a place that was extremely difficult, with bosses being overly tanky, enemies utilizing unfair attacks, portals would flood a room with enemies, punishing low-DPS runs, and a harder Greed Mode that just hiked every element up to make it unnecessarily hard. Thankfully, they have been amended, and it is clear that the team is trying to rebalance and fix the game, and they have already made great strides to doing it. Not only that, but promised monthly updates will bring new enemies and items (and maybe more) which will likely improve Isaac further as time goes on. Unfortunately, Afterbirth+ only comes across as a good expansion in its current state. It’s not bad, by any means, but the laziness in game design when it comes to the final level and the final boss has a significantly negative impact. The looping mechanic, interesting items, and inclusion of Apollyon help pull it out of the hole of mediocrity it could have been in. Of course, being “good” is not really bad, as the status screams, but it definitely is disappointing considering Isaac‘s long running string of excellence when it comes to the rogue-lite genre.