Worth every tear-soaked penny.
Nothing on this Earth gives me greater joy than when a game I’ve sunk hours upon hours into on a desktop gets re-released on a handheld. For years, my Playstation Vita capably filled the role of delivering mobility to my gaming ecosystem – that is, of course, on the off chance that a developer actually remembered that the thing exists. I’ve still got a long list of 2-D titles (retro or otherwise) that I’m hopeful will make their way to Sony’s nigh-abandoned portable.
But even if they never do, there’s less reason to grow fearful about the handheld landscape now that the Switch is out. Hey Poor Player has done extensive coverage on why Nintendo’s newest console is a cut above the rest when undocked (and untethered) from the living room. And while it obviously won’t compete with the hardware in the PS4 and Xbox product lines, it’s still a very capable primary home console. As the saying always goes, “time will tell” if Nintendo’s gambit of fusing their two hardware divisions together leads to higher sales numbers in the long term.
They are certainly off on the right foot, though. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is already locking up Game of the Year considerations left and right, and Nintendo’s plan to flesh out the year with tent-pole first-party releases suggests they are aware of the pacing problem that doomed the Wii U. But they’re also waking up to the enormous opportunity inherent in the middle-ground between their new console’s form factor and power. The indie games industry – especially on PC – has positively exploded since the last time Nintendo was pushing a viable home gaming system. And mobile, free-to-play fare has wrapped its long arms tightly around the broader games market, limiting its growth significantly. There’s hay to be made from adopting the “let’s try everything” approach, and Nintendo seems motivated to work out deals with small, popular studios that are willing to port their games over to a shiny new platform.
The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ is the opening salvo of this strategy. For a game that originally saw release as a crude project developed in Flash back in 2011, Isaac’s been on quite the journey. The remastered (Rebirth) version hit Steam and the consoles in late 2014, and in the intervening period since, two full expansions have released (Afterbirth & Afterbirth+). The combined content footprint of the Isaac universe has this reviewer at somewhere close to 500 hours of play.
Yes, you read that right. I’ve played a game about shooting your tears at monsters for 500 hours. And I’ve logged another 75 on the Switch version since release.
Why do I play this game so much? To make a long answer short: I never know what’s going to happen.
Isaac is a roguelike. You could argue it’s the king of all roguelikes. It’s also a great representative of the twin-stick shooter genre. Isaac’s main method of attack is engaged by firing his tears at an enemy. Each run takes between 30 minutes to an hour (give or take a bit), and when it’s over, you do it all again. Runs are broken up into floors, and each floor is broken up into a series of randomly-generated rooms. Within those rooms, players may find a number of things: various enemies, consumables (hearts, keys, bombs, etc), upgrade or downgrade items (for one of seven character stats), environmental hazards, secret passages, mini-bosses, and a few other categories I’m either not recalling or having trouble putting into words.
Items never come with a description of their specific use, outside of some cryptic (and often hilarious or enraging) flavor text. Picking up a small blue creature elicits the description “Your fate beside you.” Repeatedly picking it up teaches the player that the item in question is a familiar that shoots tears alongside Isaac. This exercise forms the core gameplay loop for new players: Pick up an item, see what it does, and decide if it’s worth picking up next time around.
Occasionally, the game will throw an item at the player that puts them in a markedly worse position than before. One such example is a passive effect known as “Tiny Planet.” Picking up Tiny Planet changes Isaac’s line-of-fire from straight ahead to something resembling planetary rotation. Sure, it looks cool, but now it’s harder to hit enemies, and the run takes on a new dynamic entirely.
Item synergies throw an extra dynamic into the mix. One of the fundamental rules in The Binding of Isaac states that one given item may or may not interact with another in a new and unique way. Let’s continue with our Tiny Planet example and discuss a scenario in which it might make sense to pick it up, even though we know it’s bad on its own.
“Brimstone” is an item that fundamentally changes the way in which Isaac attacks. Rather than firing tears at a pre-determined rate, Isaac unleashes a strong laser-beam from his eyes that strikes a fixed point wherever he is looking. Anything in the path of the laser takes massive damage. But the shot still has to be lined up to work correctly. Adding in Tiny Planet changes Isaac’s attack into a beam that encircles him entirely, which has the dual effect of causing high damage to enemies, while also giving Isaac a protective barrier through which nothing can get to him. The resultant effect of the two items is what is known as a positive synergy.
Isaac is full of many thousand permutations just like this, and part of what still grips me after 500 hours of play is that I am still discovering these synergies and putting them to memory. Afterbirth+ and the expansions that preceded it bring the total item count up over 400, so it’s not difficult to see why the game is so infinitely replayable. And if that isn’t enough to convince roguelike fans, you could also look to the 14 characters – each with their own unique starting items, stats, limitations and challenges – to get you excited about the mountain of stuff there is to do in this game. I haven’t even mentioned the challenges, daily runs, alternate game modes, etc.
Putting it all into a system like the Switch – with its wonderful screen and Nintendo’s perfectionist approach to UI – makes all the sense in the world. The joycons may not be the ideal way to play (especially when they are attached to the screen), but if you are one of the lucky few who happened to grab a Pro controller, then you’re set. It can’t be overstated: Isaac is a TOUGH game, and having access to a high-precision controller is important if you expect to do well early on. What Isaac was lacking in its release on the Vita a few years back was pure performance. Too many items or tear effects on screen at once led to some bad frame rate issues. Not a problem at all on the Switch. I also have to bring up the box art and packaging add-ons. Nicalis is on point with the decision to include many physical collectibles inside of the game’s case. Owners get a book of stickers featuring characters and items from the game, as well as a game manual styled almost entirely after the literature that shipped with the original Legend of Zelda 30 years ago. Given Isaac‘s clear LoZ inspiration (especially relating to the top-down camera), it makes perfect sense, and it’s a good opportunity for die-hard fans to double-dip with a second purchase. I know I did.
It would take another few thousand words to detail exactly why I am the Isaac fan that I am today. No game in recent memory has challenged me quite so fiercely, or left me with such an overwhelming sense of satisfaction at completing a difficult run. If you’re a Switch owner and have yet to jump in the water, do it before I push you myself.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), PC ; Publisher: Nicalis ; Developer: Nicalis ; Players: 1 ; Released: March 17, 2017 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $39.99