It’s been several years since the last large DLC pack for Nicalis’ legendary roguelike, The Binding of Isaac. Nonetheless, our persecuted hero is back for more in The Binding of Isaac: Repentance, which is without doubt one of the biggest drops the series has seen. There’s a lot of content here and I doubt I’ll get through it all, but one thing is clear — if this is the last DLC we see, then Repentance is a huge way for the series to go out.
For those who don’t know it, The Binding of Isaac is a macabre roguelike in which the player takes on the role of the titular Isaac (initially, at least) and must work their way through a series of rooms and floors as they seek to escape Isaac’s mothers basement (in which he has been imprisoned — don’t ask!) To do this, they will fight a variety of grim enemies beginning with living turds, other abandoned children and God knows what else by shooting Isaac’s tears using a twin-stick style.
The Binding of Isaac has always had a questionable theme, and basically everything here has either religious, abusive or filth based connotations. Personally, I am not religious and therefore not bothered — but if you feel that what I am writing here sounds disgusting, then you should almost certainly check out some videos of the game in action before you drop fifty quid on it and risk being repulsed before you even begin.
Getting on with the review, The Binding of Isaac: Repentance is a big one. The press-sheet that comes with this kind of release is so dense that it’s a task even to read it. In short, it has something like 150-odd new items, two new characters (there’s more to this than that, but I won’t spoil anything), a couple of new endings, a new alternate path, a load of new bosses, a ton of new enemies — etc etc.
After this, we get into subtleties. The kind of subtleties that only a seasoned The Binding of Isaac player will really be able to dig into. You see, The Binding of Isaac is very, very random — so when you start each new playthrough you will see a new set of rooms, a new set of enemies and as you progress, you’ll access random items — which rarely come with an explanation, and only sometimes obviously reveal their secrets.
What this means is that only through hundreds and hundreds of plays will you see it all, and that’s a bit of a problem for a reviewer. In the earlier releases, the trick was always (of course) to play the game on the hardest mode you had access to, then seek out one of several God-builds that effectively made Isaac close to undefeatable. This would be achieved by seeking out the best attack upgrades, items and buffs to give him an edge.
In The Binding of Isaac: Repentance these builds have been debuffed slightly, whilst enemies have been tweaked to be more difficult in turn — which for a returning player will either be great or frustrating, because you’ll have to relearn the games or, erm, you’ll rage quit because your old tactics no longer work. For new players, these balancing changes are neither here nor there really, and whilst I’ve played The Binding of Isaac over the years, I can’t remember enough of it to count myself as an expert.
So with that said, I expect I will be playing The Binding of Isaac: Repentance in much the same way as you would, if you were to dive in now. So my experiences as described here will hopefully reflect that of the average player — rather than someone who is deep into Isaac and has very likely already bought and played this DLC extensively, and will likely be shaking their head at everything I write.
The first thing to note about The Binding of Isaac: Repentance is that it doesn’t change the fundamentals of what The Binding of Isaac is about. If you’ve ever dived into this game and felt frustrated at the speed in which you die, the randomness of the upgrades and how unfair it all is — then that’s all still true. As I mentioned earlier, if anything The Binding of Isaac: Repentance is designed more to help experienced players get a tougher experience, rather than new players to have a better one.
Still, if you soldier on, you’ll start to pick up items that carry from one playthrough to the next, and you may unlock new characters, see new areas and learn new strategies. None of that means that you might not spawn a dungeon which is simply unfair or impossible (a cursed door into a cursed chest then back out through the cursed door, for example) but it does mean you’ll be prepared for it and/or willing to just shake that run off and try another one.
And I think that’s where The Binding of Isaac: Repentance shows its real strength. The number of items, rooms, enemies and characters in this version is now so vast, and the experience so well-trodden and refined that you really can play this game forever if you choose to. I don’t know how many runs it would take to see everything and in every meaningful combination, but it really would be thousands and thousands. If you enjoy the gameplay, then that’s tremendous value even if the fifty quid price tag might not seem like it.