Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Binding of Isaac: AfterBirth (PS4)

Unlike some of you I was first able to play this deeply disturbing dungeon survival-horror game when it came out on the PS4 and PS Vita consoles a few years back. I had wanted to play it for so long, and finally being able to do so on one of my currently favorite gaming consoles was a privilege. I think what attracted my attention to it more than anything was the indie design which seemed to incorporate both "The Legend of Zelda (LoZ)" dungeon layouts, and a twin-stick shooter mechanic for the core combat. Of course the game itself has a lot more in store for the gamer than just that, and with this latest DLC expansion the game opens up even more so on said offerings.

What "The Binding of Isaac" had, and has going for it (for those of you who are unaware) is an immense replay value in a challenging pick up, and put down gameplay driven package. It features it's own unique protagonist, and an underlying story that is definitely not forgettable. There are plentiful encounters of creepy humanoid creatures, defiled denizens of the damned, and grotesque bosses of varying sorts which each bare their own pseudo-religious overtones. All of which Isaac (the protagonist) must face in the labyrinthine darkness of the basement he has been imprisoned in. It's a telling presentation that plays heavily on Isaac's troubled childhood, and the fanatical mother who is out to rid the world of his supposed evil ways. Much like a living nightmare Isaac himself has faced his many fears in the basement of his home with only the tears, and the power of his imagination to combat the very real threat before him. It is these tools which you must use in a twin-stick shooter fashion as Isaac to make your way to a final ultimate fight against your wayward mother.

For those of you new to the console version of the game like me you'll find that "The Binding of Isaac: ReBirth" and it's follow-up DLC companion "The Binding of Isaac: AfterBirth" is definitely a game which was inspired by the likes of oldschool RPGs such as "The Legend of Zelda". At base level you will be exploring rooms in randomly generated areas that each house surprises in some form or fashion. Some rooms offer stores selling items like you would have seen in "LoZ", and others an enemy infestation that must be cleared out before you can proceed forward, or backwards into any of the available rooms. To guide you there is a corner HUD map which showcases what each room you have entered contains with symbolic icons. Sometimes this map will disappear based upon the power-ups you've collected, or in some cases it might also be fully revealed with yet another type of power-up.

Power-ups, or item buffs in "The Binding of Issac" play a huge role in the success of your misadventure. Like the map layouts themselves the power-ups which are housed in rooms past a golden door are randomly generated making you play either more carefully, or more freely depending on what the power-up items do for Isaac. They can also stack making for unique Isaac character builds. Some of which are OP (Over Powered) as hell. Power-ups range from projectile enhancers, or effectiveness nerfs to things like health boosts and even added abilities. Most are either religious, grotesque, or comical in design. They go along with the disturbing nature of the game.

Beyond the traversing of rooms, and the gathering of power-ups you'll also be guiding Isaac in twin-stick shooter fashion through a series of boss inclusive floors (complete with multiple rooms) to a final boss fight against Isaac's demented mother. With each playthrough Isaac is given a base amount of hearts that represent his life. It is with this, the obtained power-ups (cards, capsules, gauge items), and his tears (which double as enemy damaging projectiles) that you must make it to each dungeon's boss, defeat said boss, and move forward through a specific number of different floors in a similar fashion. The last floor of the collection of floors being the one that houses Isaac's mother. Separating the floor rooms are a variety of different door types (Cursed, Angel, Devil ...) that each lead into a new area with different things lurking about. These playthroughs that I speak of can be accessed, and done through the appropriate main menu listing. They can even be continued later with the pause menu password that comes up when you press the "OPTIONS" button. What makes each experience lasting though is that the game keeps a statistical record of your progress, or lack thereof. It keeps track of your deaths, and even your victories among other things.

Aside from the main mode of play the DLC expansion (AfterBirth), and the former base game (ReBirth) also includes a "Challenge Mode" in which you will find a listing of named challenges that incorporate a similar dungeon/floor playthrough system as the main mode. The only difference being the layout setup which usually ties in with it's coinciding title. For example, a listing with "Darkness" in the title usually contains a floor of rooms that is obscured by some sort of darkness. As far as finding these challenges in the listing goes you'll find that the more you play in the main mode the more the challenges will be unlocked. Like the main mode the challenge mode offerings are definitely challenging, and rely heavily on the game's randomly generated build.

For those of you looking for replay value beyond that you'll find that the game also contains unlockables in the form of extra playable characters, and viewable events. The extra characters, which also have their own religious origins can each be unlocked by meeting certain in-game requirements that are listed under their respective images. In "AfterBirth" there is actually a new character named "Lilith" who can be unlocked by completing a playthrough of the main "Greed" mode as the flying laser shooting demon 'Azazel'. Instead of firing tears herself she has an orbiting incubus companion that does the shooting for her. Speaking of the 'Greed' mode/difficulty it plays out differently from what the main game mode does. When you enter 'Greed' your chosen character will be placed in a room that has a few different doors, and a switch/kill switch button on the floor in the middle of the room. Standing on the button/switch will activate the mode and cause enemies of random types to spawn along with gold coins. The objective is to kill off the enemies, and collect the coins for a total of 10 rounds/waves per floor so that you can either enter the cursed room, store room or the golden room, and spend said coins on item upgrades. This way you can continue your fight more prepared. Also available for unlock per floor is a devil and angel room if you choose to face the floor's boss, and win. All combat in 'Greed' is kept in the button inclusive areas making it a more challenging fight than what the main mode of play has to offer. It's definitely a more intense and speedy ordeal, especially with waves of enemies spawning every time the timer counts down to zero.

Other new features in the "AfterBirth" DLC expansion includes new enemy, and boss types. That and a new "Daily Challenge" gives return players a viable reason to return to the game. In the case of new bosses you'll find some spin-off characters that are slightly different from their "ReBirth" counterparts. Dangle, the corn spewing pile of crap is but one of these. Him, and the strategy demanding Rag Man are two of my favorites. As far as the "Daily Challenge" is concerned it is as it sounds. You'll get one shot at getting the highest score on the leaderboards in a playthrough that is not as randomly generated as the normal dungeon playthroughs tend to be. While you are limited to one "Daily Challenge" playthrough per day you can practice as many times as you wish before you give it your best shot.

For those of you looking for secrets there are plenty to be found. From the actual secret dungeon reveals that pop-up in mock poster form to secret rooms there's plenty to keep you busy trying to fully complete the new expansion's content. I imagine, but cannot confirm at this point that there may very well be new PSN trophies to score as well.

When it comes to the soundtrack, and visuals you will find that those too have been revamped, and made better for your playing pleasure. There are new versions of some of the dungeons with their own unique songs to go along with them. Some of the tunes are definitely more metal than others though. I should also mention the fact that there is now an announcer for when you crack open one of those capsules, or cards that you find hidden on your journey. The dungeon, and game appearance in general seems to have been changed for the better, and seems to have been resized as well. Even some of the games effects have been improved upon such as that of the bomb explosions.

The Verdict ...

I was a fan of "The Binding of Isaac" from it's console 'ReBirth" forward. In fact I was actually thankful that Nicalis allowed me to do this review as it gave me a chance to share my enthusiasm for what the indie developer has created. The Binding of Isaac is without a doubt one of my all time favorite PS4 gaming experiences. I love it's darkly horror driven themes. Aside from that it also combines two other things I'm very fond of. Those things being hints of "The Legend of Zelda" gameplay, and controls fit for a twin-stick shooter. It fits quite nicely with the console gaming setup, and is wholly enjoyable. When it comes to replay value, and the added replay value the DLC provides I find it comparable to that of "Diablo 3". Another of my all time favorite games. While some might argue that the DLC here costs about as much as the core game does though I still feel that it's enough of an expansion to warrant the asking price. Had I not gotten it for review I personally would have bought it with my own money. I strongly suggest buying this DLC if you are an owner of "The Binding of Isaac: ReBirth". If you don't own "ReBirth" I strongly suggest you pick it up, and "AfterBirth" too! It is worth it! Also it's good for streaming, and video upload purposes!

*NOTE*: The game saves from ReBirth can be carried over into AfterBirth. 

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