DLC Review – The Binding of Isaac: Repentance
This is the article that I have been waiting to write for a long, long time. I came into The Binding of Isaac very late in the game’s lifecycle. The original and Wrath of the Lamb were far in the rearview, and even Rebirth had been out for quite a while. I had been hearing about people’s excitement regarding Afterbirth, the first official DLC package for Rebirth, and still wasn’t entirely sure what the game was.
On a lark, I took a moment during my job to watch NorthernLion play, and it suddenly clicked. The frantic action combined with strategic planning, the bullet hell twinstick elements, the grotesque but captivating visuals…I bought the game and preordered the DLC that day. Since then, I’ve purchased Rebirth on four different platforms, including the iOS version which was, ironically, left to die shortly after being spawned. I went through the rollercoaster of Afterbirth+, the booster packs, and even dabbled a bit in the fan mod Antibirth. Now, a mere six months after the release on Steam, consoles across the board have received the final update. Edmund McMillen, the game’s creator, saw it fit to label the swan’s song of the game as Repentance, and what a song it is.
It’s impossible to start from the beginning with The Binding of Isaac without writing an entire second article, so one imagines you’re familiar with the concept of the roguelite, topdown, twinstick dungeon crawler on a very basic level. For Repentance, it’s important to look at what’s been added, what’s been taken away, and what’s been modified. More importantly, it’s important to ask yourselves if the price tag is worth it. After all, if you’ve never played the game before, it’s quite daunting for a semi-indie title to have a forty dollar baseline, and then ask an additional twenty for a DLC that is, for all intents and purposes, optional.
Due to the very nature of The Binding of Isaac, players can easily and effortlessly enjoy the vanilla game for hundreds of hours without the need for any of the DLC, Afterbirth and Afterbirth+ included. While this seems silly to point out (what other game would I advise you to know what DLC is first?), keep in mind that Nicalis is releasing The Binding of Isaac: Repentance as a physical copy with everything baked in, so first time players aren’t necessarily going to know that there’s something beneath the surface. Let’s get into it.
From a purely numerical standpoint, The Binding of Isaac: Repentance is a monstrously massive addon package. Numbers include 130 new items (700 with pickups, actives and trinkets included), 5000 new room designs, 100 new enemy types and 25 new bosses. There are two new main characters to play as, and an additional variant of each existing character (called Tainted) that are added as well. The new bosses lead to new endings, including one that’s far more satisfactory than the depressing “reality” of Delirium. The new things range from incredibly useful and interesting to humdrum and boring, and even a few that are frustratingly pointless in the wrong run. For players who enjoy achievement hunting, we’ve got another 200+ added in, and ten challenges were created, with several only being accessible after multiple conditions are met.
Design-wise is where players may feel a bit of balking. Repentance decided to redo quite a few item and enemy sprites from the ground up, and the effect is mixed, at best. On the one hand, the animation and movement of some enemies looks quite better: Crispy looks significantly more menacing in it’s shambling, Vis is more globular and bouncy, and even Gusher has a smoother blood spatter. The new enemies are a sight to behold, crossing into some truly gross territories. Danny is a new rock-spitting Isaac clone that makes my skin crawl.
On the other side of things, though, there’s some backtracking, at least from my vantage. The new sprite for Krampus looks comical, like it’s trying the South Beach diet and can’t wait to tell you about it between mouthfuls of blood laser. Chubber, by the same merit, looks kind of cute and wobbly, not nearly as intimidating as it once had. True, it plays into the nature of the psychological expressionism of Isaac’s fractured state, but it also just doesn’t make me happy, so I can be mad about it.
Speaking of Krampus, the re-balancing act of Repentance is a serious amount of under-the-hood action that I would have paid just to have without any of the new tools. Overpowered toys have finally been brought to heel, while the underpowered ones make sense again. Krampus’s head only needs three charges instead of the insane seven from before. Book of the Dead requires more charges, but summons more skeletons and bone fragments. The Glass Cannon only damages you when you get hit and not just when you use it….like a glass cannon. If you keep the HUD on, you can also see these tweaks in real time as the game has been put on a finer decimal scale, letting players notice the upgrades and alterations in minute detail.
Granted, this now means that getting to The Devil or Angel room is infinitely more difficult (what the hell, Edmund?), but it also makes the rewards found within more satisfying. My very first run with Bethany, I picked up Isaac’s Heart and it actually didn’t suck. Letting the heart attack like the Mask and Heart felt validating and made the item something that I didn’t dread. Then, being able to get into the Angel Room and pickup Godhead was the beginning of something truly special.
The new characters are enjoyable, but neither really grabs me as a favorite. Bethany is a well-balanced addition that can go wildly off the rails with the Book of Virtues after the right pickup, but not being able to enjoy Soul Hearts kept my ego in check.
Jacob & Esau were, to be honest, frustrating at first: controlling two characters at the same time and needing to basically toggle one on or off wasn’t very intuitive, and I kept dying long before I even got to find Mother. I got the hang of it, eventually, and there’s a level of power that comes with them that I can see as appealing. They can superpower a run if you get one of the Options early on, and balancing two active items can make for a truly devastating duo.
Lastly, the Tainted forms are good for the veteran player craving a challenge, but isn’t something to really write home about. In my mind, it’s essentially a new difficulty level that’s been unlocked: limiting players to a set number of passive pickups lets you be more choosy, and also prove that you can make it far without needing to flood your character with buffs just to get by.
Lastly, the new routes and bosses. This is where Repentance positively shines. I didn’t realize that I had to work out a series of puzzles in order to access the new areas, and the demands just to get your foot in the door are, at times, seemingly inaccessible. I mean, I’ve gone whole runs without having enough keys and bombs just to get through a floor normally, and now you want me to have them on hand just to get to a new place that will kick my butt?
But being able to explore Dross, The Ashpit, The Corpse…the layouts and ideas are really top notch, and I hope fans everywhere appreciate McMillen recognizing the hard work of the Antibirth crew and folding that into the official canon. The first time I fought Rotgut, I was grinning with the reveal of different attack formations and different ways to play. Getting all the way to the new form of Mother was a seriously challenging and rewarding feat, and I cannot wait to get all the way Home, if the fates allow it.
Sometimes there’s an update or a DLC that changes a game forever and finally makes it accessible to the people at large. Repentance is not that DLC. If anything, Repentance can and will scare off newer players who feel like they’re just getting their bearings when a flood of new stuff comes screaming in. But, for long time players, this is the parting gift they were all waiting for. The game is now set up to be played for thousands of hours, with just an insane number of unlockables to find and synergies to discover.
If you’ve enjoyed The Binding of Isaac before, this is just so, so much more to dig in and discover. If you’ve never really liked it, this 100% will not change your mind in any way, shape or form. And, if you haven’t yet taken a moment to see what life is like for young Isaac who lives on the hill with his mother, well now might finally be the time. Be warned: it’s simply not a happy story.
Final Verdict: 9.5
The Binding of Isaac: Repentance is available now on Steam, PS4, Xbox One X and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Switch.