Describing The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ is no simple task. It's Edmund McMillen's follow-up to his first hit (which he co-developed), Super Meat Boy, which we loved. The two games, however, couldn't be more different. Where Super Meat Boy is more of a nod to the platformers of yesteryear, The Binding of Isaac is something entirely new; it's got a bit of old-school Zelda in it, but mechanically it plays a bit like Smash TV, an arcade twin-stick shooter from the SNES era.
In The Binding of Isaac you play as the titular character, a little boy who seems terrified of his deeply religious mother. There are deep religious overtones throughout the game, most enemies are demonic in nature, characters are mostly biblical references and one of the game's many bosses is even named Mega Satan. Though the game uses religion as a plot device much of the story is intentionally left open to interpretation, but make no mistake, reader, the subject matter is dark indeed.
At the game's opening, Isaac's mother bursts into his room wielding a knife. As the story goes, she has heard the voice of God and has been told she must kill her son to prove her faith. At the last possible moment Isaac locates a trap door in his room and escapes through it, descending into a basement filled with demons, sentient piles of poo and all other manner of monstrosities seeking to put an end to our hero. The worlds are randomly generated, a hallmark of the roguelike genre, but there the backdrops are preset, ranging from a humble basement, to caves, to even slightly more disturbing locales. The further you descend, the more twisted things become. There are three difficulties you can choose from, though the game tends to skew toward being more difficult than your average title these days. If you have ever played an NES or SNES-era game, you're most likely going to be more at home with Isaac's difficulty curve.
Isaac's only weapon is his tears, of which he has plenty. The controls are quite simple: Isaac moves with the left joystick and can aim his tears using either the right joystick or any of the four face buttons, each of which represents a cardinal direction. There's no diagonal crying to be had here unless you find an item to enable it, so the choice of how to aim your tears comes down to personal preference. In addition to your tears you can also find a number of items that Isaac can equip and use with the ZL button, though their utility varies. Some weapons, such as the bible, allow temporary flight and can even one-shot certain enemies, where some may do Isaac harm. It's best to exercise caution, especially as there are no extra lives or continues to be had, though you can pick up hearts to replenish health, or even gain entirely new hearts by defeating bosses who will occasionally leave items that add to Isaac's store, or provide other variations on this theme. Isaac can also pick up bombs which he can then use with the L button to destroy some obstacles in his path or take out enemies if it can be timed right.
Some may say that Afterbirth+ is short, but we would humbly argue that they should view the game differently. It's true that a typical run through the game could take just a few minutes, depending on the player's skill level as well as the world they're dropped into. It's clear, however, from the game's design that players aren't meant to play through just once; after all there are 19 endings, multiple characters, online and offline challenges and more to keep the player coming back. This retail release includes all of the expansions and DLC; accruing all of this content on PC (for example) would have a cost approaching the recommended Switch price at the time of writing, by the time you 'stack' the DLC upgrades.
As we mentioned, every time you do quit and load the game you have to start anew; while you have the option to restart in the same world, you can't persist if you choose to turn off your Switch or play later, which means that you will be dropped in another world by default. You do, however, have the option to enter a world seed (like a code) at the start of each game, giving you the option to take another run at a world you found interesting, or share it with friends.
Speaking of sharing with friends, Afterbirth+ features a couch co-op mode in which a second player can take control of a 'familiar' at the cost of one of Isaac's heart containers. Player two gets to choose between a selection of familiars with varying powers, though the game won't explain what those are; it's up to the players to know each of their abilities. When the second player dies the heart container, now empty, is returned to player one. Player two can choose to continue joining until Isaac is down to a single heart, after which point they have to sit back and watch. We would have liked to see a more expanded two-player offering, but what's here isn't bad.
The Binding of Isaac is a game old-school Nintendo would have never allowed on its home consoles, as was the case until its stance softened with a previous iteration on Wii U and New 3DS; the Switch, ultimately, feels like a perfect fit for Afterbirth+. It's a game you can pick up and play for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, you can jot down or screenshot your favourite seeds, there are daily challenges, the ability to play in any of the Switch's control configurations and also couch co-op. These features make this a great title for those looking for something a little more portable to add to their Switch lineup, while it naturally also works well enough when played on the TV.
While Nintendo has definitely changed its stance in the last few decades, this game feels like a blend of old-school mechanics and new-age thinking; it's an homage to the challenge and style of old games, while simultaneously presenting itself stylistically as being something more contemporary. If you're looking for a game that will be different each time you play it, look no further.