Binding of Isaac is good, now

Over two years ago, when The Binding of Isaac was new, I compiled my thoughts about the game into a blog post (which you can read here). That post was pretty scathing, and I had lots of negative things to say about the game, despite it being a mostly good experience. I stand by everything I said there: the game was too random, the controls were bad, and the faultless deaths were too demoralizing. I played for about fifty hours before finally hanging it up. When the expansion, Wrath of the Lamb, was released I had no desire to go back for more punishment.

Skipping the expansion turned out to be a mistake. Since taking the plunge a couple months ago, my Steam dashboard reports I’ve logged about 150 hours of Isaac. I have no desire or intention of slowing down. The game has its hooks in me, and it’s all because Wrath fixed the game’s most glaring problem. Pre-Wrath, winning was primarily a function of your luck, tempered by your game knowledge and physical dexterity. Post-Wrath, knowledge is by far your biggest asset, and your luck is (usually) only as bad as you allow it to be. The difference is night and day.

Before I talk about what they actually changed, I want to give a grim description of what the expansion could have been. When Wrath first came out I had no faith whatsoever that Isaac‘s developers even understood the cracks in their game, let alone had any desire to spackle them. Reports started coming in that the expansion piled on about a hundred new items, new bosses, new pretty much everything. For people who already liked Isaac, an expansion that added big buckets of Stuff was a really exciting proposition. But for folks like me, who were turned off by the game’s random failure rate, Lack-of-Stuff was not Isaac‘s problem.

The expansion does have loads of new Stuff. But all that is just icing. The really important additions to the game are all the new ways you can find Stuff. A typical run in the vanilla game might have, say, twenty opportunities for you to find Stuff, contingent on what resources you have, how good you are at dodging, which bosses you run into, and loads of other variables. Whether that’s enough for a skilled player to reasonably win every run is debatable. In Wrath, with all the new room types and trinket slots and guaranteed drops, you have more like forty opportunities. Even removing player skill from the equation, that’s twice as friendly.

I’m writing this post for two groups of people. The first are fans of vanilla Isaac who take issue with high randomness being a problem. These are the dudes I argued with back in 2011, who mostly claimed that the game was already winnable and that making it “easier” would ruin the experience. Since Wrath did make the game “easier”, and since the game doesn’t appear to be ruined, that appears to be that. I was right and now I’m smug about it, neener neener, no take-backsies.

The second group are the Isaac players who didn’t get into the game until after Wrath came out, and don’t even know how good they have it. Next time you botch your Polaroid invinciblity, ye dudes, pour one out for all us wretched souls who didn’t have one to begin with.

These are all the ways the game is better now:

  • Two Secret Rooms on every floor. In vanilla you could find a Secret Room by bombing seemingly-random walls. This room usually contained money, but sometimes had a good item. And as you might suspect, its location wasn’t actually random; it was governed by a set of rules you could learn and apply. Still, even with an abundance of bombs it was possible to get through an entire run without finding anything game-changing in a Secret Room at all. As of Wrath, though, there is also a Super-Secret Room on every floor, which is generated by its own set of rules. It’s usually harder to find than the regular Secret Room, and you still might go the whole game without hauling anything worthwhile out of one. But diligent searching is much more likely to pay off.
  • Curse Rooms and red chests. Vanilla had Treasure Rooms and Shops, which required keys to open, as well as Arcades, which required coins. Wrath adds Curse Rooms, which require life. Stepping into the room damages you, but inside is a red chest. This is a new kind of high-risk, high-reward chest which sometimes contains spiders or explosions, but can also warp you straight to the Devil Room or simply contain a great item. Red chests can also spawn out in the main dungeon as well, in place of the typical brown or gold ones. In addition, Curse Rooms have a chance of spawning next to the Secret or Super-Secret Rooms, giving you access to them even if you don’t have any bombs.
  • Trinkets. There is a new type of passive item called a trinket, which sits in a slot at the top-left corner of the screen and provides some benefit. You can only have one at a time, and the effects are often slight (and sometimes dubious!)… but a slight benefit over a long run can really add up.
  • Dimes and gold keys. Coins now sometimes spawn as dimes, which are worth ten cents. Keys sometimes spawn as gold keys, which allow you to unlock any door or chest on the current floor. These items are rare, but their inclusion means that over many games you will average more coins and keys than in vanilla. The shop you can now afford, or the gold chest you don’t have to pass up, has the potential to change your game.
  • Eternal hearts. There’s a new kind of heart, too: the eternal heart. This is a white heart that sits between your red ones and your blue ones. If you find one, and manage to complete the floor you’re on without losing it, it turns into a permanent red heart. As a result, every heart that spawns has a chance to be a permanent health up.
  • Playing cards. There’s also new kinds of cards, all of which add more resources to the game. The first four double your consumables (keys, bombs, coins, and red hearts). The fifth one teleports you directly to the Devil Room, giving you a chance to buy devil deals even if you suck at dodging and haven’t “earned” the chance.
  • Devil Rooms in general are more accessible. In fact, let’s talk about Satan for a bit. In vanilla, some of the most powerful items in the game were obtained by finding a Devil Room at the end of your floor and paying for them with your life. Your chances of seeing a Devil Room were better if you could clear the floor and the boss fight without getting hit, though, so they didn’t often turn a bad run around since the worse your run was going the less likely you were to see one. In Wrath, though, you can get into the Devil Room by opening a red chest or using a Joker card, and these methods are accessible to all players regardless of how their run is going.
  • Devil Room items outside of Devil Rooms. Even if you never get into a Devil Room, though, you still might get your hands on one of those sweet items. Curse Rooms sometimes contain them, and even if they don’t, methods of spawning items inside Curse Rooms (usually by using a Judgement card to spawn a beggar) will pull from the Devil Room pool instead of the regular treasure pool. This is sort of an advanced tactic, but it’s precisely this kind of knowledge-based trick that roguelike players love to use to make their own luck.
  • God Rooms. Of course, the biggest problem with Devil Rooms is that sometimes you just can’t spare the health. Some of the characters start with so little health that taking a devil deal was suicide. Now, if you enter a Devil Room but don’t take anything the game will start spawning God Rooms instead. God Rooms have a different pool of items than Devil Rooms, but they are all great, and best of all they don’t cost any life. Even better, if your floor has a God Room on it, the above Curse Room trick will work to spawn godly items instead of devilish ones.
  • Fortune Teller Machines. Vanilla had slot machines, which you could play for a chance to get coins, keys, bombs, hearts or pills. These were super useful and many runs have been saved by a lucky pull. Now there is a new type of slot machine which tells fortunes instead — as well as dropping blue hearts, cards and trinkets. In addition, there’s a trick that potentially turns a slot machine into a fortune teller, if that’s what you needed.
  • Boss Challenge Rooms. Vanilla had Challenge Rooms, which were locked unless you had full health. Inside might be a useful item or a handful of bombs, but if your run was already going badly you likely couldn’t get inside to check. Wrath adds Boss Challenge Rooms, which are only open if you’re about to die (one or fewer red hearts). These rooms always have a boss drop inside, which usually means a stat-up item. If your run is about to fail, this room might give you the edge you need. And if it’s going well, it might still be worth taking the risk.
  • Libraries. This is a new room type that spawns two books. Books are only moderately useful in and of themselves, but Libraries have three properties which make them really good. First, picking up a book (even if you don’t use it or keep it) increases the chances of seeing future Libraries. Second, Libraries can spawn even in late-game levels after Treasure Rooms and Shops are no longer possible. And third, the pool of Library items is pretty small. Once you’ve seen every book in the game — a likely possibility, if you’ve visited several Libraries — you’ll start seeing Treasure Room items instead.
  • The Cathedral. The game has a new ending. After beating The Womb, you have the choice to go down into Sheol and fight Satan (as in vanilla) or to go to the Cathedral instead. This alone breathes a lot of new life into the game, since the two bosses are very different. Lots of builds that would have failed in Sheol back in vanilla are actually feasible in the Cathedral, and vice-versa, increasing your odds of winning if you know what you’re doing.
  • The Chest. Going to Sheol, though, is reserved usually for the poorer runs. If you’re strong enough to survive the Cathedral, you continue on to the game’s final floor: The Chest. The first room of the chest spawns four guaranteed items, and every box (regardless of color!) that spawns thereafter has a guaranteed item as well. So even if your build is shaky, and even if you make it to the Chest by the skin of your teeth, you might luck out and get exactly the Hail Mary item drop you need to go the distance.
  • The Polaroid. This one thing could be an entry all to itself. The Polaroid is a trinket that always drops off after killing the sixth floor boss — it’s Isaac‘s one and only guaranteed item. It takes up your trinket slot and is actually required to finish the game. (If you complete the Cathedral but don’t have the Polaroid, you can’t continue on to the Chest.) Holding the Polaroid makes you invincible if certain conditions are met, and knowledgable players can force those conditions or at least make them a lot more likely.That’s a lot of ways players can improve their run which weren’t present in vanilla Isaac, and I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting a few of the less drastic ones. And it doesn’t even really touch on all the great new items and toys you can play with.

All these great new ways to accumulate Stuff are balanced in some clever ways. For one, the new floors and monsters and bosses added in Wrath are just plain harder than the ones you would see in vanilla. The overall difficulty is higher, not lower, and your skill in dodging and aiming is even more important than before.

More importantly, though, you’ll notice that all these new opportunities come with an asterisk. They’re higher risk than the methods of finding items in vanilla Isaac, or they are far more subtle, or they require a bit of knowledge to leverage properly. Nothing quite as dramatic as just granting access to more Treasure Rooms or Shops, certainly. It’s the inclusion of all of these things, together, that create more decision points and put more power into the game. Situations are weighted less towards “what did I find?” and more towards “how can I make all these pieces fit together?”

I’m told that FTL, another roguelike I quit in disgust because I got tired of losing randomly, has an expansion on the horizon. Here’s hoping it gets fixed in the same way Isaac did. (And here’s hoping the Isaac remake doesn’t take two steps back!)

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3 comments to Binding of Isaac is good, now

  • Joe

    Brickroad, you need to remind me why I bookmarked this site. I have it in my bookmarks and only once in a blue moon does a new article show up when I check it. Oh wait. THat’s why I bookmarked it.

    But hey! At l appreciate the time you put into this post. Thanks for making it, and thanks for reminding me of the horror I call crack that everyone else calls the Binding of Isaac.

  • Sprite

    I disagreed with you over vanilla – not over the randomness, I just didn’t think the game was as impossible on unlucky runs as you did – but I agree that all those changes are awesome, and giving the player more agency improves the game tremendously. I haven’t tried Wrath yet. I should change that.

    I’m 100% with you on FTL.

  • Lys

    I checked out of Binding of Isaac after a mere ten or so hours, and didn’t have much interest in the expansion… but this intrigues me! Risk of Rain has been holding my attention much longer than I expected, but if my class-unlocking slows down with that I might get back into Isaac.

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