There are few roguelikes as seminal as The Binding of Isaac. An expansive dungeon crawler filled with countless intricacies and endless possibilities, it's truly a game that feels like a slot machine. You're getting something you've never seen before every time you load it up. Perhaps a specific item combo breaks a boss fight. Maybe you end up with a humorously useless set of weapons. Maybe you pick up the Cursed Eye and mash restart as quickly as possible. Whatever the case, that's the feeling that developer Edmund McMillen wanted to move away from in puzzle-centric prequel The Legend of Bum-Bo. It's a bold choice to be sure, one that I'm still wrestling with as I put words to website.
Climbing back into Bum-Bo's basement
Make no mistake, The Legend of Bum-Bo has plenty of the hallmarks you've come to expect from Isaac and its many expansions. You're still dealing in all manner of bodily fluid, sometimes more directly than ever before. Enemies consist of various poop monsters and buzzing insects, all guarding bosses designed with a creepy-cool vibe. Each item functions mostly as you remember it, and it's impressive to see all your favorites transfer over to a completely different gameplay style.
Yes, the biggest change in Bum-Bo is in its puzzle gameplay. No longer an arcadey top-down shooter, Bum-Bo presents players with a puzzle board and wants them to match tiles. Unlike most games, its a match-4 affair, with rows and columns that slide up and down a-la YMBAB. Getting more than one match per move is difficult, sometimes punishingly so. If you pull it off, a wild star piece appears, making further cascades more possible. Matching tiles also gets you colored mana that you can channel into puzzle items, mostly acquired in the traditional treasure rooms you stumble into along the way.
The unusual matching style is due to the developer's desire to promote strategy over random chance, and it does work in that way. This is the type of puzzle game where you'll want to sit and stare at the board for minutes on end before making your final decision. It makes the choice of board movement all the more curious, as the sliding rows make more sense in a fast-paced environment. I even instinctually tried to play like that when I first loaded up the game, and was thoroughly trounced for my trouble.
Wiping away my tears in The Legend of Bum-Bo
Once you get a handle on it, it's clear Bum-Bo wants you to take it slow. One or two wrong moves and you're likely starting your whole run over. Because of that, I found it painfully easy to slide one space out of position as I was playing. Confirming every single move would get annoying fast, but some sort of undo functionality would fit in well. You're already mimicking the tense tactical decisions of something like Into the Breach, you might as well go all the way with it.
Beyond that, the bigger issue at play is just how much the RNG dominates everything. In Bum-Bo, you're always at the mercy of what pieces fall into place. You can really feel the pain of getting through 9/10ths of a winning run with killer items only to find yourself staring down an unsolvable board. It happened more than once to me, and each loss made me frustrated more than anything.
Of course, RNG was a big part of Isaac. In fact, it's the reason why I spent 1000 hours plumbing its depths. However, there's a big difference between trying to deal with random tools and falling into a situation with no way to save yourself. Dying is a part of the roguelike formula, but Isaac always made you feel responsible for your own demise. If you moved carefully and shot straight, you could almost always come out on top. Due to its puzzle nature, you can't say the same thing about Bum-Bo, and that really limits both its potential and its scope.
Patching together The Legend of Bum-Bo
Another thing I can't really say about Bum-Bo at launch is that its a completely finished product. Pre-launch, the game was quite buggy, and key features appeared hours before launch. More testing provided a better experience, but there are plenty of quality of life features that just aren't here as of yet. You can't quit out of a run in progress, there isn't a lot of information on the board as you play, and the difference between trinkets and items is barely explained. Considering Isaac's popularity, I have some hope that everything will fall into place eventually, but early adopters should be aware that this is more of an Early Access-style release than the store page would have you believe.
While rough around the edges in terms of gameplay, Bum-Bo nails its unique visual style. Everything in the basement looks like cardboard this time around, with characters moving like stick figures and attacks represented by huge props popping in from nowhere. Backing this up is an evocative soundtrack by Ridiculon that remixes Isaac tunes and offers new gems. It all somehow captures the essence of its source material and strikes a path all its own at the same time, and I love all of it.
The Legend of Bum-Bo Review | Final Decree
The Legend of Bum-Bo was never going to match the depth and complexity of something like The Binding of Isaac. I can't imagine many games hitting that landmark even decades into the future. For what it tries to do, Bum-Bo succeeds in providing a fun alternate universe take on Isaac's style. Still, there are just enough problems that I'm tempted to wait for the inevitable The Legend of Bum-Bo: Rebirth before really diving in.
TechRaptor reviewed The Legend of Bum-Bo on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer.
- Eye-Popping Visual Style
- Hauntingly Appropriate Soundtrack
- Absorbing Gameplay In The Style of Isaac
- RNG Kills Runs With Reckless Abandon
- Missing Lots Of Quality Of Life Features
- Sliding Controls Clash With Tactical Gameplay Loop