Indie developer Edmund McMillen has done the impossible: he managed to follow-up his gigantic hit (Super Meat Boy) with an even bigger game. Hot on the heels of his hotly anticipated platformer, McMillen put out The Binding of Isaac in 2011 and the title has practically come to define his career. Drawing heavily from self-reflection and personal themes, Isaac went on to shake-up the cult roguelike genre while simultaneously birthing a brand that cemented McMillen as one of the biggest developers of our time.
So it only makes sense that McMillen would continue down the hole that is Isaac. After a remake and a ton of expansions, we're now at prequel territory with McMillen's latest creation: The Legend of Bum-Bo. Taking the form of a completely different genre, Bum-Bo does share similarities to the series it spawned from. Much like the rest of McMillen's work, though, it's wildly different from what you'd expect.
New, Yet Familiar
Starting off, the prequel status of Bum-Bo doesn't play too heavily into understanding Bum-Bo. It certainly takes place before Isaac, but it's more a child’s plaything than some deep exploration of Isaac's past or why his mom is so freakishly large. Players will learn what I mean as they progress through the various chapters Bum-Bo has, all featuring themes similar to those in Isaac.
From there, the game plays out like a mixture between a deck-building game and a puzzle title. If you think Puzzle Quest, you'll actually be pretty close to how Bum-Bo functions. You'll start off with a single character that has a heavy emphasis on offense and teaches you the basics of how Bum-Bo plays.
During gameplay, Bum-Bo presents players with a board filled with puzzle tiles of different types. Based on the wacky art style that Isaac had, the tiles take the form of bones, skulls, poop, pee droplets, hearts, and boogers. These tiles aren't there just to be gross, though, as they each act as a different form of mana that can be spent on various attacks.
As in Puzzle Quest, players will bank mana that can be spent during a move as a spell. Spells can offer offensive or defensive properties, which will play into the type of character you're doing a playthrough with. This isn't some massive, ever-expanding RPG, but more a roguelike take on the puzzle game. Bum-Bo happens to share that randomization element that Isaac made popular, just toned down a bit.
For instance, Isaac featured vastly different room layouts that players could never truly know at the start of a run. For Bum-Bo, the main random element is the enemies you'll encounter. Each chapter plays out with the same three rooms before a boss encounter. There's no guesswork in where you'll be going or how you'll get there. Items from a treasure room are also randomized, which can make or break some of your runs.
Bring On The Battles
Combat functions in a unique manner. There are three lanes enemies will occupy with a depth of three spots. Foes will have a specific amount of moves they can make each turn, which means you'll need to think tactically to avoid damage. Laying down poo will block attacks and certain properties (like flying enemies taking priority over grounded ones) will force players to think in a 4D fashion to thwart foes.
Borrowing from Isaac yet again, Bum-Bo lets players collect different cards that alter various aspects of their characters. You'll sometimes be given attack cards that give you new moves or defensive cards that will help protect you from damage. At the end of a chapter, you'll enter a prize room that lets you spend cash on items to raise abilities, lower the mana cost of attacks, or even reroll your stats.
The main character, Bum-Bo The Brave, is all about offense and tanking hits. For him, selecting items that buff his attack will see you practically one-shotting enemies if you get good drops. It mirrors how Isaac players would become unstoppable if given the correct combination of items. The only way this system is let down a bit is by the limited pool of items Bum-Bo has.
It's almost too easy to become broken. Bum-Bo doesn't take too long to actually finish once you get going, but certain characters feel like Superman with their sheer strength. Since the items are clearly laid out with detailed descriptions, the guesswork and experimentation Isaac featured are totally removed. Some items are worthless, but you won't even need to bother dealing with them to find out.
Getting to the final boss is the main challenge. Drawing comparison to Isaac again, Bum-Bo makes players beat single chapters with specific characters to unlock further chapters. There are four main chapters that will require completion with each character to unlock a final showdown and character. It's a lot of replaying stuff and learning the intricacies of each class. It sounds more tedious than it is.
Bum-Bo's pacing makes restarting a breeze. You'll be dying a lot (the game even eventually gets harder), but a total playthrough to chapter four will amount to roughly 35 minutes. If you get really lucky, you can even finish a chapter in less than five minutes. It's very addicting and hard to put down.
The only real downside is that some quality of life features are absent. Mid-run saving isn't currently available and options related to sound settings are absent. Bum-Bo suffered from a ton of issues on launch day that were patched out rather quickly.
No Bum-mer Here
It's a little sad that any problems were present, but McMillen is dedicated to getting Bum-Bo just right. Over the course of my time with the game, I saw graphical bugs that were patched out a day later. Fans are even having their input taken into consideration to rebalance the pointless items. The future of Bum-Bo is looking bright.
Maybe it's a little presumptuous to recommend a game based on its potential, but Bum-Bo has been pretty great so far. Even with current bugs and shortcomings, it's been hard to stop playing. 14 hours later, I still want to take just one more turn.
A PC review copy of The Legend of Bum-Bo was provided to TheGamer for this review. The Legend of Bum-Bo is available now on PC.