Within the ever-expanding universe of The Binding of Isaac, Bum-bo has, until now, been very much a member of the supporting cast. As an in-game item, he acts as a surprisingly astute stand-in for the roguelike genre as a whole, starting from humble beginnings in which he hoovers up anything he can get his mitts on, eventually growing into a fleshy ball of roided-up rage.
In the chaotic dungeons of a top-down roguelike, Bum-bo is often a welcome companion. But now, as the protagonist of his own dungeon-crawler, he cuts a surprisingly different figure. The physicality that forms an innate part of his character remains, matched by a welcome touch of bravado through his narration of his descent, but The Legend of Bum-bo is a more tactical and calculated game than The Binding of Isaac ever was.
To hear him tell it, as Bum-bo descends through the caverns beneath his home in pursuit of his beloved coin, he dispatches the monsters he comes up against with an impressive display of pugilism. As a player, the experience is somewhat removed from those fisticuffs, as combat plays out via a match-4 style puzzle board, the symbols upon which echo the bodily fluids that feature throughout developer Edmund McMillen’s other games. Matching bones and teeth is crucial for thinning out the three advancing columns of enemies, but you’ll need to play tactically around Bum-bo's other resources if you want to stay alive. Snot prevents enemies from taking an action on their turn. Meanwhile, poo grants a form of shield, forcing enemies to remove it before they can hit you, while urine grants you extra movement, allowing for another roll on the match-4 board. It’s a perfectly functional, if not massively inspiring, way of handling the bulk of the game’s combat, although it is a little tricky to talk about in polite company.
Thankfully, matching up symbols on the board offers a secondary means of hurting your opponents - one that doesn’t lean quite so heavily on the handling of human waste. Each time you get a match, you generate mana that corresponds to the relevant symbol, which can be used to cast spells. for the first character I played as, an early bone spell simply deals a chunk of damage, while tooth mana offers a cheap way to shake up the match-4 puzzle if you find yourself in a pinch. As you make your way through each run, the abilities available to you become more potent, but the ‘deck’ that each spell card makes up is limited to only six slots. So far, I’ve found the most reliable success with a mix of movement and sustain spells, letting me get more from the puzzle board before picking off low-health enemies to keep my own reserves topped up, but being prepared to mix up your strategy feels an important part of the path to victory.
While the roguelike has bought McMillen plenty of success, more recent entries have moved the genre on from the opacity of heavyweights like Nuclear Throne, Enter the Gungeon, and The Binding of Isaac. Those games told you as little as they could get away with, relying on genre traditions to encourage you to learn about their individual quirks as you progressed. In recent years, games like Into the Breach and Slay the Spire have helped pioneer a twist on the formula that gives you as much advance information as it can cram onto the screen. Either approach might have worked here, but The Legend of Bum-bo occupies a strange middle ground between these two extremes. I found that enemies will signpost when they’re about to attack you directly, but many other patterns and effects - particularly those used by high-level enemies - were explained in little more than cryptic messages on loading screens.
The Legend of Bum-bo has clearly been put together by a team just as confident in its ability and personality as those who worked on its predecessor. McMillen has nailed the aesthetic, riffing on the themes that made The Binding of Isaac such a success while ensuring that the new title has its own, far more endearing aesthetic (helped in no small part by its papercraft art style). The genre has moved along a little faster than Bum-bo has been able to catch up with, but this a worthy attempt to expand one of the decade’s biggest indie hits into a new generation of roguelikes.