The update I mentioned above seems to be live now. Beat the game on both of my attempts with the new update, after only having got to the final boss once in about 50 runs in the previous version. So it might be that the game has been made easier in ways other than the shield change.
First run was with a shield I never blocked with (just carried for the iframes), a weapon I pretty much never swung (just carried for +1 skill), a Fire Grenade and a Knife Storm. That was actually the first time I used a Fire Grenade, which looks really wimpy based on the description; I’d only equipped it for another +1 skill bonus. But it turned out to be phenomenal. Probably the best area clearer, especially after they nerfed the Horizontal Turret and the Meatgrinder. With 8 skill, basically everything except a boss would be one-shotted by either of the two skills.
Second run I intentionally did not use a shield. I was hoping to do a low skill run, but ended up with 6 strength 5 skill anyway (didn’t find any +strength items, and any elective stat upgrades always go to health). So I used a Flammable Sword and Blood Sword (both found in the Ossuary; basically no weapon changes for the whole game). The Flammable Sword was particularly funny; it was my primary weapon, and I never actually used the primary ability due to having nothing that could ignite the flammable oil. But both swords had a stat bonus, and they had synergy in that the Blood Sword could trigger bleeding, and the Flammable Sword had a +30% damage on bleeding targets.
It’s a bit annoying that the stat bonuses are so good. It’s hard to justify using an item that doesn’t have one. For example I unlocked the Impaler in the first game, and found two separate ones in the second games. It seems to have an amazing moveset, but by the time I found them, anything without a stat bonus was going to be inferior. So I had to leave them behind. On the other hand, it does mean that you occasionally have reason to use even the items that look like garbage, and learn how to actually use them.
Anyway, I think I’ll retire the game until the next update. Still a cool game, but at this point I think the content I have left would be a lot of grinding and artificial speedruns to unlock a few more blueprints.