Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: The Behemoth
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
It’s been a long 5 years since The Behemoth’s last game Castle Crashers took the world of console arcade games by storm, and fans of the cartoony CO-OP hack n’ slash adventure have been patiently waiting for another quality outing from Dan Paladin and crew ever since. We knew a third game was in the works, but besides the vague “Game #3” designation and a handful of even vaguer concept art, little else was known for quite some time about the mysterious new title. Well now that BattleBlock Theater is here at long last, we can finally see what The Behemoth has been up to in all of that time: and trust me when I say that it was certainly worth the wait.
I’m going to try my best to give you a brief overview of the plot here, but bear with me, because the only thing more ridiculous than the plot of BattleBlock Theater is the hilarious way that the story is told. Basically, you play as one of hundreds of best friends, who are on a merry voyage out to sea on the S.S. Friendship. But when a terrible storm hits, your boat gets shipwrecked, and you and your hundreds of pals are suddenly kidnapped and imprisoned in the bowels of a strange island fortress that’s run and guarded by an army of cats. Weirder still, is that your crew’s top friend, Hattie Hattington, is nowhere to be found, and seems to be up to something that’s not so best friendly.
And so sets the stage for BattleBlock Theater, the next great essential XBLA game. The opening cinematic is one of the funniest I’ve seen in a long time of playing video games, and it kind of reminds me of a creepy puppet show your estranged Uncle Larry would perform for all the youngin’s in his basement (complete with all the WOOSH! and BLAM! voice effects that you would expect to accompany a scene with a boat crash). Dan Paladin’s signature 2D art style makes a much welcomed return, and this time the sharp cartoony artwork also features just a hint of intentional artificiality to the different environments, to make everything look manufactured like the props and scenery of a theatrical play.
As you might have guessed, BattleBlock Theater is a slick platformer that builds its premise around one basic element: blocks. Throughout the game’s 400 levels (that’s right, 400 levels), you’ll encounter all sorts of these blocks: from fire ones that send you flying across the sky with a seared bottom; to ice blocks that have you slipping and sliding all over the stage; and explosive blocks that require you to have quick feet when running over them. The entire game can be completed on your own, but the experience is decidedly much more fun by utilizing the game’s 2-player CO-OP mode, which my girlfriend and I made heavy use of over this past weekend. You can choose to work together by tossing your partner across large gaps to snag that last tricky gem, or you can also choose to compete against one another, by nonchalantly shoving your friend into the nearest spike block. In either event, the game makes for a great team-building exercise, or a backhanded way of saying “I don’t want to be friends anymore.”
As players scamper across each platforming stage, the sprightly narrator from the game’s story makes a triumphant return as the announcer of your gameplay, spouting colorful expletives like “What the fart?” and “That wasn’t supposed to happen” whenever you or your friend take an unscheduled trip to the great theater beyond. The game manages to find that sweet spot in terms of difficulty, with a perfect progression from easy to hard, and a steady introduction of new blocks and gameplay mechanics that appear over time. Even though the game is very accessible for gamers of all skill levels, the timed challenges at the end of each chapter offer a serious test for only the most seasoned of platformer gamers. Luckily, players can die as much as they want in the game with little repercussions (on normal mode at least), which is great because it never upsets the flow of gameplay with unnecessary spawn times. You can also ride in little paper boats, which is exactly as awesome as it sounds.
One of the biggest draws of BattleBlock Theater is collecting a handful of green gems and a special yarn ball across each level, which allows you to purchase new characters and weapons in the prison’s Gift Shop. Collecting everything in a level and finishing under the designated par time will result in you getting an A++ ranking, which comes with its own set of rewards. Castle Crashers had a ton of unlockable characters for an arcade game in 2008, but that is absolutely dwarfed in comparison by The Behemoth’s latest. Each character is fully customizable with hundreds of different unlockable heads across 4 different shape varieties, and it’s likely you’ll never play as the same character twice. The weapons are just as diverse, and directly speak to The Behemoth’s quirky brand of humor, from explosive Frisbees, to portable fans, and even vacuum cleaners.
So now it’s time to get a little nitpicky here, because that’s what we game reviewers are supposed to do, isn’t it? My biggest complaint with the game is the lack of a cohesive menu system to check your in-game progress and other objectives. The main hub world sort of dual functions as the game’s menu screens, but everything is so far spread out, that it takes a little while of playing just to make heads or tails of the whole thing. Sure, there are little light indicators above every chapter door that let you know which levels you already completed, but we couldn’t find a way to check which levels we had earned an A++ ranking in, or in which ones we still had a gem or two left to find. It was almost as if finding every gem in the game didn’t really matter, and for completionist gamers like me, you can imagine that this was a problem.
Another small issue I had with the game has to do with the controls: specifically during combat segments. Some of those cats are serious contenders in the ring, and sometimes it feels like your basic punch attacks aren’t really doing anything effective and that you’re better off just trying to get the cats to accidentally fall in the water and drown (and don’t even get me started on those regenerating ninja toasts). I also wish there was an option to play as a different color than your partner, or at least a different variation of the team color instead of the same solid shade. I get that we’re on the same team and everything, but what if my favorite color is blue and my girlfriend’s is purple? It also gets a little confusing when you and your teammate are playing as the same color, and the camera zooms out so far that it gets a little hard to keep track of which player you are anymore.
As if the 400 levels of the main story mode weren’t somehow enough to meet your every platforming need, BattleBlock Theater also boasts a fast-paced multiplayer arena, with 8 exciting ways to play, and a comprehensive level editor, which lets you build and design your very own twisted levels with tons of devious blocks to challenge your friends. The different multiplayer modes are wonderfully diverse, but I think my favorite is a mode called Horse, which challenges you to steal the opposing team’s awkward-looking horse and ride it back into your own stable. Both the multiplayer arena and level editor are great additions to the game, and each feels completely fleshed out in its respective context, and not like they were tacked on at the end of the game’s developmental cycle.
So to summarize: lots of blocks, Hattie Hattington is not-so-best-friendly, 400 levels, “What the fart,” 2-play CO-OP, WOOSH and BLAM! Yeah, I think that just about covers it. BattleBlock Theater is everything I imagined it would be and more, and there are very few finer block-based platformers that you will see on the market to date. If you are a fan of Castle Crashers or just great video games in general, go find yourself a partner, and prepare to shove them into all sorts of spiky death blocks and deadly pools of water, because BattleBlock Theater is here to play!
Story – 10/10
Graphics – 10/10
Gameplay – 9/10
Music – 8/10
Multiplayer – 8/10
Replayability – 10/10