Battleblock Theater is a weird game to see come from The Behemoth. The Behemoth made Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers, two of the most game-y games available on Xbox Live. Hominid and Crashers are games born of a love for the arcade, full of twitch-jumps, hyper dangerous enemies, infrequent checkpoints and bosses with life bars the size of skyscrapers. So to see them release Battleblock Theater, this drunken pub brawl of a game, is just curious – it doesn’t fit their typical MO.
For a start, it feels quite anti-mastery. Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers existed as challenges to be overcome and perfected but Battleblock appears to thrive in the simplicity and frequent imprecision of its mechanics. In a way it’s sloppy, something I never thought I would say about a Behemoth game, but for what it’s trying to be it works – anyone can enjoy Battleblock Theater and no-one can ever really get overly proficient, ensuring that jolly party antics are sustained. This isn’t a game you get good at so much as a game you simply enjoy.
That’s not to say that Battleblock is entirely without some tricky bits and things to learn – its single player is entirely built upon strong puzzle platforming elements – just that the simple act of playing it is an easy one that won’t tax to the degrees of The Behemoth’s other titles.
Battleblock Theater starts with one of the most charismatic openings ever committed to a video game. Animated by stick puppets and narrated by the improvised, enthusiastic voice of “Stamper”. The tale told is a simple one: you’re one of the many friends of Hatty Hattington, the best best friend there ever was, and you’re going on an adventure with Hatty and his many other friends in a boat. During your voyage, your vessel is caught in a nasty storm and your boat is wrecked, washing up on an island with an old decaying theatre and a surplus of cat janitors.
Not five minutes on the island and Hatty is captured, forced to wear a stylish top hat and sit on a throne of gems while you play the role of one of the many prisoners on the isle, forced to take part in harrowing death shows for the island’s feline residents, pushing forward with only a shred of hope that you might be able to save Hatty if you ascend in the cat’s favour.
The plot is frequently off-kilter but the narrative style is undeniably infectious, and the theatre a nice thematic mechanic for a paltformer. The humour might be a touch puerile for some, with the developers penchant for poo gags rearing its stinky smell once more, but it’s certainly more developed than past fare.
So what are these death shows you must take part in? Why, they are self contained puzzle-platforming stages in which collecting gems is the order of the day. Find three gems in a stage to open the exit, but find all a level’s gems as well as a yarn ball quickly and you’ll stamp the stage with an A++ rank, earning more gems and renown in the process. Gems are then used to buy more character faces for you to choose.
The platforming itself is somewhat piecemeal, with little zing or pop to the hopping, but the large variety of blocks and tools help mask said un-thrilling bouncing with a very pretty puzzle-laden throw rug – housewives everywhere would be proud. From fire blocks that send you bouncing at high speed and boulders you can carry to throw on switches, to wind currents and collectable flight-imbuing wings, Battleblock is a game about reading what’s in front of you and then analysing how it all needs to be used to achieve your goals, all the while avoiding water, lasers and spikes that frequently litter your path.
The game is enjoyable enough when played solo but it sings a far prettier melody when tackled in co-op. Every level in the campaign is slightly remixed when approached with two so as to encourage joint actions such as a tandem throw or upward shove, while puzzles require a bit of “I’ll do this while you do that” Chuckle Brother action. And then you shove your buddy into a laser. Heh heh.
You see, Battleblock’s combat is where all the accusations of imprecision come from, but it’s also the source of the game’s Happy Tree Friends-like comedy thanks to the often slapstick nature of proceedings and actions. You have access to a range of punches, shoves and a weapon, but trying to fight in Battleblock Theater is the video game equivalent of two men wincing away and flailing their arms at each other. You’ll try and time punches but likely overshoot, shove people only for them to move nowhere dangerous, and a thrown grenade is just as likely to bounce back into your face as it is towards your foe. Even if you use the fireball attack the person you ignite has a huge window to tag you with the flames, ending your current life as well. What it boils down to is that it’s silly, and played with the right sort of people it manages to breed a sort of frustrated fun that’s entirely unique.
And nowhere is this side of Battleblock better displayed than in its competitive multiplayer modes. From the straight-up brawl of Muckle (that rewards points for every hit, not just kills – which should tell you how tough it is to land a smack) to objective modes like Capture the Horse, Grab the Gold and Basketball, the game’s eight modes all give a little twist to the game’s unique style of drunken melee. Play it online with buddies and it’s alright. Play it in local four player and Battleblock is brilliant. Throw in a full level editor that allows the creation of full single, co-op and multiplayer levels and Battleblock has some serious staying power.
Aesthetically, Battleblock is simple and clean. A Dan Paladin game, the bulk of the personality exists in the theatre itself and in the cutscenes. That’s not to say the game looks bad, it’s just that the levels are all designed to a template, meaning that none of the individual stages stand out from an artistic perspective. It looks nice, but many fans of The Behemoth’s past work may find themselves wanting for the oversized sprite-work of past titles. There’s plenty of variety and fan service in the prisoner faces and cutscenes mind, it’s just rarely as visually arresting as Mr. Paladin’s past work.
The sound of Battleblock Theater, now that’s something to write home about three times a week. From the frequently entertaining chatter of the narrator and commentator to the hugely unique carnival-meets-techno-meets-retro-meets I-don’t-know-what soundtrack, the game is constantly appealing to the ears.
Riffing on so many ideas as to seem avaricious, the music is really, truly fantastic, and you’ll never know what style or sound to expect next. I didn’t know it was possible for a game’s audio design to be so Magpie-like in its style yet remain so consistent and wonderful. A delight.
VERDICT: Battleblock Theater is the weirdest game that the Behemoth has made, but it’s also the most interesting. What started as indifference early on blossomed into feelings of true warmth as I started to appreciate what the game is trying to do, rather than wondering why it wasn’t the game I thought it might be. But, saying that, there are still very typically game-y hardships to be overcome, both in the higher difficulty mode and in some of the stupidly infuriating fan creations already doing the rounds, so it’s not as if Battleblock abandons The Behemoth’s old-school tenants, it just wavers from them in a few key areas that caught me off balance.
But it’s the multiplayer that truly shines. The “play with mates, shout at the screen, have a good time” brawls of Battleblock feel like an anarchy-tinged, mastery-lite antidote to the skill-favouring, progression-poisoned arenas of other modern multiplayer titles. Battleblock Theater’s love and celebration of pure play makes it the bacon butty for this generation’s aching multiplayer hangover. So get some friends around, have a few drinks (or overdose on sugar if you’re of a younger age) and just revel in the joy of Battleblock’s pub-scrap slapstick mentality. It’s refreshing.
BRILLIANT. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.