Right from the off, it’s clear that BattleBlock Theater [sic] comes from the same minds that conjured up the cartoon splendour of Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers. Comic strip buffoonery and a focus on solid 2D action are the bread and butter of The Behemoth’s output, and their latest adventure builds on that foundation well with an endearing sense of character and exhaustive spread of thoughtful puzzle platforming challenges.
BattleBlock Theater opens up with a rather spirited introduction and lays out the game’s quirky motif pretty quickly. Simply put, a sailing boat full of friends and a jovial fellow by the name of Hatty Hattington (you read that correctly) randomly become embroiled in a wild and perilous storm, causing them to crash against the shore of a mysterious island. It turns out, of course, that the island is inhabited by a league of evil cats who have harshly imprisoned your beloved friends. The only way to set them free is to beat a series of unrelenting challenges….So it’s a videogame, in other words.
As you might suspect, this playful conceit is really just the window dressing for a sizeable collection of puzzle platforming levels. The basic approach to each stage in BattleBlock Theater is not to overwhelm with strict time limitations or a demand for precise handling a la Super Meat Boy. Instead, collecting is the name of the game–seeking out the gems and hidden trinkets in each level is the main objective here. Not in the plodding Banjo Kazooie sense, though – you constantly need to subvert the basic layout of each level and use the tools given to you to think outside the box and access certain areas that initially appear out of reach.
The game wisely eases you into this mode of thinking without holding your hand to some patronising extreme. You learn the mechanics of the world around you as you naturally go on and absorb the fundamentals of what works and what doesn’t. The totally solid platforming operates with familiar trappings for the most part, including jump-pads and movable objects that require a little push-and-pull here and there. But importantly, it all fits together very neatly and results in satisfying platforming action that moves along at a brisk pace that gets progressively harsher as you go. Although the first couple of chapters might seem elementary in some ways, this doesn’t mean the game is easy or simplistic. Despite the game’s emphasis on collecting, you can still come to a stage’s conclusion without bothering to amass every last gem or elusive ball of wool if that’s your thing. You can always return for another hunt should you so desire, too.
All of this collecting does serve a purpose beyond unlocking the next set of levels–collecting ten of the aforementioned gems will help release an individual prisoner, granting you a new style of ‘head’ to use for your own animated hero. It’s fun to customise your little dude with different shapes and faces, and always a peculiar treat to find out which randomised cartoon head you’ll be able to starting using after setting a friend free. The range of heads on offer is endlessly amusing, ranging from a cutesy panda to my personal favourite, a square-headed face of seething anger. It’s silly stuff, and there’s a fair number of them to accrue as well. Similarly, it costs five balls of wool to unlock a single randomised weapon. In the single-player, weapons mainly come in handy when taking out pesky A.I. guards dotted about a level. A boomerang, for instance, is useful for clearing out a guard wielding his own bothersome weapon, allowing you to approach a section without being knocked into any number of deathly pools and spike traps. Dying is of little consequence here, however–checkpoints are plentiful and there’s no real punishment for dying repeatedly. Again, the challenge lies in uncovering every corner of a level and collecting the goods along the way as opposed to speeding along for the best time. (That said, there are occasional time trial stages as well).
On top of local or online co-op play for the main story content, there’s a whole other side to BattleBlock Theater – multiplayer for up to four players (both online and offline). In multiplayer, the focus lies in team-based competitive action with a host of different modes to pick and choose from. Standard multiplayer fare exists, such as team deathmatch and king of the hill variants. More creatively though, a couple of modes apply the game’s platforming framework in some genuinely entertaining and clever ways. A standout example is a re-appropriated game of basketball – both teams have nets on either side of the level and a soccer ball (funny on its own) is dropped into the centre, leaving both teams to scramble about and climb and leap their way to a seven-point slam dunk. Plus the mode Ride the Horse, a sort of capture the flag variant with a servile horse-like creature, is equally as frantic and all over the shop.
The multiplayer is a different beast from the more considerate puzzles presented in the single-player content, but still works reasonably well as a fun distraction all the same. There’s a definite sense of frivolousness to it all – the basic elements of the game’s gameplay make it relatively easy to cheese your way into victory and keep the other team at bay. It never alludes to being anything other than a mindless scrap however, and it’s best enjoyed that way. If you get tired of the pre-fab stages, there’s also a robust level editor to create and share your own arenas or download others.
The cuddly charm of BattleBlock Theater tells only half the story – the game boasts a horde of smartly designed puzzle platforming stages as well as a multiplayer suite goofy enough to raise some pure and honest laughter. Whether on your own or with and against some friends, there’s plenty worth chewing through here.
Reviewed on Xbox 360; download code supplied by The Behemoth.
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