It’s probably not out of left field to say Battleblock Theater has big shoes to fill.
Fairly or not, The Behemoth’s latest opus will undoubtedly be held up against the developer’s previous game, Castle Crashers, for comparison. That’s perhaps to be expected – Castle Crashers, which first hit in 2008, was a defining game in the early days of XBLA. The game brought a new popularity to the classic beat-em-up format and offered one of the most addictive multiplayer experiences on the system. To this day, it’s one of the most popular games ever to grace Xbox’s digital marketplace.
So, undoubtedly, a long shadow is cast over Battleblock. But the game deserves to be judged on its own merits, because it’s a puzzle-platformer that deserves your time and attention.
In Battleblock Theater, players control one of Hatty Hattington’s many best friends, whom he’s gathered on a semi-regular boat trip. Naturally, the ship is caught in a storm and shipwrecks on a mysterious island filled with angry cats. The passengers are quickly imprisoned and dear Hatty is recruited by the cats to put the inmates through a grueling play of dangerous and deadly puzzles.
That “twisted night at the theater” motif permeates through every aspect of Battleblock. Each world is presented as a single act in the overall performance, with individual levels making up the scenes and a finale stage to top off each play. Players must collect three gems to move on to the next scene, although most areas contain between six and seven gems total along with other hidden collectibles, such as balls of yarn to be used to bribe cat guards for new weapons, for good measure. As you move through the production, story beats are presented as a sort of “play-within-a-play” by the unnamed, overly-enthusiastic narrator who presents the tale in the most bombastic and over-the-top way imaginable (with a heavy does of The Behemoth’s signature brand of humor, of course).
Battleblock Theater is a puzzle-platformer through and through, and a great one at that. Levels (sorry, “acts”) are creatively laid out and progressively more challenging without (generally) being infuriating, and short enough to give them that “oh, just one more, I suppose” feeling that lends itself well to addiction. Battleblock can be a challenging game – it’s inevitable you’ll clear a stage with at least one gem missing after you think you’ve nabbed them all – but it’s never unfair, easing players into the mechanics and introducing new elements organically. Exploding blocks, volcanic blocks (which act as bouncy blocks), slimy blocks that help the player traverse down walls slowly – gameplay elements are constantly and casually introduced, and become staples of gameplay from that point forward.
Battleblock Theater also takes the multiplayer elements of its previous offerings and beefs them up considerably. Eight distinct multiplayer arena modes range from traditional deathmatch, capture the flag (well, horse) and king of the hill gametypes, to a mode where the objective is to swipe more gold from a whale than the other team. The game also offers a comprehensive level editor, allowing you to create your own insane acts to share with the world at large, offering players a distinctly “Castle-Crashers-meets-LittleBigPlanet” option for their online play.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the game is absolutely gorgeous. Battleblock retains what can, at this point, safely be labeled The Behemoth’s “house style” – twisted, colorful, and cartoony. The same just-slightly-too-crude-for-Saturday-morning visuals that helped make Castle Crashers such a darling are present here.
If there’s one area, gameplay-wise, where Battleblock Theater falls flat, it’s in combat. Again, this is not Castle Crashers – combat isn’t the point. Still, scenes are lightly populated with enemies and you are given means to take them on. Unfortunately, combat controls are flighty, to the point where in most instances it’s almost better to avoid confrontations altogether (which is sometimes easier said than done considering some enemies will follow you). That said, finding ways to avoid or dispatch them creatively (most enemies are susceptible to the same spiky or watery death your character is) can become something of a puzzle in itself, so it’s generally a minor annoyance in an otherwise solid package.
Is Battleblock Theater worth your hard-earned cash that’s been converted into Microsoft Points? In a word – absolutely. It’s a gorgeous, addictive, endlessly inventive title that proves again that The Behemoth is one of the most creative indie developers in the industry. Whether it manages to reach the popularity of its predecessor remains to be seen, but this is a game that deserves to be played on its own merits (of which there are many).