A chip off the old block
After nearly five years of development time, BattleBlock Theater is finally here. Following the success of Castle Crashers, it would stand to reason that The Behemoth has some big shoes to fill, and for many, the suspense is killer.
So I'll just cut to the chase here: it was worth the wait if you're a platforming fan.
BattleBlock Theater (Xbox Live Arcade)
Developer: The Behemoth
Publisher: The Behemoth
Released: April 3, 2013
MSRP: 1200 MSP ($14.99)
After all these years, many people are still confused as to what the game even is. So let me clear the air: it's a co-operative and competitive platformer. At its core, that's basically it -- but of course, there's so much more to it than that.
The story is the main draw here, as it contains that classic Behemoth charm you know and love -- kicked up to 11. This time around, we have a colorful and excited narrator (William Stamper, who is fantastic) that really gets the job done and draws you into the insane world of BattleBlock. A world which, by the way, takes place in a giant gladiatorial slave pit dressed as a theatrical stage, in which your best friend (Hatty Hattington, who may or may not be under mind control) has forced you to partake in mysterious games of death and destruction.
From the very first intro cinematic, you'll get the gist of what The Behemoth was trying to accomplish here, which is to put a smile on your face at all times. Whether you're laughing at a cat puppet bashing in marshmallow men in Muppets fashion, or a giant chicken head throwing explosive frogs with tophats with the intention of blowing up cats, BattleBlock manages to keep things fresh and interesting throughout the entire campaign. It's kind of like a mishmash of Behemoth's humor to date -- an "all stars" collection if you will -- and pretty much anything is fair game.
One of my favorite parts of the game thematically is that the narrator will often comment on your in-game progress, yelling things like "OH MY GOODNESS GRACIOUS" at the top of his lungs if you were to say, burst into flames. The wacky soundtrack that's so typical of Behemoth is also back in full force, and old fans will find a number of nods to past games buried within the recesses of the game's vibrant visuals and score.
So what do you do, exactly? Quite simply, the object is to get to the end of the level -- traversing enemies, traps, and different types of blocks to reach your goal. In each level, you'll be able to find a number of gems, and one ball of yarn, which can be exchanged for new characters and weapons respectively. In order to complete a level, all you need to do is find three gems -- the rest of the booty is entirely optional.
At its surface, it may look like a typical platformer that doesn't really do much for the genre. But the key here is that BattleBlock truly innovates the approach to co-op platforming. Through the simple mechanics of throwing partners to safer ground, riding in boats, timing jumps, pulling each other up on ledges and using your heads to reach higher ground, you'll figure out your own number of methodologies to approach each level.
There were many times where my wife and I would stop, take in our surroundings, and figure out how to tackle the next challenge, which is a refreshing change of pace in this era of hand holding. In the next breath, we were outrunning a skill based twitch obstacle that had an obvious solution, but was easier said than done in terms of besting it.
Due to all of these factors (the sharing of humor included), the game is best enjoyed with other players -- whether that's through couch play or online (which supports both the campaign and arena modes). The levels are completely reworked if you're playing solo so that they're possible without team moves, and as such, a lot of the magic is lost when you're just trekking through by yourself.
Having said that, the game's Arena mode will be your ongoing source of enjoyment after you've done everything there is to do in the roughly five hour campaign. There are eight diverse modes of play (plus community playlists), which range from the wacky Capture the Horse (Capture the Flag, with a cute rideable horse), to Muckle (basically Super Smash Bros.), to Ball Game (basketball).
My favorite gametypes are Color the World (similar to Graffiti from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, but 2D and awesome) and Challenge (a competitive, head to head time trial race). All of the Arena's modes are playable with four players, but the latter two are extremely intense unique experiences that are rarely offered up in any game, much less the platforming genre.
For the most part, there's really something for everyone here, even if you only stick to one or two modes. Behemoth also has a catch in place that will find any open game available if you choose the Quick Match option, ensuring that the community won't become segmented in all of the different modes, which can be confusing and overbearing at first. If you're interested, there are also leaderboards to keep you on your toes.
Compared to say, LittleBigPlanet, the level editor isn't nearly as robust as it could be. You really can create anything the game offers up in the levels provided by Behemoth, but the tools available don't really transcend that of a basic platforming experience.
Then again, BattleBlock never claims to innovate on that front, instead settling on providing a tighter, more traditional (and less floaty) engine that does pretty much everything you want your avatar to do. As I've already stated, the game rewards skill and precision, which is increasingly evident in the competitive time trial mode online, which succeeds in placating the speed-run demon inside of me.
Content wise, this game is bursting at the seams. With cross-game promotion add-ons, tons of heads to unlock (that you can trade with other players), new weapons, replayable online and offline game modes, bonus levels, encore story levels, collectibles to capture, A+ grades to earn for every level, and the level editor with community challenges, you'll be at BattleBlock for quite a while. The best part is that months from now, you'll also be able to go in and play fresh Behemoth or community created content, without having to fiddle with any DLC (which the developer has informed me they have "no current plans for" at this time).
If you absolutely positively hate platformers, I'm not so sure you'll enjoy BattleBlock Theater. Unlike Castle Crashers which had the benefit of the simplistic, pick up and play beat 'em up genre, you get more out of BattleBlock the more you're willing to put into it. Positive reinforcement is gained through skill and triumph rather than simply bashing things in mindlessly, so in that regard, the universal appeal is a bit lower than most of Behemoth's older titles.
But as long as you're willing to give it a chance, you'll reap the rewards of a fairly deep, interesting game that was built with a lot of heart. I can't wait to see how Behemoth follows this up, and I hope it doesn't take five years to do it.
BattleBlock Theater reviewed by Chris Carter
A hallmark of excellence. It may have some flaws, but they are negligible to what is otherwise a supreme title.
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