BattleBlock Theater is one of those eclectic, random-humor games cut from the same cloth as Super Meat Boy or Splosion Man. Following the model used in The Behemoth’s Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers, BattleBlock takes a classic gameplay style, renders it with handdrawn animations, and drops in a truckload of cartoon violence for good measure. Just as with Behemoth’s former entries, while the reliance on over-the-top humor quickly becomes old hat, BattleBlock is still a blast to play, especially if you have friends who can take advantage of the co-op options.
BattleBlock Theater opens with a large group of friends setting out on Hatty Hattington’s yacht, the “Friendship,” for excitement and adventure. Their initially high spirits are dashed to pieces when a storm runs the ship aground on a ruined island populated entirely by an advanced society of cats. The crew is captured and forced into the titular BattleBlock Theater, a series of deadly survival challenges performed for the felines’ fiendish amusement. Hatty, meanwhile, turns against his friends after a glowing red top hat transforms him into the cats’ leader, and your personal oppressor. It’s an interesting premise and setting, and while the story and gameplay barely intersect during play, it generates just enough danger and interest to keep you eagerly awaiting the next post-level cutscene.
If you’ve played any of Behemoth’s previous games, you’ll already be familiar with the iconic art style that permeates its work. Pleasing hand-drawn animations are out in full force, as is the insane cartoon violence that is more exaggerated and laughable than it is disturbing. Admittedly, BattleBlock Theater‘s lighthearted tone seems like it would clash with the story at times. Within the first ten minutes, you’ve seen friends killed, loyalties betrayed, unjust imprisonments, and a totalitarian cat society that threatens lives for its own amusement. Of course, the moment cats come into anything, it’s pretty clear that you’re in for a very silly game. Behemoth wants you to have fun in this world, not dwell on how bleak it is. You’re supposed to bounce your head to the incredibly upbeat music and laugh at the narrator’s reactions to outrageous in-game deaths. The threat of your enemies is as over-the-top as any other game element, and BattleBlock Theater is more enjoyable for it.
Your goal in each level is straightforward enough: Gather at least three of seven green gems and reach the exit. The challenge comes from navigating environments constructed entirely out of stacked blocks, some of which are incredibly hazardous to your health. Outside of standard blocks which you can walk across, you have sticky blocks, spiked blocks, volcanic blocks that fling you in the opposite direction, and many more. The principles and mechanics behind each block are easy to grasp, but each level provides more than enough unique scenarios to keep things challenging. When puzzles become complex enough to require multiple attempts, usually from hilariously unexpected death sequences, instant respawns keep the game from slowing down. This is particularly helpful because you’ll also have to avoid enemy units like fast-punching cats, rocket-spewing robots, and even a giant man-eating raccoon monster. Despite the seemingly random design of each foe, they aren’t simply thrown in for novelty’s sake. Each enemy poses a unique obstacle on par with puzzle blocks themselves, and prevents BattleBlock Theater from becoming a series of static challenges and empty rooms. If you ever get tired of avoiding opponents, you can eventually unlock special weapons to dispatch them, including frisbees, vacuum cleaners, and an exploding frog. You can only equip one weapon at a time, and they’re not necessary for solving puzzles, but it sure is cathartic to wipe out incoming cats via increasingly creative methods.
The game can be completed as a solo playthrough, but the suite of co-op options and party games make it clear that BattleBlock Theater is meant to be played with friends. Campaign levels have been altered slightly from the single-player mode to ensure players are working together to survive and solve puzzles. The experience actually lines up pretty well with the theme of friendship conquering all, and it’s surprisingly heartwarming to watch your avatar lift an ally over dangerous obstacles. Once the story is complete, you can retry old levels to increase your score, or enter the Arena for eight highly amusing party games. You can also design your own content using an in-game level editor, although given the sheer amount of content within BattleBlock Theater‘s included worlds, you may not feel the need to open it for some time.
Outside of personalized levels, BattleBlock Theater also features a large number of unlockable items to keep the game fresh. Gems collected in the story campaign can be spent to purchase character skins, and it won’t take long before the diverse cast of heroes includes everyone from ninjas to pugs. The skins are largely cosmetic, but add a nice boost to your enjoyment when you have a collection of amusingly silly personas to choose from. (Xbox 360 players who own Alien Hominid or Castle Crashers will have those games’ protagonists available immediately.) Yarn balls can also be collected to purchase weapons, although they’re not necessary to complete the story campaign. Weapons are best used within BattleBlock Theater‘s Arena, where they’re as hilarious to unleash as they are frustrating to be subjected to. Just keep friendly fire in mind, as the tightly designed arenas make team killing as common as enemy deaths.
This all said, if you’re the kind of player who’s grown tired of random-humor games like Super Meat Boy, BattleBlock Theater might wear you out fairly quickly. The game’s platforming elements are solid, but being constantly surrounded by oddball narration and ridiculous scenarios dulls the impact of BattleBlock‘s genuine appeal. It’s difficult to play for much more than two worlds in one sitting before everything blends into a massive disjointed blur. Some cutscenes are especially egregious offenders on this score, dragging on for longer than necessary thanks to lengthy amounts of meaningless exposition. You can skip them if you choose, but then you’ll miss most of BattleBlock Theater‘s backstory. That’s not to say the game is without its charms, simply that there are too many charms competing for your attention, meandering on about cats, hats, and explosions.
Bottom Line: BattleBlock Theater is a refreshingly upbeat platformer that puts silliness and fun above all else. The gameplay is easy to grasp for platforming veterans, while the massive amount of content and alternate game modes ensure you’ll be entertained for hours. You also may never look at your cat quite the same way again.
Recommendation: If you enjoyed Behemoth’s previous games, or are looking for a very unique platformer to take on with a friend, BattleBlock Theater is for you.[rating=4]
Game: BattleBlock Theater
Developer: The Behemoth
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios