Developer: The Behemoth / Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: 1200 Microsoft Points / ESRB: Teen [Blood, Crude Humor, Violence]
A game by sadists, for sadists.
The long-awaited follow-up to the medieval parody beat ‘em-up, Castle Crashers, BattleBlock Theater is a pure platformer in that the main attraction is the core gameplay itself. The main motivation that pushes you forward is the satisfaction of knowing you’re beating the game. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it made me want to punch the TV more than a few times. Despite that, BattleBlock Theater is a fantastic game, and you should buy it, play it, and invite your friends to play it with you, so you can all revel in your shared misery.
BattleBlock Theater’s premise isn’t too deep: you and your hundreds of travelling companions were having fun on a long boat trip, led by the mysteriously charismatic Hatty Hattington—who doesn’t wear a hat. When the boat is swept up in a monstrous storm, it crashes on a creepy island overrun with giant cats. Hatty is abducted by those giant cats, and they put a creepy hat on his head—now he has a hat. From there, Hatty’s no longer your friend: he forces you to participate in a hellish theatrical performance that looks a lot like a videogame platformer.
What the game has you do is similarly uncomplicated: collect at least three of seven gems scattered throughout each level and find the exit. The paces you’re put through in pursuit of that goal, however, are where Battleblock tests your mettle. In addition to regular, basic blocks, each 2D level is made up of increasingly more complicated and treacherous components: exploding blocks, disappearing-reappearing blocks, spiked blocks, laser blocks, spring-loaded platforms, plenty of water (in which you drown), and more. There are plenty of other hazards, like robots that spit homing missiles at you, cat soldiers armed with weapons who you’ll have to kill through melee and weapon-based combat, weird marching birds that swallow you and fart you to new locations shortly before they explode…the list goes on.
Conveniently, death has no real meaning aside from being a temporary setback. You have unlimited lives in pursuit of your gems, but when you die (not if, but when), you’re spawned at your last checkpoint, sometimes on the complete other side of the level, sometimes only a step away. Like Super Meat Boy before it, Battleblock Theater’s only real goal is to see how much punishment you can stand before you decide to throw the controller away and pour yourself a drink. It’s maddening.
But, just like Super Meat Boy, Battleblock is never cheap or unfair in its tortures. When you die, it’s your fault for not paying attention to your surroundings, or for missing a jump, or for moving just a shade too far to the left, so you need to do it again. And again. And again.
But the act of finding hidden gems, or gems that put you in harm’s way, or balls of yarn (which are rarer and can be spent on weapons), or transporters to secret levels is all far too much fun to really stop playing for very long. And when you finish a level, the feeling of relief and satisfaction at having conquered it is profound, and will keep you coming back for more (or will keep you crying, reaching for the bottle once again …either way).
The story campaign is broken into eight acts, comprised of nine different scenes, plus three optional encores and one mandatory finale per act, which is the same kind of torturous experience, but with a time limit. So if you’re not on top of your game and tend to panic under pressure (like me!) you’ll be cursing, dying, and starting over…a lot. The story can also be played cooperatively with a partner, either online or local. And the co-op levels are actually subtly different from the solo levels, made specifically for two players to tackle together, heightening its replay value, and keeping veterans on their toes.
The multiplayer options in Battleblock Theater don’t stop there, offering a fully functional level creator and editor, as well as loads of competitive “arena” modes like King of the Hill, Soul Stealer (which is similar to tag or capture the flag), timed races, and more. While the single-player game’s torture started to wear me out, I was reinvigorated by the multiplayer games. I delighted in using a rotary fan to blow my opponent off the “hill” to her death—or, even better, blowing her fireballs back into her face and setting her ablaze. Watching each of us die repeatedly created some kind of sick pleasure in me, and I knew that BattleBlock Theater had finally cemented its grip on my psyche. My frustration gave way to joy at each new challenge, and each new spike-block. From pain came happiness.
Like I said: this is a game for sadists. And now I’m one of them.
The entire experience is amplified by the ever-present narrator, whose quavering voice—supplied by Will Stamper—goads you onward and laughs at your every demise. Stamper also narrates each act’s puppet show-styled cut scenes, all of which are hilarious and worth multiple watches. The game’s entire aesthetic, from Stamper’s performance to the gruesome cartoon violence, to the incredibly fun and infectious music, is one of the major draws at work here. Even if you hate platformers and are easily frustrated, simply watching someone play BattleBlock Theater is plenty entertaining.
Even still, it’s not quite perfect. Despite the impressive armory you’ll earn throughout the story campaign, you have to enter a pause menu to change weapons, despite the fact that the four shoulder buttons on the controller only have three gameplay functions mapped to them. I don’t see why one of the less important functions couldn’t have been relegated to the completely unused select button, opening two buttons to cycle weapons. Moreover, you can’t change or customize control schemes, which is a bit disappointing.
The playable characters—specifically their lack of gameplay differences—is another missed opportunity. The game has hundreds of unlockable faces you can customize your character with, but changing faces is merely cosmetic. I know giving bonuses or penalties for each face would’ve been tough given how many there are to unlock. But players have a choice of only four different face shapes that each could’ve had different characteristics. The four different knights of Castle Crashers had their own powers and bonuses; I’m not sure why the same basic mechanic couldn’t have been implemented here. The bigger problem is that of motivation: I’d be even more energized to keep going if I knew I could unlock a character that offered new or unique styles of play. Instead, the unlocking component seems cursory, and not very important.
Of course, those are relatively minor quibbles compared to the excellence of the rest of the game. With so many different gameplay options, and the ability to make your own levels to put your friends through your own custom hell, BattleBlock Theater was worth the wait. It took me a little while to come around—and I’m still not entirely convinced that I’m not suffering from some form of Stockholm syndrome—but I’m happy to be a prisoner on creepy cat island for as long as they’ll keep torturing me. Don’t ever stop, you creepy, orange things.