The lights are on
One of my favorite early Xbox Live Arcade games was Castle Crashers – the brilliant brawler from the folks over at The Behemoth. That’s why I was so excited when the developer finally released BattleBlock Theater earlier this year. While the team’s earlier efforts with Alien Hominid offered some platforming opportunities amid the constant action and shooting, BattleBlock Theater is a glimpse into pure platforming and puzzle-solving at its best.
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Earlier this year, I already offered up my review of BattleBlock Theater, but I wanted to articulate another shout-out for the game as we prepare for our Top 50 list.
BattleBlock Theater feels more haphazard than it really is. Where many platforming games have distinct themes for each of their game worlds, BattleBlock’s many levels all feel odd in their own right, often without a distinct conceptual vibe. While the visual style might feel random, the slow introduction of new block types and enemies is a steady curve that introduces both new ideas and higher difficulty at an even and measured pace.
I love the idea of basing the entire game around the blocks beneath your feet. One block might be a trampoline, while another one is slick like ice, and a third shoots out laser blasts. By slowly learning the vocabulary of what each block means, players gradually gain the knowledge needed to both progress and solve ever tougher puzzles.
I’m also a big fan of The Behemoth’s integration of puzzles into its action-oriented platforming. The frantic speed and quick levels make it tempting to rush from one stage to the next, but often the best snippets of gameplay involve careful observation of an area to find a well hidden gem or yarn ball. By the time you reach the later levels, the intensity of the puzzle and challenge of the platforming is blistering, demanding precision and observation in equal measures.
Perhaps the feature that blows me away the most in BattleBlock Theater is that the entire campaign is also available in a form redesigned for cooperative play. In this mode, every stage demands that players work together to accomplish goals, providing one of the best cooperative experiences of 2013. Unlike many games in which either cooperative partner can carry the partnership, each player in BattleBlock Theater needs to be on the ball to succeed.
The wealth of ridiculous arena modes add yet more multiplayer fun, even if these levels are often more of a quick diversion than fully fleshed out competitive modes. However, the ever-expanding library of user-created content offers ample reason to return and play more of BattleBlock Theater as the months pass. Several of these new levels since launch are brilliant additions, and well worth your time.
BattleBlock Theater’s silly story about giant cats that have turned their island into a prison/theater serves to carry you from one place to the next, but it also offers a conceptual backing to the game’s customization, which has you trading collectibles for new weapons and a bevy of character heads. The frantic narrator that speaks throughout the game is hit and miss with his jokes, but thankfully, The Behemoth has wisely included an option to decrease or, if you’re insane, increase the presence of his jokes.
BattleBlock Theater is a huge game, easily on par in scope with other competitors in the genre, like Rayman and Mario. Unlike those games, BattleBlock Theater released as a low-cost downloadable game. Its silly concepts and thoughtfully designed levels are a blast when playing solo, and even more fun with a second player at your side in co-op. Platforming fans shouldn’t miss out on its singular charm just because it doesn’t have a familiar character at its head.
The Top 50 ChallengeSome great platformers came out in 2013, but I think BattleBlock Theater deserves consideration near the front of the pack. Dan Ryckert and I both love the challenge and structure of classic platforming games, so I wanted to see what he thought of Behemoth’s unusual take on the genre. I have a feeling that BattleBlock’s obnoxious announcer might not tickle his funny bone, but the ability to adjust the presence of the voiceover should help with any frustration. For my part, the more I played around and learned the many blocks types and puzzles of BattleBlock, the more I fell in love with the game’s clever design and inexorable pace.
Dan took up my challenge and played BattleBlock Theater for a day to help inform his thoughts. He'll share whether he supports my bid to include BattleBlock Theater in our Top 50 Game of 2013 tomorrow at 10pm CST.
Email the author Matt Miller, or follow on Game Informer.