Platforms: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Reviewed by: Bracken Lee-Rudolph
Price: 1200 MSP
BattleBlock Theater is The Behemoth’s 3rd Xbox Live Arcade title, following the releases of Alien Hominid HD in 2007 and Castle Crashers in 2008, a title which worked its way to PlayStation 3 and PC in 2010 and 2012 respectively following its immense success on XBLA. BattleBlock Theater is a totally different experience from Castle Crashers and Alien Hominid, however, as this is neither a side-scrolling shooter or beat ’em up, but rather a platformer. So does BattleBlock Theater jump, run and fly-kick itself into The Behemoth’s impressive repertoire? Or will it be impaled, drowned, chewed up and spat out by the gaming community at large? Let’s find out:
BattleBlock Theater’s story is both whimsical in the way that it doesn’t take itself too seriously and surprisingly dark in what it depicts. You start on a boat, on an adventure with all of your (numerous) friends, including the most eccentric and likable friend of all, Hatty Hattington. Shortly after, you are caught in a massive storm and stranded on an uncharted island, and most of your friends have been either flung off the boat, or are nowhere to be found. You walk into a nearby building, and see feline characters putting a new, ominously glowing hat on Hatty, which instantly makes him their pawn, a sadistic character dedicated to causing pain for you and the friends from the boat. Shortly after, you are discovered and imprisoned. When you wake up, you are led to a backstage area which serves as a hub entrance to your Acts and Levels. The story is not told through the levels, although this makes sense when put in the perspective of what the levels are, but rather by a narrator between each act. This works well, despite its sporadic nature, and although the story isn’t a narrative marvel, it serves to make the setting believable and the areas relevant.
The title’s gameplay is, quite frankly, fantastic. You are given a basic character with 4 customisable parts: The head shape, the head detail, your character’s colour and the special weapon the character has. Once you’ve chosen these, you begin the title – the gameplay uses the simplest platforming elements of running and jumping, mixed with contextual actions, such as paddling water to bring boats closer to you, punching enemies and grabbing poles to climb. These simple elements blended in with more complex environmental pieces set the title off and the simplistic control scheme makes it easy to pick up and play, but challenging to master, meaning that the gameplay stays fresh and entertaining throughout the 8 Acts. Checkpoints are scattered liberally across the campaign missions, so frustrating respawns when you get impaled by spikes or drowned in pools of water are usually not a problem. Each level gets you a rank, from E to A++, which depends on how many jewels you pick up, whether you find the hidden yarn ball and how quickly you can speed through the level. Collecting jewels and yarn is not without reward thankfully, as both can be spent in the in-game Gift Store, jewels unlocking you new character head details and yarn unlocking new weapons to dispatch enemies.
Each Act contains 9 levels or scenes which you have to complete to get to the final area, usually timed, challenging level which requires you to use your skills to their fullest ability. After the 10th level, you unlock 3 extra levels, named encores, which are challenging, timed areas where you can earn extra gems and balls of yarn, in addition to a higher completion statistic. Outside of the main campaign there are several other modes to take part in, including a level editor, where you can create and upload your own levels – an incredibly simple and almost seamless process which allows players to build challenges for their fellow online gamers, a mode dubbed Furbottom’s Features, which allows you to play user-generated levels and extra, more difficult, levels released by Behemoth themselves to keep the title’s challenges fresh and allow you a little glimpse into the creative thoughts of other players. Lastly, there is a multiplayer mode, which I will get to later, and an Arena mode, which allows you to play co-op or versus against local friends.
Graphically, the title has a similar cartoony, hand-drawn style to it, akin to The Behemoth’s previous titles, Castle Crashers and Alien Hominid. Although these graphics are very simplistic, they are also very well animated, and serve to lift the mood. This gives the player a whimsical environment to go careering through on their quest to free their friends, and some equally whimsical characters to career with. Cutscene graphics are somewhat more jerky in animation, although this is intentional, as cutscene characters are supposed to resemble handheld theatre props. The only complaint I had was that in multiplayer, interactive boxes occasionally got attached to characters, and while usable, this persisted across several levels and was quite a distraction, if not an obstacle at certain points. Other than that, the animations and graphics were sublime and all worked as it was supposed to.
Sound-wise, the title also performs to quite a high standard. The music and sound effects are all very lively and energetic, and all seem to fit in perfectly. The only voice acting commonly present through the title, other than the grunts and cries of the characters in-game is the Narrator’s voice. The Narrator is depicted as an frantic and frenetic person through his speech, and while his overwhelming energy may get slightly irritating at times, he is very well voiced and his words always come through clearly. However, I did notice that the music at default was very loud, and while this may fit in perfectly while in-game, I found it quite frustrating while taking a break to hear the title’s music blaring loudly from my speakers. While this can be solved with a simple tweak in the options, switching off a sound system or using headphones, I found myself questioning whether there was a reason for the sound to be that loudly weighted towards music and unfortunately could not find one. However, this shouldn’t prove a major issue unless, like me, you are prone to leaving your console idle or taking breaks, so it shouldn’t be too large a concern, nor a detraction from an impressive audio display.
As mentioned previously, the title has a multiplayer mode, although this should be reworded to something akin to: “An all-encompassing co-op experience, filled with thrills and impaling spikes.”, as every mode in the title, from the campaign to the user-generated levels can be played with a friend, locally or online. In addition to this, there are several extra modes which the title allows you to search for, such as Muckle (Team Deathmatch, with added bonuses for brutal kills like drowning and laser disintegration) and Ball Game, which is effectively brutal basketball with a more vertically-orientated court. Once the servers are filled up by purchases, these will be entertaining game modes to play, although at present they are fairly limited as not many players are actively searching for games.
The title has an incredible amount to keep the player occupied, with an 8-hour campaign with plenty of replayability due to completion or co-op, several multiplayer modes and a co-op campaign. In addition to what promises to be an inordinate amount of user-generated content, there is no reason BattleBlock Theater shouldn’t be playable for several months to come and this shows that BattleBlock Theater is great value for money at 1200 MSP, or around R165* at this point.
I highly doubt that BattleBlock Theater will be everyone’s cup of tea, it may be too whimsical for some and others may not understand the appeal, but for those who appreciate a well-built platformer with solid interactivity and fairly comprehensive, they will not be disappointed in spending R165 for this title. While the story is not groundbreaking, it is immersive and well told, and sets a perfect setting to the events that occur within the title. The Narrator, as exuberant as he may be, only improves the way the story is told, and his interjections at certain actions fit well into the title’s excitable style.
Other than the main campaign, the title offers an insane amount of extra playability: A player can easily explore a plethora of user-generated levels, or try their hand at creating their own with a user-friendly level editing tool, they can co-op the campaign with a friend, online or off, or they can visit one of the several multiplayer modes which promise to be entertaining excursions once there are more players online. Other than a minor graphical glitch here, or a slightly overbearing musical score, the title seems nigh-perfect, and is certainly a title The Behemoth can be proud to add to their library of epic downloadable titles.
*May change due to currency exchange rates.
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Value for Money: 10/10
Reviewed on the Xbox 360.