Review: Battleblock Theater
As creators of the famed beat-em-up Castle Crashers as well as Alien Hominid, The Behemoth have had their latest game in the works for quite some time now. First announced back in 2009, fans have been eagerly awaiting this title, some had even given up hope, then suddenly a 3rd April release was confirmed and the Newgrounds community rejoiced. Was it worth the wait?
Hatty Hattington, a keen explorer, has assembled a crew and sails the open seas in search of adventure, though when a viscous storm shipwrecks them on a mysterious island, Hatty joins the natives and forces his crew to perform in the titular Battleblock theater for the amusement of the island’s cats, whom also run the island. You are that crew. You must escape the dreaded theater, save your friends and discover why Hatty would betray you in such a way.
Still with me? Good! Because this game is as bonkers as it sounds and is quite frankly hilarious. Whereas the most memorable comic moments from Castle Crashers included animals literally pooing themselves to death (which could still illicit a smirk or two), the story of this game is wonderfully told by a narrator. I don’t mean to mince words here, he is perhaps the most consistently funny thing in any computer game ever. Comedy can be tricky in games and while there are plenty of excellent examples, there’s just something about this guy…
Voiced by Stamper from Newgrounds (I’m ashamed to say I don’t really know him), he was given bullet points to stick to by the game’s creator Dan Paladin, but other than the he was given plenty of room to improvise. Said by anyone else, it is entirely possible that the dialogue could fall flat, as the game still isn’t above some silly poop jokes, but Stamper sells it with such a genuine, enthused, highly strung and childlike quality that he’s almost impossible not to love. While there is more to this game, I could recommend it on the narration alone. Easily one of the most impressive narrators in gaming history (and The Cave only came out a couple of months ago).
The game is a 2-D platformer and has you running around approximately 100 stages, solving puzzles, fighting Cats and dealing with many, MANY hazards. The controls are tight and very responsive and while occasionally a platform will catapult you to the other side of the screen causing some controller snapping rage (not to mention those damn teleporters), it’s safe to say that if you die it is your fault. The only real major problem I had however is with the camera; often you’ll be asked to jump down a height without knowing what is below, also there are times where you’d like to see ahead and take more care with planning your route, but you have very limited control over your camera, only able to nudge it slightly. Death is usually not much more than a momentary annoyance as your immediately sent back to the previous checkpoint, though that’s hardly an excuse.
The way in which the game progresses is very encouraging. There is rarely a new obstacle, enemy or hazard that feels unfair the first time you encounter it, but it’s not just the level design that is well implemented, it’s also the coop. At the beginning, there will be gentle reminders strewn about the environment, reminding you that you can throw your partner across chasms, stand on their heads to jump higher and help them climb up obstacles that are too tall to jump. Though after a while it becomes second nature, without even having to speak or prepare, me and my friend were able to casually approach a puzzle, know what needs to be done and carry out the necessary actions.
Which isn’t to say the game can’t be hard, in fact in later levels it requires such skill, timing and patience that if it weren’t for the (slightly) slower pace, you’d think you were playing Super Meat Boy. The game’s reliance on defying physics with a double jump and the way wall grabs are treated almost likens it to the infamous “I Wanna be the Guy” (though don’t worry, it isn’t nearly as frustrating or punishing as that).
Like Castle Crashers, there is a heavy emphasis on coop, though it is more than possible to play this game alone, the levels (and to a certain extent, the entire game) are even lovingly changed for those who want to play alone. While still great fun, by the admission of the developers, coop is at the very heart of the game. While removing it would hardly kill it, you simply wouldn’t experience all that Battleblock theater has to offer without the coop. You wouldn’t get annoyed with your friend and decide to calmly push them into the water or decide to forego the collecting of gems to team up and try to kill one of those annoying stage hand Cats (and failing over and over, those Cats are tough). With all that said, this is a lovingly designed game that takes both solo and coop minded gamers into account.
Where would a Behemoth game be without its music? Castle Crashers still has some of my personal favorite video game tunes ever made. While Battleblock may not quite reach that caliber, it is still rather excellent. Created by the Newgrounds community, there are some insanely catchy tunes in here and definable worthy of Behemoth stock. If you can watch the announcement trailer, where the narrator makes up words to one of the tunes, without getting it stuck in your head, then you have a stronger constitution than I.
While the presentation is one of the best things about the game, it also has some of the game’s weak points. Quite simply, at times it feels like there is just too much going on. Whether it’s the sound effects, the animations or simply the frantic nature of the game (especially in coop), me and my partner actually had to start taking breaks because we were developing headaches. After some tinkering with the volume we were able to alleviate it somewhat and playing it on my own TV didn’t result in headaches, but it still bears mentioning. The game is designed in a manner that sections of stages from each other, so it’s perhaps to be played in such a manner, or perhaps it’s just me and my friend.
One thing that is harder to forgive however, is how saves are handled. Remember how saves worked in Halo? No matter how often you see the checkpoint marker come up, you still have to remind yourself to press “save and quit” before turning the console off. This game has a similar feature, but that’s not the bad bit!
I already mentioned that I played with a friend. Well, we played it for about 5 hours before deciding to call it a night. I took my Xbox home, slept, then booted it up in the morning, hoping to carry on and finish the game myself. Unfortunately, the save wasn’t there Oh, my unlocked costumes and weapons were there, but I was forced to start from the very beginning. As such I have yet to finish the game and don’t mind saying I’m a little pissed off by it. If there was an option to continue alone I certainly couldn’t see it and believe me I looked! Not that I should have to search mind you. It’s also bizarre for a game so happy to appeal to players that want to play solo.
As a final note, the online component of the game was barely usable upon review, some game modes were available but not all, for either performance or “lack of players” reasons. I was keen to give the basketball game a whirl, but many of the other modes require you to fight opponents, something that the game just wasn’t created for, and as such is far too chaotic to be enjoyable. There is also a very capable level editor should you want to get creative, though it would be easier to control with a mouse to be honest.
Ah, now comes time for the dreaded “score” section (please keep in mind that due to the save issues, I’ve completed the first 6 chapters). Due to the annoyances I just mentioned (including the headaches) and given how there is a slightest of lulls during some middle chapters I was all set to score this game somewhere in the 70’s. Though the simple fact is that I can’t wait to finish this review so I can go back and play some more, I even plan to play it again after that to collect all the gems and yarn balls (you know, for the Cats). Though, and I can’t state this enough, the humor and style on display here may be the antithesis of what some people would call “fun”, luckily, there is always the option to download a demo on XBLA and judge for yourself. Like what you see? Then get it dear boy!
It is a rare game that makes me want to revisit it after completion, so with that in mind, and not to mention the narrator, I can safely say it ain’t all that bad.
Review: Battleblock Theater Results
What we liked:
Best narrator in video games
Controls are tight and responsive
Solo and coop both catered to
What we disliked:
May cause headaches
Camera could be much better