BattleBlock Theater is an Xbox Live Arcade platform puzzle game from The Behemoth, who are the developers of the excellent Castle Crashers and slightly-less-excellent Alien Hominid HD. The graphics are cartoonish, it features a good deal of laughs and some tricky puzzles that will test your dexterity later on. Also, it allows you to play through the story in co-op mode either locally or over Xbox Live, and there are competitive and team-based minigames to be had, as well as a level editor and the ability to share and collect levels from other users.
But that description doesn’t do it justice in any way at all.
You see, BattleBlock Theater is a little bit special. From the moment you first load the game up and the ridiculously funny commentator narrates a puppet show that talks you through the story, you start to pray to the gods of gaming that the game itself isn’t absolute trash. You want it to be at least playable, so you can trudge through and get to hear more of the sarcastic and silly story that will genuinely provide belly laughs a-plenty.
As you take your first tentative steps into the opening levels, everything feels like a bit of a cakewalk. Your goal is to collect three green gems on each stage, as doing this will activate the exit door and allow you to move on to the next level. There are more gems available - as well as a well-hidden ball of yarn – on each level and collecting all of these (quickly!) will get you a higher ranking when the scores are tallied. As the levels are relatively short affairs early on, you’ll find yourself going back in to try and get that elusive “A+” ranking each time, and this adds to the playing time on offer considerably.
That cakewalk soon gets tougher though, as each level presents you with a series of challenges to prevent you from reaching the gems. Your character drowns if you touch water, so one level will open with you needing to cross a large body of water that has an out-of-reach boat above it. Reaching the switch that deactivates the block that’s holding the boat up is your first goal. Once you’ve done it – collecting enough gems as you go - the boat falls to the water, and you jump in the boat and paddle across to the exit. Simple, huh? Well it would be, were the path to the switch not littered with spikes, evil cats, saws, more water, rebounder blocks, yet more spikes, an undefeatable enemy that chases you across a sticky floor that hampers your progress, and a tin man with a rocket launcher that fires homing missiles.
You'll need to jump, run, duck, double-jump, and be propelled across all manner of obstacles, and the beautifully responsive controls mean that you can very, very rarely blame the game for anything that causes you to come to grief. Fortunately, you can die as many times as you like – just like in LittleBigPlanet, for example – and you’ll be returned to your last checkpoint when you do. Every time this happens, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll yell obscenities, and then…you’ll try again. And again, and again, and again, and again, until you get it right. This “one more go” mentality – as we’re sure you’re aware – is generally only brought about by the best, most addictive games. The brilliant Super Meat Boy had it. Trials HD and its sequel had it. Go all the way back and you’ll find that Pac-Man and Space Invaders had it. BattleBlock Theater has it in spades. At times, it'll push you to the edge of insanity but - and this is the key - it ALWAYS brings you back.
Once you’ve beaten nine levels, you progress to a timed level, which is split into two distinct stages. Reach the end before the clock runs out, and you’ll get a key to get to the next chapter. If you fancy, you can even take on three “encore” levels in each chapter, if you like. Weighing this up, your 1200 MSP buys you a story mode consisting of eight chapters containing thirteen levels apiece, or 104 levels in total – a lot of which you’ll play more than once in the interest of getting a perfect score. Consider then that if you decide to play through the story in co-op mode with a friend, you get the same amount, but that each level is different to the single-player mode – in order to take into account the new powers afforded by playing in co-op – and you’ve got 208. But we’re not done yet. There’s a selection of mini-games on offer – ranging from King of the Hill-style affairs to takes on Basketball and Soccer – and also all those user-created levels to play through. Folks can create mini-game playlists for you to tackle, too. If you get bored of all that, you can create your own levels too, with the powerful level editor that’s provided in the game. Failing that, you can play through the story mode again on the super-tough top difficulty setting that few people will ever actually beat. Oh, and don’t forget that you haven’t truly beaten the game until you’ve freed the hundreds and hundreds of prisoners that the forces of evil have taken. This is achieved by paying for their release with your collected gems meaning that sooner or later, you’ll be tempted to play through levels that you’ve already beaten in order to collect more shiny jewels so that you can pay the prison guard to let some more of your friends free.
BattleBlock Theater is no small game.
With most titles, this amount of content would be throwaway stuff. An average game with a lot of content and some grind-like aspects is still an average game. But, BattleBlock Theater’s pixel-perfect platforming and rewarding and pleasing puzzling is so disarmingly enchanting that you’ll feel that you’re getting masses more than the price of the ticket should entitle you to. Especially when you consider that the game's narrator will have you in stitches time and again. "Oh, what a great performan....no, you got a 'B'" or "Good try...but you should try good-er!" rolling off his tongue is enough to soften the blow when you're not doing as well as you can on a level.
And we've briefly touched upon co-op, but it should be said that playing story mode with a friend is one of the finer things in life, let alone gaming. Added abilities, such as being able to throw your team-mate, or reach down to pull them up when a jump is just a hair's breadth too high for them to complete on their own seems to be relatively standard fare, but BattleBlock Theater does it with such smoothness that you and your partner become a well-oiled machine within minutes. You'll learn their playing style, save them when they didn't expect to be saved, jump one step ahead of their own thoughts, and otherwise work in perfect harmony. Parents and children, brothers and sisters, boyfriends and girlfriends - come on, now. Stop your fighting and grab some controllers. The fact that the developer has included yet more incredibly well-designed levels JUST for the co-op mode is to their massive credit.
In playing through, we found that the one thing that annoyed us was the fact that once we had reached the later levels, if we came back to the game after a break, we had to walk through two or three screens in order to reach the chapter that we were currently on. If that's enough to put you off then, well, we're sorry, but you should probably just give up on gaming as a pastime.
BattleBlock Theater is one of the finest gaming experiences that’s ever been made available for any platform – and that’s no joke or overstatement. We thought that The Behemoth would have trouble topping the excellent Castle Crashers if we’re entirely honest, but they’ve stepped up to the plate and utterly knocked it out of the park. Genuinely funny, aesthetically impressive, challenging, rewarding, and a superb multiplayer experience whether you’re online or with a friend sitting on the couch and no matter whether you’re playing through the expanded co-op story mode, or playing competitively in one of the minigames. Add that to practically unlimited content thanks to the built-in level editor and community creation hub, and Battleblock Theater is easily right up there with the top platformers and puzzle games from this, and previous generations.
It’ll test your nerves and your skills, but for our money, this is a genuine contender for the finest Xbox Live Arcade title to be released so far. Heck, it could stand up there against 99% of full-priced retail titles and come out on top. We don't give out maximum scores lightly, but we really don't have a choice, here. This will deservedly stand as the yardstick against which other platform puzzlers are compared from now on. BattleBlock Theater is absolutely essential.