If you’ve read some of my previous reviews, you’ll recall that I am very much of an old-school gamer. I love retro graphics, platformers and chiptune music. Thus, it might surprise you that I didn’t pick up BattleBlock Theater until this year. The reason for that is simple – I am primarily a Nintendo gamer, and, for whatever reason, this lovely game is not available on Nintendo consoles. While I may think that is a mistake given the number of classic platformers spawned by the Big N, I can’t argue that BattleBlock Theater is a hell of a lot of fun. Thanks to my finally acquiring a laptop that can play Steam games, I am now able to experience it firsthand! The question is this – how fun is BattleBlock Theater, and did it satisfy my retro yearning?
It’s been a long while since I played anything developed by The Behemoth. Not because I dislike them — quite the opposite. The reason is that my last Sony console was the PlayStation 2, and I have never — and likely never will — own a Microsoft console. So, the last time I played anything by them was about 10 years ago when Alien Hominid was freshly off the presses. BattleBlock Theater shares much in common with Alien Hominid, despite the fact that one is a run-and-gun shooter, and the other is a hardcore platformer. Both games are tough as nails, violent, yet cartoony and full of crude humor. In fact, the humor was one of the only points I had minor issues with in the game. Most of it I found myself chuckling to or swearing at, but a couple of reoccurring jokes fell flat, and just seemed crude instead of funny. Luckily, this was not the norm, and the gameplay more than made up for it.
Though I hesitate to call it a plot, the overarching premise of BattleBlock Theater involves getting shipwrecked on a mysterious isle. Separated from your friend Hatty, you search the decrepit ruin of a building only to find him being assailed by menacing (yet adorable!) cat creatures. A curious hat is put upon his head, and suddenly Hatty turns on you, thrusting you into the paws of the cats! As it turns out, the ruins on the island are those of a theater created by Purrham Furbottom, lover of cats and possibly insane fool. It was once glorious, but now the cats have taken over. They force prisoners to perform for their entertainment in increasingly dangerous bloodsports. This is the basic bread and butter of the game. Areas are broken up into Chapters, Acts and Scenes you must traverse. Essentially each of the eight Chapters has 10 levels, with three that can only be unlocked by getting scores of A++ in each. Doing so is not easy.
BattleBlock Theater will put the skills of even the most grizzled, veteran gamers to the test. I previously thought few games in the genre could top the difficulty of Cloudberry Kingdom, but BattleBlock Theater has done just that. Controls work well on the keyboard, with the directional controls moving your avatar, Space Bar for jumps, W for contextual controls, such as grabbing, and A for using selected weapons. Though the controls work fine, I found myself wishing I had a gamepad as the game progressed. As far as weapons go, there is a vast variety for you to unlock by finding hidden yarnballs in levels, with the vast majority being non-lethal. From a Freeze Gun that encases foes in shells of ice to an Electric Ball that knocks foes back, there are plenty that only serve to slow enemies down. Even the lethal weapons don’t produce immediate results, such as one weapon that lights foes on fire, causing them to run around and try to get the flames on you before they die. The real threat in any level are the levels themselves. Traps are everywhere, from buzzsaws to lasers to pools of water you can drown in, the difficulty never lets up, and constantly forces you to improve your skills. Though it does ramp up gradually, later levels require extreme precision to get safely to the Exit — especially if you want to collect all the gems and yarnballs and beat stages fast enough to score that coveted A++. We’ll just say that I got far more A’s than A++’s.
After you finish all the primary levels in a stage, you will unlock a Time Trial stage that must be traversed to unlock the next Chapter. These are the most difficult and brutal levels in the entire game. You’ll have two minutes to get through a gauntlet of deviously-placed obstacles while still trying to find the requisite gems and yarnballs. Take too long and your avatar will explode, forcing you to try again. Time Trials are split up into two sections, and, at the end of the second, you will find a Key to unlock the next Chapter. Do so, and you will be graded on how you played. I generally did well, but not well enough to max out that meter…
I must say, I was very pleased by the production values in the game. I loved the cartoony, yet violent aesthetic that Dan Paladin has mastered. Emotion is expressed very well, and you can feel the pain of the characters as they succumb to gruesome deaths. There was also little to no lag, despite lots of moving parts. I especially enjoyed the insane cutscenes at the end of each Chapter. Narrated with gusto, they served to entertain, if not clarify what was going on.
The music was equally impressive, with a wide range of unique and odd tunes that got me pumped. My favorite was the quasi-carnival tune that played through most of the game. Also of special note were the sound effects. They were all wild, loud and fit the action perfectly. Of special note was the narrator, voiced by Stamper (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/name/nm2142064/). This cheerful, yet diabolical individual served his goal well, cheering you on as you win and throwing insults your way as you die. I haven’t been so pleased by a performance since I last played MadWorld, and the narrator here only served to immerse me in the madcap world even better.
As if that wasn’t enough, BattleBlock Theater also has tremendous replay value. Those gems you collect in stages can be redeemed in the Gift Shop to unlock prisoners. No, I don’t know why a prison would have a horde of gems, nor why they could be used to free prisoners, but it is a nice feature. There are TONS of avatars for you to unlock, and they all are distinct and weird. As mentioned earlier, you can also redeem yarnballs here to unlock new weapons randomly. But the true never-ending replay value in the game comes from the Level Editor.
The Level Editor allows you to use all the tools in the game to make your own levels. With a clever use of the Tab and Shift keys, combined with the directional buttons, you can create whatever you can imagine. Place gems and foes with abandon, and choose from various background themes. When you’re done, you can test your level and then upload it. From there, you can play it or the uploaded levels made by other fans of the game. Technically, the fun could never end with this feature! Oh, and there is Arena Mode which allows tons of ways to compete and collect gems. So yeah, this game is a great reason to spend $15.
Overall, BattleBlock Theater was a hell of a lot of fun. It more than satisfied my retro yearning and kept challenging me as I played. It was honestly hard to put the game down as I played through Story mode, approximately a 10-hour process, and with the user-generated levels I might be playing for a very long time. I would recommend it to any fan of old school gaming done right. I cheer The Behemoth on for such a mighty game, and not-so-patiently wait for their next creation.
Review copy purchased by author