I just found a gem! Pun intended with this lovely little platform party, BattleBlock Theater. My initial impression was that Super Meat Boy and Little Big Planet, both released in 2008, had a baby and out popped BattleBlock in 2013! All nice and wrapped in classic cartoon packaging shared with The Behemoth’s other titles, such as Castle Crashers and Alien Hominid.
The game is introduced much like the beginning of Gilligan’s Island. You start on a ship with all your buddies and quickly end up stranded. Plot twist: this island is inhabited by intelligent cats that take you prisoner and force you into a ramshackle theater/jail that is converted into platform challenges for their own entertainment. Players find that their best buddy, Hatty Hattington, has been forced to devise the “scenes” himself, under the control of an evil top hat placed on Hatty’s head by your captors. Cats are jerks, no surprise there. Battleblock quickly makes a name for itself through its combination of adventure, puzzles, and wonderful presentation drowned in humor. From the whimsical opening monologue to the absolutely absurd closing credits, the plot is comparable to the points in Whose Line Is It Anyway. That’s not to be negative! What story that does unravel is told in a way that brilliantly flows with the attitude of the game. The talented Will Stamper voices all narration, and his wisecracks alone make you want to play to the end. The ingenious variety in each level is always paralleled with an equal amount of jokes via narration that range anywhere from poop to pop culture.
Each world/chapter houses 9 stages that build on skill in a way that allows the player to understand its complex contraptions throughout the game. Players are hunting for green gems and balls of yarn. Collect three gems and you are able to exit the level, but collecting any extra gets you closer to unlocking different character builds. Only one ball of yarn is hidden in each level. 5 balls of yarn gets you a new weapon to poke the evil cats, Sweet! After 9 levels, you’re presented with a timed “boss stage” to gain access to the next chapter. Behemoth has done a wonderful job balancing movement and reflex skill with puzzles and contraptions. Also, the progression of difficulty is right in the sweet spot between inventive challenges and similarity between previous levels. New levels take similar situations and mix it up with new contraptions and enemies in a way that provides a challenge that is up to par, while keeping enough familiarity with how the world of the game works so you don’t feel the need to rage quit. The moments where you’re left contemplating a strategy for the next puzzling task is just the refreshing moment you need in between the intense and deadly time sensitive contraptions. The quirky soundtrack and hilariousness of Stamper yelling “Oh My Goodness Gracious!” after a death will keep you coming back to tackle difficult levels.
There was the occasional bug where a reset of level was necessary. I hate to use the word bug here, because the game didn’t seem to malfunction in a glitching manner. I found myself in a situation where a block I was trying to interact with didn’t exactly comply with the physics of the game. I almost didn’t even mention this because it happened only two times in my playthrough, and I only do now because oddly enough alt + enter seemed to reset the mechanics and made the block jump back in its own frame to where I could move it again without restarting the level. Whee!
In standard platform aspect, you’re going to be running, jumping, sliding, moving blocks, etc. which all need to be performed with impeccable timing. This along with accuracy is everything in Battleblock, so keep that reflexive double jump skill up to par. The default keyboard controls are awkward, but a quick rebind is all you need. Even though the game recommends a controller right off the bat, to me it’s all about preference. No matter which you choose the controls are sharp and responsive. Can’t blame falling into the water on anyone but yourself there Cap. Of course no matter how many times you die you’ll end up at your latest checkpoint after a quick quip from the narrator.
You only need 3 gems to be able to warp through the end of a level, making the game fun for those with all level of skill, but there are more gems and that darn ball of yarn to be found as well that require true detective skill and platforming talent. While beginning chapters butter you up with easy gem finds and A+ stage finishes, the latter half of the game gets gritty with levels that are completely expletive inducing. Also scouting ahead never hurts- unless you want to restart the entire level to get a gem you’ve accidently blocked off. Keep a sharp lookout for hidden passages through blocks that look solid; more balls of yarn mean more weapon purchases that can slightly decrease difficulty in later levels. There is a little lack of incentive since hand-to-hand combat is just as effective if you can reach those feline foes, but it’s still worth the extra effort to check out the different options to blow cats to bits. Occasionally enemies can group and mob the player into a corner or push you to your death, making those exploding paper planes come in handy.
After 6-9 hours completing the campaign, there are 3 bonus levels for each chapter, and an “Insane mode” that doesn’t provide you with lovely little checkpoints making VVVVV look like a cake walk. For those that truly fall in love with Battleblock, a replay to pick up gems you missed and shave seconds off your score is worth your time. There is also the option for a coop campaign, both online and locally, in which the levels rework themselves to require teamwork while still offering plenty of opportunity for partner sabotage and retaliation with the only consequence being a broken friendship. After you lose all your friends, there is a level editor where you can build your own challenges. There isn’t a lot to work with creating your own levels, but still it provides a half-hour or so of seeing what you can devise yourself before moving on. On top of all that, there are several arena competitive modes (King of the Hill, Capture the Horse, etc) that are perfect for LAN parties.
Overall BattleBlock Theatre can be both a solid local multiplayer and solo source of fun. While the game struggles to have a true plot, it does so in a laughable way. The stage creativity and keenly developed difficulty curve make the challenges seem achievable. In the words of the narrator, “I hope you find gems, not death!”