Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
And they were all like WOOOSHH WOOSHHH OOHH WOOSHH.
While much of the industry continues to reel from head-tripping AAA shooters and the intellectual talks of GDC, BattleBlock Theater arrives in irreverent fashion. The Behemoth, the developer collective formed from some of the people behind Newgrounds, follow up 2008's Castle Crashers with a game about you and an island full of sadistic cats.
You'll be forgiven for getting lost along the way, but fans of the wildly independant developer will find the same humor and solid gameplay backing up all the goofy voice-overs and off-the-wall art. As was the case with Castle Crashers, gamers only need to play a few levels of finely tuned 2D platforming to know that The Behemoth isn't just goofing around.
The story itself begins with a cutscene featuring your character and scores of other travelers who hop a ship with Hatty Hattington, a man not unlike yourself. Of course, Hatty doesn't have a squid attached to his face or a triangle-shaped head that also happens to be furry. There are countless faces to unlock (and trade online) in-game and you can also choose your color and power. Everyone can punch and kick and jump, and before you know it, you'll quickly be thrown into the early set of levels.
Once you load a level, there are several gems to collect. Three will open the exit, but obviously collecting every gem and doing it in speedy fashion will net you a higher grade and potentially more gems. There are also balls of string hidden in each level. These two collectibles form your currency in the gift shop where you can unlock new character items with gems or new power-abilities with balls of string.
As you slowly stock up on rewards, you can switch faces to suit your mood and powers to the opposition you might be facing in a difficult level. These mechanics are ancellary to the rhythm of "jump, punch, dodge," and if you're playing cooperatively, it helps to take turns helping each other overcome a two-person platforming challenge.
The blocks in BattleBlock Theater are the literal building blocks for each level, with 12 stages for each "act," in addition to the level creator that the community will surely twist into their own torturous hellscape. The platforming itself remains rather painless thanks to a generous checkpoint system and your cooperative partner, but difficulty can ramp up into a furious storm if you aim to secure every gem in every level.
The gameplay loop can put you into a trance. Enter a level (they play in sets of three), leap from place to place, collect gems and defeat enemies, head to the gift shop, and buy more stuff. It feels like the player is being whipped into a frothy, goofball, platforming machine. Playing for hours on end made my brain feel like an egg being beaten, but short bursts will addict players like a smoke break.
No matter how you spin it, BattleBlock Theater's taught, cartoony animations, finely tuned gameplay mechanics, and encouraged social interaction make it an appealing downloadable. Of course, it's unfortunate that the title had to come after years of funny, indie-developed 2D platformers. Other games in the genre have more depth to jumping and collecting, and they've got a more appealing aethetic to you.
At the tail end of the experience, hours beyond the opening cinematic, BattelBlock Theater can wear thin, but properly pacing yourself will unlock this box of madness in the best way. In measured portions, you'll screw with your partner as much as you help him or her, you'll readily unlock goofy custom faces, and your ability to navigate each level will become godlike. The Behemoth continue to push its games in wild, new directions, and being on the ride is a big part of the fun.
I screwed around with the level editor but more inventive minds than mine will keep the game alive long after release. If you have a few friends, it's also worth checking out the Arena where varied game modes will settle whose jumping and fighting abilities are ready for the bright lights. Basketball and King of the Hill encourage feverish movement and combat.
BattleBlock Theater is without a doubt the strongest XBLA game in months and well worth the four-year wait. Deep platforming mechanics hold up in short bursts, but marathoning the game ends up robbing the activity of some joy. Find a friend and fight for your new Cat masters.
Code provided by publisher. Review based on X360. XBLA exclusive.
TIghtly wound platforming controls
Varied, inventive levels
That feel like a grind in long play sessions
New unlocks with gems and other collectibles
Probably more than you'll care to collect
Cooperative play and competitive multiplayer
Solving puzzles with friends
Where one false step can result in their death
And again, and again, and again
The receiving side of that
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