It’s been a long five years, but beloved indie developer, The Behemoth has finally delivered their follow-up effort to Castle Crashers, still one of the most beloved and frequently played Xbox Live Arcade games in the history of the Xbox 360’s life cycle! BattleBlock Theater is being published directly by Microsoft themselves, seemingly solidifying it as a perpetual Xbox Live Arcade exclusive this time, after Castle Crashers ended up having belated ports on both the PS3’s PlayStation Store and Steam. That’s great news for the exclusive-starved Xbox community, who only have Gears of War: Judgment and a small handful of middling Xbox Live Arcade titles to call their own for all of 2013, as the next-gen Xbox looms on the horizon to succeed the Xbox 360. Thankfully, BattleBlock Theater is also another solid Xbox Live Arcade offering from The Behemoth, albeit a more uneven one this time. The game doesn’t quite measure up to the outstanding quality of Castle Crashers in the end, but it’s still a fun, challenging and humourous good time that is well worth checking out for Xbox gamers looking for a test of their skills.
If you haven’t kept up with the game’s lengthy development cycle, we’ll explain the idea behind BattleBlock Theater for you, and do try to stay with us here: BattleBlock Theater is a challenge-based platformer that tasks players with surviving gauntlets of obstacles for the entertainment of sentient mutant cats. You see, you were traveling on a ship with your ‘friends’, a real ‘friend ship’, as it were, when you were suddenly shipwrecked on an island where said mutant cats call home. It must be quite boring there, since their sole means of entertainment is watching prisoners like you desperately try to survive a series of obstacle courses on stage that will likely end in their horrible, horrible deaths, mocked by a mentally questionable narrator all the while. Yes, if you appreciated the many wacky elements of Castle Crashers, rejoice, because The Behemoth’s sense of humour have only gotten more satisfyingly twisted and hysterical in BattleBlock Theater.
If you’ve already played other challenge-based platforming titles available on Xbox Live Arcade, such as Spelunky or Super Meat Boy, both of which we highly recommend if you haven’t yet tried them, you should immediately feel at home with BattleBlock Theater. While you can unlock various weapons and tools to bring along for your platforming challenges by bribing cat guards with yarn balls that you find hidden in each stage (five yarn balls buys a new weapon!), you’ve mostly got two means of survival; Running and jumping. The rest is carefully guiding your helpless and highly customizable prisoner with very careful movements of the D-Pad and A button, lest you meet a painful end and spawn back at your last checkpoint, unless of course you’re playing on Insane Mode, in which case, you’re kicked back to the start of the entire stage. Insane Mode lives up to its name too, since it’s extremely easy to meet a horrible end thanks to BattleBlock Theater’s often ruthless level design, making mastering it only for the most deranged of masochists!
The game’s core is all about deducing the best method to progress, and performing a whole hell of a lot of reflex-based platforming to get there. It’s as simple as finding at least three Gems to open up the exit, though finding more Gems, yarn and finishing the level quickly will net you a higher ranking, which could potentially award more bonus Gems if you score a perfect A++. What will trip you up is the addictively sadistic level design that will strain your skills at every turn!
This game is the purest essence of a platform game, right down to BattleBlock Theater giving you virtually no feedback at all. There’s no hints or tutorials telling you how to work with the new enemies and obstacles that are gradually introduced as you move between the eight Chapters comprising the main story. You have to figure all of that out yourself as you go! Fortunately, if you’re willing to adapt and think on your feet, you’ll find that, as challenging as the game generally is, it also has a smooth and smart difficulty curve that gradually increases at just the right rate. The early stages do a good job of getting you introduced to the various fundamental mechanics, before gradually more advanced obstacles and tricky level layouts start being thrown at you with greater frequency as you progress. This really comes to a head in the optional Encore levels, of which each Chapter has three, offering timed challenges for extra Gems (which are used to free more prisoners, giving you new ways to customize your player character), yarn balls, and more opportunities to earn Achievements.
This isn’t a game that will be over quickly either. In total, the main story alone has a staggering 104 stages available to play, including the Encore stages, which will likely take players anywhere from 8-10 hours to complete on an initial playthrough, assuming they’re up to the challenge. In truth, the entire package of BattleBlock Theater is absolutely massive for an Xbox Live Arcade game, making its 1,200 Microsoft Points ($15) asking price pretty reasonable. As much time as you’ll spend mastering the solo play however, the real meat of the game comes from its social aspect.
If you want to take your experience onto Xbox Live, you have numerous options available to you. You can enlist a second player to play the main story stages with you in both online and local co-op, which can give you twice the manpower and an extra helping hand when taking on the many tough stages, at least on Normal Mode (it just creates twice as many opportunities to die on Insane Mode). The nature of the co-op can also lead to your partner sabotaging you for kicks just as easily though, turning off bridges and smacking you off of ledges, Portal 2-style, especially since there’s a hidden Achievement given to you for killing your ally so many times in co-op. It can be pretty amusing to continually laugh at the failures of yourself and your buddies, though if you’re actually trying to get somewhere, and don’t want to go it alone, you’ll probably need to plan out a trustworthy partner in advance.
Even more extensive are the competitive multiplayer options. BattleBlock Theater features an incredible eight multiplayer variants, which can be played with up to four simultaneous players, whether in free-for-all, or in teams of two. Most of them are more enjoyable than you’d think too! The more fun and creative variants include Soul, where you kill a player to steal their soul, then try to play keep-away with it for as long as possible for points, King of the Hill, where you stand on crown blocks to gain points for yourself or your team, and Horse, which is much like a Capture the Flag-style match, with players trying to steal horses from the opposing team to ride them back to their own stables. If you want something more akin to the main gameplay, there’s also variants where players simply take on a stage and try to get the highest score, or simply try to beat each other down so many times in straight combat.
Unfortunately, one of the only real weak elements in BattleBlock Theater’s fundamental design is the combat, but this also leads to several multiplayer variants being less fun than others, particularly the problematic Muckle, which is the straight combat variant. The combat in the game generally feels finicky and unreliable. You can press the X button to shove another player or enemy cat, potentially into a hazard like a pit of spikes or a laser, and you can press the B button to punch them and deal some damage, with players able to combine button presses with D-Pad movements for a few simple combat maneuvers. Unfortunately, the range of your punches is pathetically limited, and whether or not you or your foe connects first is pretty much a crapshoot. The collision detection generally seems really spotty, with players sometimes connecting even when they’re not touching their target, and other times missing, even when they’re right up hugging them. Fortunately, combat doesn’t often come into play during the main story levels, though the issues with the combat mechanics still make the competitive multiplayer feel more uneven than generally superb, even if there’s still some sharp Xbox Live variants to play.
If one thing is sure to hold the attention of Xbox Live players, it’s BattleBlock Theater’s surprisingly robust level editor! Yes, on top of everything, this game includes a level editor! You can create and design your own stages, which is done very simply by placing various blocks, traps and obstacles on a grid, and any creations you’re proud of can be saved and subsequently shared on Xbox Live. You can download playlists of user-created levels, which could potentially make the play value of BattleBlock Theater nearly limitless! Yes, the level editor is quite simplistic, and it doesn’t have the depth and creative options that you’d find in LittleBigPlanet, or even Mario vs. Donkey Kong, but it’s still easy to use, and it’s still a lot of fun to put together your own death gauntlets to torture other online players with!
The sheer amount of content in BattleBlock Theater is extremely impressive for an Xbox Live Arcade game, but even if you’ll definitely get your money’s worth here, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. The high degree of difficulty throughout much of the level design can be addictive, and the very creative level design makes BattleBlock Theater feel tough, but ultimately fair. Still, there are a few instances where the difficulty becomes excessive, and certain sections will feel more frustrating than fun, especially to impatient players. You need to have a high tolerance for trial-and-error gameplay, constantly watching yourself die, die, and die again, until you figure out the best way to proceed. The stress of a time limit in some stages won’t help matters either, and a time limit will always be in place if you’re going for an A++ ranking. What makes this even worse is that the time limit doesn’t seem to be indicated anywhere for the time trial in each stage, unless it’s an Encore or a Finale, which, to be frank, feels kind of sloppy. You’ll never know if you achieved the target time or not until you’ve already completed the stage. Thus, if you’re a completionist, you’re going to be playing and replaying certain stages continually until you’re absolutely sick of them. This game may have no trouble keeping players busy, but it wouldn’t be unfair to call BattleBlock Theater a little more uneven in terms of entertainment value at times, especially if you want to compare it to Castle Crashers.
In the end, this game is no Castle Crashers. If you were expecting another Xbox Live Arcade masterpiece along those lines, especially in terms of the multiplayer element, then BattleBlock Theater will likely fall short of the hype for you. Even if there’s a certain frustration factor to the gameplay at times, and even if some play modes in the game are better than others however, BattleBlock Theater is still a great game for those in the market for a challenge. Retro gaming enthusiasts who enjoy this kind of uncompromising platforming gameplay with no feedback and only their own wits about them, will likely get a kick out of it, especially if they enjoy creating and uploading their own level designs to share with the Xbox Live community. The buckets of charm and amusing sense of humour also go a long way to making BattleBlock Theater a highly likeable experience too, even when it occasionally gets infuriating. We just hope that you don’t mind a surprising amount of poop jokes!
In conclusion, we have to say that BattleBlock Theater is a very well-designed and memorable experience, but it’s not for everyone. The appeal is somewhat limited in places by the occasionally brutal difficulty level, and while the multiplayer element can be amusing in passing, it’s certainly not going to occupy and amuse you and your buddies for hours on end the way that Castle Crashers so easily can. Still, you do definitely get your money’s worth with the wealth of content on offer here, and if you don’t mind the punishing challenge, it can be undeniably fun and satisfying to prevail over the many deadly obstacles set before you throughout the main story levels.
These nasty cats may revel in the spectacle of watching you die, but for what it’s worth, they’ll always give worthy contenders the motivation to keep coming back for more!