Review: BattleBlock Theater

How does the dashing platform stack up after four years of waiting?

To BBT, or not to BBT. That is an easy question.

It’s been a slow but successful climb to the top for The Behemoth. BattleBlock Theater, the third game from the San Diego based indie company, follows the wildly popular beat ’em up game Castle Crashers, which consistently dominated the Xbox Live Arcade best selling list the past 5 years, and Alien Hominid, a side scrolling shooter that served as the studio’s launch title. It’s been four years since the game was first announced and thus, anticipation has been high. After all this time could it live up to the hype?

The curtain opens on a mysterious island, where our player character has washed ashore. They soon find out the area is inhabited by cats, fierce feline overlords who seek to amuse themselves by sadistically forcing shipwreck survivors to perform for their very lives onstage. Gameplay is based on tricky time-based maneuvering, multi-level exploration, and puzzle solving. Players are tasked with collecting at least three green gems from the level in order to progress to the next, speeding through various traps and barriers (beams of vaporizing energy, to spikes, hot lava, etc.) to reach their end goal. The game is divided into chapters, each with ten levels culminating in a timed, two part finale challenge level required to move on to the next phase.

The level design is something of a masterpiece, satiating the fast-paced on-your-toes sensation of a bygone era by combining the side scroll dashing and environment hazards of Sonic the Hedgehog with the puzzle platforming of Mega Man. Controls are tight with easy-to-interpret prompts; the levels efficient and fluid. Players make use of a variety of power-ups, from wings to jetpacks, as they speed through the checkpoints. The promise of extra gems and balls of yarn, used to free new prisoners and buy new weapons respectively, adds some instant replay value. A grade is assigned at the end of each level based on how fast it was performed and the number of pickups collected, also prompting addtional playthroughs.

The cartoons of Dan Paladin, the studio’s signature look, are as appeasingly adorable as ever. The former drama geek in me was delighted by the perfect execution of the game’s theme, illustrated with curtains opening and closing each level, dated wallpaper and fixtures decorating the menu foyer, and the separation of the levels into acts and scenes. The music is bouncy and addictive, maintaining Behemoth’s trademark charisma while evoking the bright, energetic panic of a Dr. Mario tune. Perhaps the crown jewel of the game is the narration, a lively and hilarious performance that easily makes BattleBlock Theater among the funniest games I’ve played. I found myself wanting to repeat the Story Mode just to hear the cut scenes again.

The Arena Mode, available co-op or vs., consists of seven different types of multiplayer with a variety of objectives, from beating up the opposing team in Muckle, to quirkier modes like Soul Snatcher, where players steal souls from their enemies in a game of keep-away. Community levels made with the Level Editor can be played as well. While they don’t comprise a sizable chunk of the title’s staggering amount of content, they do bring back some of the joy of classic Behemoth beat ’em up, which is largely absent in the whole of Battleblock Theater.

While waiting for BattleBlock Theater the past few years has been frustrating, undeniably it has turned out better for it; the feedback process during the many PAX conventions undoubtedly honed the level design process. But for all the careful planning (or perhaps because of it), it feels a bit repetitive. The finales, meant to add variety to the gameplay, probably would have served that purpose better as boss battles, breaking up the routine. It also took some time before I felt the game tested my skill; it wasn’t until Chapter 5 that I actually felt a hint of frustration. This may be because I have a lot of experience with side scrolling platformers, but more likely, the game is a little easy. Luckily there is a hardcore mode to challenge the more experienced player.

Overall, BattleBlock Theater is extremely well polished and will bring a lot of satisfaction to the fans of high speed platformers. In addition to a hilarious Story Mode, the Level Editor and Arena promise to only length the already staggering amount of content, making it well worth its modest price tag. Beyond that, their fiendish brand of mischievity is too good to be missed, and I recommend this game for both adults and children.

Take a bow, Behemoth. BattleBlock Theater has been worth the wait.

Final Verdict:
9 out of 10

BattleBlock Theater was developed and published by The Behemoth. It was released on April 3, 2013, at the MSRP of 1200 Microsoft Points. A copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.

Artwork credit: pickles-4-nickles.