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Battleblock Theater Review: One Hell of a Show
Battleblock Theater, The Behemoth’s puzzle platformer that first released last year on the Xbox Live Arcade, has finally made it to Steam, and is as chaotic, funny and exciting as it was on the console. The Behemoth has packed a ton of content into Battleblock, and with a simple level editor, full online play and integrating Steam Workshop features it will grow by the second.
Battleblock follows the crew of the SS Friend Ship, whose captain, Hatty, is possessed by a mysterious top-hat when they are shipwrecked on the island holding the titular theater. Hatty and the theater’s guards devise increasingly complex challenges for the crew that can be navigated either alone or with a friend, and while the choice only subtly changes the actual levels, the goofy energy that infuses the co-op mechanics make for Battleblock Theater’s best moments. Teaming up with a partner to push guards into traps and to throw each other across or into chasms is an unbelievable amount of fun, as is racing to complete the small jumping and navigation puzzles that protect each level’s collectibles.
Save for some odd jumping physics, which allows for two jumps after walking off of a platform, Battleblock’s mechanics are simple but solid. There are a few fun elements, like molten rock that bounces your character around the level and slimy walls that allow for wall jumps, but like most campaigns in level editor driven games the real fun comes from seeing how those elements can interact in more complex and more devious ways. Battleblock Theater’s gameplay is based on the wacky co-op PDA minigames in The Behemoth’s first commercial release, the brilliant Alien Hominid, but it expands on its intentionally simplistic origin in every way.
In addition to the story mode, The Behemoth has added a good half dozen competitive arena modes, each of which scale well to team play and are 100% compatible with the level editor. Some of my favorite sessions came from the “Feature” mode, which highlights a different user-made playlist of levels every week, similar to Chuck’s Challenge 3D. There are some truly great creations out there, and The Behemoth seems keen on finding them and giving them recognition. A lot of the multiplayer modes suffer from mechanics clearly designed for a linear, co-op platformer, but they are put together with so much enthusiasm and they exude so much energy that its occasional lack of polish or balance feels irrelevant. In addition to the basic competitive time trial mode, there is also a battle mode that felt strikingly similar to the small bouts of in-fighting I had during co-op, basketball matches on trap-filled courts and six other modes, all compatible with user-made playlists and all playable online. There is a stunning amount of content here.
Every mode, both co-op and competitive are available locally, online or as a mix of both. I occasionally had trouble getting into a game, but server patches have already improved the matchmaking dramatically. The server browser is still extremely clunky and difficult to use, no doubt a holdover from Battleblock’s Xbox origins, but is serviceable. Another online feature that falls a bit flat is the trading mechanic. Collecting gems (either in levels or by winning matches) can unlock new characters, though they all play identically, while collecting yarn in the story levels can unlock more weapons. Characters and weapons can be traded in the shop, but without text chat the feature is borderline useless. I can see people using it to get the last few characters if they want 100% completion, but I had bought all of the weapons halfway through the campaign. A few new skins seemed hardly worth the trouble of organizing a trade.
Tying all of the modes together is a desperately energetic narrator voiced by Will Stamper, whom I enjoyed listening to but suspect some will find unbearably annoying. Cutscenes between each world take the form of the narrator putting on a puppet show about the events unfolding, with the narrator frantically guessing at their meaning. The narrator jokes, sings and jeers during gameplay with shocking enthusiasm, though the frequency can be adjusted through the options menu. The narrator carries the sense of humor, which like The Behemoth’s other games (and Tom Fulp’s earlier projects) is vaguely sinister, unapologetically juvenile and, above all, extremely good-natured.
Review code for this game provided by The Behemoth.