Following the release of Castle Crashers, The Behemoth was riding high as a stalwart of the 2D old guard. It had produced a beat-em-up that lovingly paid homage to its predecessors and injected it with a dose of Monty-Python-styled inanity. Nearly five years later, the studio has finally produced its follow-up, BattleBlock Theater. It leans less on its roots, and while greater ambition gets the better of it, it's hard not to cheer on more of the developer's spirit.
The Behemoth's wit and whimsy is on full display from the very start of the campaign, as we're introduced to a group of adventuring misfits, aboard the S.S. Friend Ship. When their vessel gets hit by a storm, the band of buddies gets stranded on an island occupied by cats who stick wayward travelers through deadly arenas for their amusement. This sets up a loose conceit to force you through eight sets of puzzle-platforming stages, each punctuated by hilarious cutscenes and breathless narration. These vignettes really were a treat, and served as their own reward for conquering the stages.
The word "conquered" applies particularly here, because the campaign stages quickly turn from introductory to brutally difficult. The platforming feels responsive and natural, but these deadly arenas are true to the plot. I rarely felt like a death wasn't deserved, but even with quick and generous respawns it was nerve-wracking to navigate through a set of traps perfectly. Many of the stages sport environmental puzzles as well, which aren't terribly taxing but provide a respite from the constant threat of death.
Enemy encounters in the campaign were generally brief and mercifully short. It may sound odd to say for a game from the developers of Castle Crashers, but combat is easily the weakest link in BattleBlock Theater. I simply never felt like the move set available to me was adequate to deal with threats, given that they were usually faster and stronger. Most of the time I would defeat them by pushing them into a trap, rather than by use of the melee attacks or the mostly sluggish, frustrating weapons.
Each stage counts as completed when you've collected at least three gems and made it to the Exit, but they all house more gems on top of that. A randomly appearing golden hat will grant extra gems, and each stage has a ball of yarn to collect as well. As you might guess, these serve as currency. The gems bail your friends out of the cats' prisons, which in turn opens up more character customization options. Balls of yarn can be traded to some unscrupulous cat guards for additional weapons -- though, as mentioned, none of them are particularly helpful.
It's due to this very distinct split in the game's strengths that the multiplayer is so hit-or-miss. The game was developed with a very clear multiplayer focus, boasting a wide variety of game modes. The ones that rely primarily on the strong platforming stand out. These include Color The World, in which teams compete to touch all the gray blocks they can to turn them to their color, and the time Challenge. Other modes, like Soul and King of the Hill, emphasize combat and suffer for it.
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Many of the modes don't necessarily push the player towards a combat role, but as combat is always an option, they can quickly devolve into shoving matches. Playing against random opponents has proven to me how easily an otherwise fun mode like Ball Game (in which players attempt to throw a ball into the goal) can be diminished by poor behavior.
These multiplayer modes are complemented by a level creator. What it lacks in intuitive design it makes up for in simplicity of concept. The game itself is so straightforward that we can easily see the pieces that go into a level even when merely running around the stages. It lacks a proper tutorial, but hours of experience with the campaign gives plenty of idea how the elements can be implemented. So far the stages I've played have ranged from sadistic battle arenas to even more sadistic platforming and puzzle challenges, but this is likely mostly a symptom of the growing pains when a community is given new creation tools.
And that learning is part of what makes BattleBlock Theater so perplexing. It's a game that owes itself to various eras and genres: the classic puzzle-platformer, more modern arena combat, and even hints of the level creation craze that followed LittleBigPlanet. The Behemoth may have bitten off more than it can comfortably chew in this installment, and some of those weaknesses compromise the whole. But the parts of the game that deliver do so very well. The game is large enough to find the parts that are great, overlook the ones that aren't, and enjoy its likable, zany sensibilities throughout.
This BattleBlock Theater review is based on a version of the game provided by the publisher.