The Behemoth really has it down to a science. Their modus operandi is simply to take existing classic genres, insert their own particular art style, polish the crap out of it, and release it to critical accolades. Truthfully, while Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers were mechanically sound, fun, and charming, neither innovated in any way. It always felt like they relied on the art style to set them apart. Certainly, based on the popularity of the games and the amount of merchandise available at their booths and online, this plan has worked wonderfully. So, with the Steam release of their latest, Battleblock Theater, I was expecting something that injects entertainment right into my veins, but nothing new. I was actually kind of wrong.
The story takes aboard the Friendship and its disastrous voyage of its crew. Traveling in search of fun, the S.S. Friendship runs into middle of a torrential storm, sinking the boat and stranding the mates on a island populated by malevolent cat creatures. After being taken prisoner, you must survive and discover how this island came to be. Oh, and the cats must be entertained. How do cats like to be entertained? By watching you and your fellow captives run death courses.
Battleblock Theater is The Behemoth’s take on the platformer. Specifically, the really, really hard ones. This is where my wrongness mentioned above comes into play. While most difficult platformers, such as They Bleed Pixels, feel happy to beat you down to the consistency of whatever my cat is presently vomiting onto my carpet, The Behemoth found a method for having it both ways. It can be brutal in that collecting the myriad gems and twine ball in each stage while still beating the goal time will take every ounce of skill you can muster. While trying to accomplish this, you will die violently, humorously, and repeatedly. On the other hand, to clear the stage, you only need to collect three of the gems and make it to the exit. The checkpoints are generous and you get unlimited lives. It is possible for even the most out of practice gamer to brute force through and move to the next stage. The exception to this are the “encore” stages that end each chapter. These tend to be shorter and are timed. Think of them as a final exam to test the skills you learned over the rest of the chapter. The balancing act to appease both hardcore and casual gamers is exemplary.
The control, as to be expected for this studio, is also tight as (editor’s note: This is not going up on the site, Jason.) With very little effort, you will be able to double-jump across treacherous obstacles, trick an enemy into impaling itself, and then grab a jet pack to rocket to the top of the stage. They are simple in that you will not need to learn complicated maneuvers to progress, everything is exactly as you would expect it to be. You are a prisoner with limited abilities, but the limits on abilities leads to high speed, split second decisions that can be reflexively pulled off. There where a few times when I plowed through a previously unexplored level with some rather daring and dangerous moves only to stop and take pride in what I just did. Just make sure you have a gamepad you like as it does become harder with the keyboard.
As stated previously, The Behemoth has always excelled with their signature art style. Battleblock Theater is no different. That can be a blessing and a curse. While I enjoyed the designs of the enemies (especially the over-large beast with the antlers), you will also run into explosive poop jokes that are animated just well enough to put me off. When it comes to your character, there are an unbelievable amount of customization, via unlockable heads, available. If you are not a fan of the head of the character you are controlling has, pop by the prison shop to purchase new ones using collected gems. These and the unlockable weapons are sold via a system similar to the plastic egg machines you find in grocery stores. And, if you want to score some pennies for your Steam account, you can trade/sell them on the Steam Marketplace.
Finally, I want to call out the excellent narrator of the cutscenes. The gentleman really sunk his teeth into this one and lent them an immense amount of personality. The scenes remind me of some of the lighter Cartoon Network fare told with popsicle stick puppets. They are undeniably charming, immature, and simply fun.
While I was expecting, and received, a great game out of The Behemoth with Battleblock Theater, I did not think I would find a game like this. Something that is simultaneously this accessible and unrepentantly harsh is a true step forward in game design. You must play this game.