By Robert Ward . April 21, 2013 . 4:30pm
Once upon a time, self-made billionaire, cat fanatic and theater aficionado Purrham Furbottom set out to create the biggest, richest, and most awe-inducingest theater the world had ever seen. Then, years later, when the legendarily loyal Hatty Hattington and hundreds of his best friends set out to sea with sweet, sugary adventures in mind, something horrible happens. The sea becomes uneasy—NO, IT BEGINS TO SWELL WITH WRATH AND CHURN WITH ENVY—and Hattington, along with his whole entourage of hand holding, song singing besties, are thrown overboard by the raging sea. While few are left to speculate why this fate has befallen them, others are horrifically eaten by, er, “sharks,” and any survivors live only to wander the waves in the ruins of their crushed friendship.
When the game finally begins, two prisoners emerge from the wreckage and find themselves washed up on a mysterious island that just so happens to house Furbottom’s grand theater. But something is amiss. It seems as though Hatty has been kidnapped by the island’s hideously adorable inhabitants, and is being forced to wear some kind of glowing, evil looking hat! Before you have time to look away, Hatty orders his captors to apprehend you, and everything goes black…
This is the premise of The Behemoth’s new puzzle platformer, Battleblock Theater.
Devoid of expression and completely expendable, it is up to you and your partner to uncover the supernatural conspiracy surrounding the island and its mutant, but considerably cuddly, feline denizens. Narrating your adventure is Newgrounds contributor Will Stamper, whose spastic monologues are comparable to and often mistaken for Richard Steven Horvitz. His unique brand of eccentricity helps to move the story along humorously, and albeit riddled with poop jokes, there’s no doubt that you’ll find Stamper’s frighteningly accurate observations of cat behavior and dramatically exaggerated summaries of your in-game efforts entertaining.
As you and your doomed companion try to escape the decrepit, feline infested theater-turned-prison, you’re forced to put on shows for an eager, blood thirsty audience of not-so-common cats. These shows set the stage of the game, literally. Each of Battleblock Theater’s eight worlds is appropriately divided into four acts, each of which is comprised of three scenes. The fourth and final act of each world also has three scenes, or stages, but in order to rake in the kitty-paws applause, they’ve tacked on a time limit. You will bleed, you will drown, you will be unintentionally crushed by rocks and boats, float helplessly into moving saws, pitifully dismembered, and watch as your battleblock buddy is demoted from “helpless prisoner” to “the Raccolope’s favorite chew toy” all while you scramble to collect valuable green gems and… yarn?
Like any good prison, the seething underbelly of Purrham’s theater is subject to some degree of corruption. Between long bouts of gem collecting and yarn gathering, you’ll be coaxed into a large shop where you can use your spoils to bribe the beady-eyed guards into freeing new prisoners (that’s a fancy way of saying “unlocking new heads”) or giving you a new weapon to use in the field. The rudimentary combat in Battleblock Theater doesn’t necessitate the use of these new weapons, but they do account for most of the flavor and substance of its various online multiplayer modes. A punch won’t do in your smug-looking, raptor-headed friend—but an exploding frog with a top hat and cane might do the trick!
The sprightly humor and unlikely weapons aren’t nearly as enjoyable in a solo playthrough, though, and I’ve found that the heart of Battleblock Theater’s clever design resides in its cooperative play. In today’s gaming world, you’d be hard pressed to find a popular game whose multiplayer requires a second person to sit in your physical proximity. Battleblock Theater does away with this modern trope and throws you right back into the golden era of platforming, with gameplay so addictive that you and your friend will likely use the phrase “alright, just one more stage!” late, late into the night – and then into the morning.
Many of those who remember the cooperative play of New Super Mario Bros. Wii might recall that it was generally chaotic. Although both players were encouraged to help one another, they were also competing against each other to see who could get to the end of the stage first. This made completing a stage more like a race than a cooperative effort, especially since the only interactions you could have with the other player tended to end with them losing a life.
Battleblock Theater completely rethinks this dynamic. You can throw your partner up onto a ledge, and then have your partner lean over the ledge to help you up. You can throw your partner across large, spike covered gaps and a stand on a platform that extends a temporary bridge. The option for cooperation is built into the controls. That being said, the game won’t punish you for sending your closest friend into a ceiling of deadly spears—in fact, it practically encourages you to do so in some of the earlier stages. If one of you dies, you’ll (usually) restart at your latest checkpoint, or at least somewhere very close to it. With this system in place, you can die time and time again without any negative repercussions… if you’re not playing on Insanity Mode, that is.
There’s rarely ever just one way to solve a puzzle. The designers give you the materials needed to get through the level properly, but they also want you to enjoy the humor of dying over and over again—so you’re free to toy around with the more unconventional methods Battleblock Theater has to offer. One might see their friend drowning and wait for them to respawn, but another may see an opportunity to use his or her head as a stepping stone to progress. If one of you accidentally gets eaten by the Raccolope, the other can race past the distracted beast and claim the shiny gem or fuzzy yarn as their own (and then get eaten by the Raccolope on the way out—but who cares! YOU’RE RICH!). On some stages, you’ll be laughing from start to finish—especially if you manage to find the “secret” area in each of the worlds…
The single player campaign includes just as much clever puzzle solving as the cooperative one, but listening to the narrator proactively judge your poor decision making alone isn’t nearly as entertaining alone as it is with a close friend sitting next to you. Battleblock Theater has worlds of content and enough charm to make even the most frustrating obstacles laughable. If you don’t like the campaign, then sit down and try out one of its eight competitive arena modes (I personally suggest Color the World and Ball Game)! If you’re a Lost Levels veteran and you laugh at the developers seemingly childish attempts at challenging level design, then “shut up and do better!” by creating your own levels with the game’s level editor!
Ultimately, Battleblock Theater has a little something for everyone. Whether you choose to go about saving Hatty from his horrible, friendless fate alone or with someone else is entirely up to you. Either way, you’ll be laughing from shipwreck to prison break.
After spending so many hours with Battleblock Theater, it’s easy for me to say that this is the best game to come out of The Behemoth to date. Battleblock Theater is one part Solomon’s Key, one part Mario Party, and one part classic platforming.
Thanks for reading our Battleblock Theater playtest. We have some codes to give away so you can download the game yourself. Please let us know in the comments if you use a code and we’ll update the post with more codes until we run out.
Food For Thought:
1. Playing through the game with the most apathetic looking faces amplifies the hilarity of being killed via dismemberment, consumption, drowning etc.
Checkpoints can be somewhat finicky in both single and cooperative modes, but never enough to break a level. Well, there might be on scene in world 7 you’ll have to restart, but I’ll let you discover that on your own.
2. The first time my girlfriend and I found a secret area, we practically keeled over with laughter before mustering up enough strength to start collecting gems. When it happens to you, you’ll likely spend the rest of the game hunting for them just to hear the song.
3. Battleblock Theater has an amazing learning curve. It finds a middle ground between experienced players and inexperienced ones, and starts off by nudging you into platforming basics and ends by testing your mastery of those elements.
Pay attention to every single block you move. It can make the difference between failure and success. Especially in world 7.