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BattleBlock Theater Review

Posted by Cha Holland On Tuesday 30 April 2013Comments Off

Available on XBLA l Published by Microsoft l Developed by The Behemoth l Classified G l Supports 1-4 players

REVIEW IN BRIEF > Roll up, roll up ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls for BattleBlock Theater, the cruellest and most jovial show on Earth. Watch as our hero misses a jump and plummets onto hilarious spikes for your entertainment! The Behemoth’s new game is bright and fun-focused, but you need to be willing to turn your brain off to really appreciate it. If you think poo jokes and blowing up your friends are hilarious this might be the game for you.

REVIEW IN FULL > Did you ever meet someone who was trying just a bit too hard? Whose banter and attempts to impress just led to groans and awkward sideways glances? Maybe they’ll hit the right note occasionally and everyone cracks a smile in spite of themselves, but generally they make an awkward dinner guest. That’s BattleBlock Theater, constantly tripping over its own desire to be cool.

There’s something endearing about its enthusiasm, but BattleBlock would be better off if it would just settle down and stop babbling for five minutes.

The Behemoth, creator of popular beat ‘em up Castle Crashers, has moved to the platform genre this time around, with straightforward combat and a dash of puzzle solving. The story features a group of friends shipwrecked and forced to face deadly challenges as entertainment for the island’s sadistic feline population. Your aim is to survive this gladiatorial spectacle and rescue everyone’s best friend Hatty Hattington, who has fallen under the spell of an evil top hat.

The Behemoth’s distinctive cartoony visuals are a high point, particularly the character designs. The theatre-cum-prison’s cat guards are an appealing mix of cute and evil. The prisoners’ heads are all based on a basic shape like a cube, pyramid or sphere but with hundreds of quirky modifications to unlock, from cute animal heads to oddball aliens and giant eyeballs.

There’s something endearing about its enthusiasm, but BattleBlock would be better off if it would just settle down and stop babbling for five minutes. The narrator sets the tone, with a constant barrage of attempted humour that forgoes comic timing in favour of packing in as many gags and as much rambling absurdity as possible without pausing for breath. Toilet and gallows humour are equivalent here, trivialising both to the same base level. This feeds the part of game culture that gets annoyed when someone considers any metric other than fun, and dismisses further analysis or criticism as pretention and oversensitivity. It’s not cool to care or think too much. This philosophy comes across very clearly.

We don’t watch Punch and Judy shows any more. Games now dominate at creating violence that is gleeful and abstracted from reality. There can be value in that, from simple stress relief to safely exploring difficult subjects, but sometimes it feels like we’re trying to forget reality and substitute something more palatable. Humour can be dark, but if we’re going to laugh at imprisonment and torture, there could be some point beyond proving we live privileged lives and don’t have to care.

The levels feel disconnected from the story, and could just as easily have been used in another context.

The levels feel disconnected from the story, and could just as easily have been used in another context. The game does drop reminders you’re supposed to be on stage: the audience applauds when you collect a gem, and the cut scenes designed after a children’s puppet show bookend the story stages with theatre imagery, but it still doesn’t really feel like any kind of show. The platforming design is competent, with clean animations and gradually introduces typical gimmicks like hidden teleporters or slippery ice blocks. It’s fun enough and builds to a decent challenge, but not particularly inspired. The narrator is alternatively encouraging and insulting, which begins as a matter of taste but soon becomes repetitive.

At the end of each chapter is a time trial, which is pure irritation. The standard levels have generous checkpointing and infinite respawns, so can be completed easily enough with a little persistence. You can choose whether you care about item collection, speed or neither without impeding progress. Time trials throw this pattern out the window and are irritating road blocks for those who don’t enjoy timed elements.

Local and online multiplayer will probably be BattleBlock Theater’s main attraction for those who stick with it. This is the sort of game designed for friends or siblings who enjoy gently teasing each other. Co-op is of the potentially antagonistic variety, with plenty of opportunity for light-hearted sabotage. There are a wide range of competitive multiplayer modes, such as simple deathmatch battles, king of the hill, scoring basketball hoops, or stealing the other team’s horses. It’s a good variety of beer and pretzels style multiplayer, tuned around friendly mayhem rather than deep strategy.

BattleBlock Theater will appeal most to people who want a simple, chaotic platform game to play with friends. If you want to focus on the story, you’ll need a compatible sense of humour.

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