BattleBlock Theater Review: At Least One Reason To Be a Dog Person

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“You can’t hurt anyone with yarn.”  Those were the words of a friend who loiters within our workspace on occasion.  Seemingly random, her statement was actually in response to an even more questionable exchange, from her perspective.  “This weapon doesn’t even kill anybody!  We have to go back and find more yarn!” I said, as Jon and I worked our way through one of BattleBlock Theater’s earlier stages.  Having not been briefed on the game’s premise, our friend’s initial confusion was both understandable and warranted.  I did what I could to ease her confusion by explaining a bit more.  “No, silly.  Yarn isn’t a weapon.  Yarn is currency.”  “Who would value yarn enough to accept it as currency?” she asked.  Cats.

At this point, you have probably heard all about the quirky plot of The Behemoth’s Battleblock Theater, so I will only sum it up very briefly.  Similar to the classic Dr. Seuss tale, the story is all about some cats in possession of a hat.  The real difference between the two tales lies in the severity of the mischief performed by the feline antagonists.  While trashing the house and cleaning it up just before Mom gets home sounds like some mild fun, the cats in BBT up the ante just a tad, skipping straight to enslaving people and forcing them to fight for their lives on stage.  Also, the hat is more like Frosty the Snowman’s hat, if it sucked the life out of things instead of animating them.  There is also some Gilligan’s Island in there.  It’s all pretty standard stuff.

From a writing and storytelling perspective, this is probably the funniest game since Portal 2.  Seriously, it’s hilarious.  The jokes are well-written, and they are expertly delivered at machine gun pace from the lips of narrator Will Stamper.  The narrative intermissions between stages are not annoying nuisances, but rather entertaining rewards to which you will look forward.  When the cut scenes begin, you will not find yourself pressing the skip button unless you hit it accidentally during a silly giggle-fit.  The art style is just as captivating and humorous as it was in Castle Crashers, and it does not feel borrowed or stale.  The sound effects are amusing, and sometimes lewd.  Even the soundtrack is funny (Secret Stage!).  The game does not take itself too seriously, and the result is some serious hilarity.  It has all of the charm you would expect from the creators of Castle Crashers, and it is arguably even more enchanting than its predecessor in that regard.

 

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Oooh… I know there is a pun here… come on, come on… think, Thomas… FrankFeline!  Wow, that’s really not great.  I’ll have to make sure I come back and think of something better before I post this.

 

Gameplay wise, BBT has a little something for everyone.  Well, technically, if you hate platformers, you might be the one exception.  We won’t judge you if you dislike them.  I’m sure you have your reasons.  Maybe you aren’t great at hitting the jump button, maybe your parents fell off of a platform, maybe a platform fell on your parents, or maybe you had your heart broken by a woman in platform shoes.  How should I know?  In any case, if you have a problem with the genre, this game falls within it, so you should consider that going in.  I can’t be sure what your deal is, but if that is a deal breaker, this might be a good time to stop reading.

Still here?  Great.  Within the genre, BBT certainly excels.  The game borrows the usual platforming mechanics, while also introducing some new mechanisms that are utilized in very complex and creative ways as the difficulty level increases.  By the game’s later levels, players will have to dodge sliding axes, which press alternating buttons, which trigger falling rocks, which activate bridges of light, which unleash horrible monsters, which must be avoided with jetpacks, etc, etc, etc… What may seem like a simple game at first can become a very trying and rewarding experience as all of these mechanics achieve synergy.  The level designers did a great job, and the online level creator gives the community the chance to expand upon those efforts.  There are definitely still some undiscovered ways that the tools can work together, and the community’s creativity will surely increase the game’s replay value.

Though each level has a single player variant, cooperative play is really the way to go.  These days, there are not enough arcade style games, where a group of friends can share a couch, game together, and enjoy each other’s company without squinting painfully at separate corners of a split-screen monitor.  As Jon and I played, I kept thinking back to the days when my best friend and I would play the Sunset Riders port on SNES.  It is a truly nostalgic experience.  You don’t need to set up your own LAN party to play with friends, and you don’t need 20/20 vision either.  The cooperative play works wonderfully, and it can positively or negatively affect a level’s difficulty, depending on the settings you choose.  On normal mode, when mid-level respawns are unlimited, coop mode eases the individual burden, creating a chance to bond with companions, build upon relationships, and strengthen friendships.  On insane mode, where any player’s death will essentially restart the level, coop mode is an open-and-shut case waiting to happen.  When the police find your roommate, beaten senseless with an Xbox controller, with “Beef Stew” written across the walls in cat food, your motives will be instantly clear.  After all, that’s the fifth case this week.

 

More puns?  You got it….  These enemies really make it hard to get on a roll.

 

In case I am not being clear enough, the game becomes extremely difficult, which is actually very refreshing for those who like a challenge.  The game is not just a platformer, but also a puzzle game, so the difficulty lies not only in execution, but in strategy as well.  The hardest stages are the secret levels and the last stage of each world, which must be completed in a limited amount of time.  The very last stage took Jon and I at least 20 attempts, and I would not say that we suck, by any stretch of the imagination.  The puzzle/platforming dichotomy creates a cycle of questions that goes something like, “What the hell are we supposed to do? How the hell are we going to do that? How the hell did we just do that? What the hell are we supposed to do now?”  The timed levels add the question, “How the hell are we going to have time to ask all those questions?”  The game is not terribly long, but the late game levels will take you a fairly long time to complete, and each of the eight or so worlds has three bonus levels that will take even longer.  Completionists will spend even longer on the stages, perfecting their times, collecting gems to unlock new characters, and collecting yarn to unlock new weapons.

The game is certainly not without its flaws.  The biggest annoyance is the strangely nonlinear difficulty curve of the levels.  Imagine riding your bike through a flat, empty, parking lot on a hot, sunny day, whilst licking on an ice cream cone and listening to Will Smith’s hip-hop classic, “Summertime.”  All of a sudden, the ground beneath you disappears, the sun is engulfed by the rapid convergence of dense, black clouds, and you find yourself barreling down a steep icy mountain while you are chased by the abominable snowman from Ski Free.  The Battleblock Theater experience is kind of like that.  The first five worlds are fun, but they lack any real challenge at all.  That is not to say that you will not die.  We died a lot, but there are infinite respawns, there is no way to get a game over, and no challenge is ever presented that is complex enough to stump you or difficult enough to halt your advance.  I kept asking Jon questions like “What is the point of this?” and “When does this become a game?”  By about the sixth stage, I got my answer, immediately, in the form of real barriers that made advancement challenging.  A sense of challenge, even if only moderate in nature, is what separates games from movies.  It is a requisite for a fun gaming experience.  For this reason, the snowy mountain portion of the game is loads of fun, while the parking lot training wheels stages drag a bit.  In retrospect, my dissatisfaction lies not with the suddenness of the difficulty increase but rather with the lateness of its arrival.  I would have enjoyed even more of the challenging levels to supplant the simple ones.  They are where the game really shines.

There are also a few other annoyances worth noting.  Each level has a hard to reach ball of yarn that can be collected, and five balls of yarn can be traded in for a new weapon.  However, the mathematics are tragically flawed.  Got your calculator out?  If you multiply the number of weapons by five, you get a number that is way smaller than the total number of stages, or balls of yarn, in the game.  This means that halfway through the game, you will have collected all of the weapons, and you will have neither any incentive to collect more yarn nor any use for the excess yarn you have collected.  It is a real bummer considering the usefulness of the collectable gems.  Even if you collect every gem in the game, one playthrough will only give you enough to unlock roughly 25% of the characters.  Perhaps one ball of yarn could be traded for ten gems, maybe there could be more weapons, or maybe the system could require more balls of yarn to unlock a weapon.  Whatever the solution, anything is better than amassing giant stacks of yarn for no reason other than personal satisfaction and bragging rights.  On a related note… I think I just got a new idea for a TV show…  “Virtual Hoarders.”  Networks executives, send me your offers via e-mail.  I’ll be waiting.

 

When you reach the timed stages, you may find yourself coming back for seconds.

 

I do not have a lot to say about the multiplayer arena, because it really functions best when there are four human players involved.  It works great as a party game, or if you have a lot of roommates, but if you just have one or two people around, playing against the computer is not really all that fun or challenging.  There is an online option, but finding a game can be frustrating.  To find a game, you will need to enter your required search parameters, which will yield a list of suitable matches.  However, if the match you select is full or if you are unable to connect for any reason, you will be kicked back to the root arena menu instead of the search results screen.  After a few tries of reentering your parameters and returning to the original menu, you might just move onto something else.  That is a big flaw to overlook in a game whose multiplayer components incredibly affect its value.  I would imagine this will be an early patch target for The Behemoth.

Overall, the game is incredibly unique, creative, beautiful, funny, and enjoyable.  Once you get to the more difficult stages, you and your partner will create long-lasting memories together as you work to overcome the challenges at hand and master every stage’s execution.  Even though the game does not become truly challenging until about halfway through the campaign, the challenges presented incredibly rewarding, and there are still more than enough difficult levels, including the many secret levels, to warrant a purchase.  Due to the hilarious writing, narration, and animations, the game might be worth a purchase, even if only for a few laughs.  The game’s only real issues are the uneven difficulty curve, the wonky online menu, and the yarn surplus, all of which are forgiven by its clever charm and enjoyable gameplay.  As you play through these addictive stages, the time will melt off the clock, and you may forget to eat or sleep.  If you need a reminder, tie some yarn around your finger.  If that doesn’t work, tie a string of yarn around your neck.  If you really want a thrill, tighten the yarn just as you are completing a stage.  The resulting lack of air and circulation may give you an even greater sense of pleasure when you finally reach the stage’s climax.  Be careful, though.  If you tie the yarn too tightly, you could accidentally kill yourself.  No… who am I kidding?  That’s silly.  You can’t hurt anyone with yarn.

 

9/10 – Great

 

 

If you haven’t seen it already, check out my interview with The Behemoth, on BattleBlock Theater, below:

 

 

Thomas Shamburger
Thomas is one of the original creators of "What's Jump?" As a lifelong gamer, writer, and comedian, his goal is to provide readers with humorous, entertaining, and thought-provoking perspectives on current gaming news and culture. His early career successes in the business world helped to pave the way for the site's launch in 2012. As the Editor in Chief of "What's Jump?" he combines his passions for gaming, writing, entrepreneurship, and comedy.
Thomas Shamburger
Thomas Shamburger

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