Pussycats Galore

I’ll admit, I’ve always been a little slow to hop on the Behemoth bandwagon. I didn’t play Alien Hominid until it hit XBLA in 2007, and I didn’t get into Castle Crashers until 2011. Although I was late to the party, I loved both of those games, so when I heard that BattleBlock Theater, The Behemoth’s long-awaited next title, had finally been given a release date, I made sure I was ready and waiting for it to drop.

BattleBlock Theater begins as you and a bunch of your best friends—including your bestest friend in the whole wide world, Hatty Hattington—pile into a boat and sail off to parts unknown looking for adventure. After you sail and have some carefree fun for several days, a massive storm hits and sends your ship spiraling off course and into a long-forgotten island. When you come around, your character—customizable in regards to color and head shape—realizes that Hatty’s gone missing.

As you begin to explore the island, you discover a dilapidated theater and enter, hoping to find Hatty. But as soon as you set foot inside, you realize this is no ordinary theater. In fact, it’s been taken over by hundreds of massive cats with an affinity for fine technological devices and wreaking mayhem and murder upon unsuspecting travelers that stumble across their nefarious dungeon of doom. For reasons unknown, Hatty has become the man in charge, now sporting a possessed top hat instead of the friendly smile that once adorned his face. Hmm. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it has something to do with the possessed hat.

You and your friends must travel through eight worlds full of buzzsaws, laser beams, spears, spikes, and kitties who have a knack for making things blow up, all in the hopes of bringing Hatty back to his senses and escaping from this macabre deathtrap. As you traverse each of the game’s nearly 100 levels, you’re required to collect three jewels to unlock the exit, but you can also nab surplus gems to spend on character unlocks, as well as yarn to bribe the death-kittens into giving you better, more powerful weapons.

Those of you who are familiar with The Behemoth’s work will immediately recognize their trademark cartoon art style and quirky sense of humor. Many of BattleBlock’s laughs come courtesy of the game’s narrator, who spews canned, campy one-liners that help give each level the feel of a never-ending game-show parody.

When you dig past the hundreds of collectible heads for your characters, the bells and whistles of the presentation, and the strong pedigree the game has to live up to, you’ve got a deliciously punishing, fun platformer. In fact, I was often reminded of Super Meat Boy—both with regard to difficulty and the tightness with which you can control your character. And that challenge only gets worse on Insane mode, which features remixed versions of levels packed with even more traps vying to send you to an untimely death.

Unlike some of those more diabolical platformers, though, BattleBlock Theater shines brightest when playing with a friend. I really ought to dedicate this review to my girlfriend, whose willingness to lie down on a bed of spikes to offer me a makeshift platform helped make this review possible. I think this game is the only situation where it’s socially acceptable to look a loved one in the eye and say, “Go kill yourself.” While I still had a lot of fun playing alone, it was solving the more co-op oriented puzzles together that kept smiles plastered on our faces for the nearly eight-hour campaign.

A couple of downsides to playing cooperatively do pop up, however—namely the camera and spawning system. If one player gets too far ahead, the camera pulls way back, making it difficult for either player to see what’s happening onscreen. And when one character dies, where they respawn seems to be completely random. Sometimes they’ll appear right next to their teammate; other times they’ll be rocketed back several checkpoints, forcing them to deal with that lovely camera issue again. Aside from these minor gripes, though, there’s nary a fault to be found.

But the story is only the beginning of BattleBlock’s inescapable charm. There’s also a level editor, where you can craft your own gauntlets to test your friends’ skills and indulge your inner kitty. Want to set up a stroll in the park? How about a punishing series of pitfalls accompanied by lasers dealing death from above? The choice is yours.

Then there’s the biggest surprise of BattleBlock Theater: its versus options. With nearly a dozen game modes spread between 2-on-2 competitions and 4-on-4 contests that pit human players against a team of bots, BattleBlock offers enough variety to keep things fresh for many long hours after you’ve finished up the story. From King of the Hill to Capture the Flag, BattleBlock’s take on some classic versus modes, along with a few original to the game, had me and the other EGM editors rolling on the floor laughing. (Props to Intern Chris for taking home the most MVP awards, even if Associate Editor Josh Harmon and I routinely wiped the floor with him and News Editor Eric L. Patterson.) Things can definitely get a bit chaotic—in fact, they almost always do—but you’ll likely be having too much fun to care.

All in all, this is The Behemoth’s best game to date, and fans should take solace in knowing the incredibly long wait between titles was well worth it. And if you’re a newcomer who feels like it’s finally time to jump on the Behemoth bandwagon, I can’t think of a better game to start with.

Developer: The Behemoth • Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 04.03.13
Between taking in the hysterical story, trying your hand at level creation, or just blowing up some buddies in versus mode, most every gamer will find something to love about BattleBlock Theater. Whether played alone or with friends, The Behemoth’s latest is an absolute blast that’s well worth the price of admission.
The Good Between its story and versus modes and its level editor, this is one of the deepest downloadable games out there.
The Bad The camera and spawning system in story co-op.
The Ugly You ever seen an entire island run by cats? Trust me. You don’t want to.
BattleBlock Theater is an Xbox 360 (XBLA) exclusive.