Wot I Think: BattleBlock Theater

By Marsh Davies on May 22nd, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

Sprung from its imprisonment on Xbox, vaudevillian penitentiary platformer BattleBlock Theater has finally come to Steam. Its release is most definitely to be celebrated: BattleBlock matches shrewd puzzle construction with the furious pace and precise try-and-die challenge of Super Meat Boy, and yet fits all this in a difficulty curve so gentle you barely feel out of breath when you plant your flag at the top. The premise of each level – collect gems and reach the exit – may not be a stretch for the genre, but BattleBlock’s execution has few peers, plus it boasts co-op, both online and off, loads of competitive modes, mini-games, and a level editor with Steam Workshop support. And, because this is still a game from the makers of Castle Crashers, there’s a button which lets you fart yourself to death. Parp!

Let’s stay with the bum jokes for a moment. The first few hours of BattleBlock won’t win your heart on its awesome credentials as a piece of pure platform design, not least because the difficulty curve takes such a long time to take off you might be forgiven for thinking this was just a frivolous romp. Instead it’s all about the frivolous rump: though the mechanics don’t initially have a voice, internet-famous funny-word-speaker Will Stamper does, providing a constant maniacal narration which channels the Ren & Stimpy era of borderline-worksafe toilet humour. Stamper’s performance is so heroically entertaining it might singlehandedly save a much lesser game than this, interjecting with exclamations that are by turns snarky, sinister and silly.

Even if you are so mature as to find poop jokes resolutely unamusing, there is a joyous abandon to the way the lines are delivered that gives the game a responsive energy, as Stamper earnestly explains that the idea is not to die after a fatal pratfall, or simply shrieks, “OH MY GOD!” when you trim yourself on a saw blade. Even after nine hours in the singleplayer I was still hearing new lines and still chuckling. There’s a sort of freewheeling fun to it – the kind you can only get from indie studios, agile enough to seize upon an idea thought up while drinking beer and slap it in the game. Like, for example, the secret levels accompanied by Stamper scat-singing “It’s a secret!” with increasing feverishness. Stamper’s outro theme music, meanwhile, which might be considered a spoiler if it related to anything else in the game, is this marvellous paean to trouser security. (The entire soundtrack, which boasts contributions from the likes of Kid Koala and members of the Newgrounds community, is exceedingly eccentric and very hummable. The OST is to be released, apparently, though there is no certain date as yet.)

Who exactly this narrator is meant to be isn’t clear, but then the entire framing narrative, told via puppetshow cutscenes, is really no more than a cursory jumble of non sequiturs: you’re marooned on an island and imprisoned by a race of cats who force their captive charges to perform (and die) in a theatre run at the behest of a malevolent magical hat. The story knows it’s only there just to facilitate Stamper’s spittle-flecked chittering and the basic set-up for a series of deadly platforming challenges.

The levels are constructed of blocks, hence the name, and barring AI opponents, every obstacle or platforming appliance you might expect (saw blades, spring boards, wind turbines, etc.) has been compacted into a cube to fit within the level’s grid pattern. If this makes Battleblock feel a little inorganic and lacking the visual variety of other platformers, then at least it provides a toolset that can easily be wielded by community level designers. And the game squeezes a huge variety out of both its blocks and the ways they interact. There are ice blocks and spike blocks, of course, with predictable properties; blocks that propel you skywards; blocks that fling you sidewards; blocks that, when activated, project a light-bridge; blocks that toggle other blocks in and out of existence. They’re combined to create levels of meticulous design and compete with the barrage of ideas seen in the likes of Rayman, and other pre-eminent ambassadors for the genre, each idea itself spun out and elegantly escalated.

Levels often play with timing, establishing an apparatus of sawblades or other moving obstacles, that then trigger other blocks in rhythm: emitting deadly beams that in turn power a light-bridge, or cause a sequence of platforms to appear and disappear. Sticky blocks let you wall jump, and later levels combine these elements into an austere challenge, asking you to ricochet between sticky blocks, hang on wall-rungs and bound off platforms in their fleeting moment of existence in order to snag a gem and hit the next checkpoint – all while avoiding a cat’s cradle of intermittently activated lasers.

It’s not all just twitchy controller skills (and the game really does need a controller, I’m afraid), as later levels offer some head-scratchers, too, with some truly devious block-pushing, switch-flipping puzzles of procedure, and hidden gems that require a little bit of detective work to locate.

There are eight chapters in the singleplayer campaign with nine compulsory levels and a two-stage time-trial in each. There’s a further three optional levels per chapter, and secrets aplenty, with every level offering different degrees of success depending on the number of gems you attain and the speed with which you reach the exit – making the game unusually adaptive to different skill levels. There’s an extra incentive to doing well: collectibles are spent buying heads for your customisable character, or exchanged for handy weapons.

The game really lets you set your own challenge: even though it took me til the fourth tier before I graded anything less than an A, getting the A+ was a real test to my admittedly negligible speed-run skills. The tautness of each level’s design begs for you to return to it, to hoover up every missed gem while shaving seconds off your time. But even if your goal is to simply complete the levels, that difficulty curve begins to get a little slippery around the fifth tier, levels baiting you into imprudent actions that inadvertently lock off gems. By the eighth tier there are more than a few challenges that I would consider on the “total bastard” scale.

There’s a lot of room amid this content for people of every skill level, with an additional nightmare mode for players eager for punishment from the off, and a modified campaign purely for co-op. Adding a friend changes the flavour of the game, though, and not entirely for the better: the game demands well-timed cooperation but lends itself to chaotic self-sabotage, with players catching on each other or simply fumbling their sliver-thin cues to act. There’s fun to be had in griefing your companion, but it doesn’t get you very far. Similarly the other multiplayer modes are mostly brief entertainments, with the more aggressively competitive ones relying on Battleblock’s stodgy, reluctant combat. It’s a weakness in the campaign too – and a peculiar one given how lively combat felt in Castle Crashers. Here, enemies sometimes mob you and knock you repeatedly off your feet, giving you only a few moments to unhinge yourself from their collision box and initiate one of your own sticky, ineffectual punches. It’s not a lot better in multiplayer, despite an arsenal of bizarre weaponry, extending from bubble-guns to explosive gentleman frogs.

There’s a jolly but ephemeral pleasure in modes that pit you against an opposing team, each tasked with painting the level your colour, or dunking a basketball, even if they invariably descend into fisticuffs. But this stuff’s just the intermission ice cream – the main performance here is the singleplayer campaign. Castle Crashers showed the developers could make a game of splashily kinetic thrills and gleeful immaturity; Battleblock’s meticulous mechanical design, its taut level construction and soaring learning curve shows that they’ve grown up – if only in the ways that matter. Parp!

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22 Comments »

  1. SillyWizard says:

    So I finally just watched the trailer for this game, and it’s excellent.

    This looks delightful!

    • Geebs says:

      Now try watching the trailer with the sound turned on. See that red stuff? That’s blood coming out of your eyes.

  2. amateurviking says:

    Ooh I’m glad the singleplayer holds up. The (amazing) trailer gave me the impression it might be a bit perfunctory in favour of coop shenanigans. And I have no friends *sniff*

  3. mechabuddha says:

    I’m having a great time with this game. The humor is infantile, but so passionate that I can’t help but chuckle while I’m playing. Nyaa nyaa nyaa!

  4. MrFinnishDude says:

    Pants will be buckled.

  5. Prolar Bear says:

    Whenever I read “parp” I think of this instead of farts. http://youtu.be/eeJ38HE8Q7U?t=20s

  6. Ditocoaf says:

    “and the game really does need a controller, I’m afraid”

    I think this actually depends entirely on what you’re used to. Most of my platforming experience is with classic Spelunky, Cave Story, and the like, going back to Commander Keen. Consequently I find platformers, including this game, much more natural on a keyboard. If you’re used to a controller for a certain genre (as most RPS writers seem to be for lots of genres) then a controller will feel more appropriate.

    I really wish you guys would be a bit slower to insist that a controller is necessary for a game, or that a KB+M is severely sub-par. Stop and consider whether it might be a matter of personal inclination.

    I already spend time trying to convince people that they don’t need to get extra gear to play games on their PC. It’s one of the platform’s major strengths. I don’t have anything against controllers, and if you own one, it can be great. But it shouldn’t be a barrier to PC gaming.

    Sometimes, it isn’t a matter of “which is better, keyboard or controller”, it’s a matter of “if I don’t own a controller, is it worth playing this game at all?” It’s easy to forget that if you’ve owned a controller for a long time, it starts to feel like a default option. Don’t be too hasty to answer “no” to that second question.

    • Dare_Wreck says:

      Good grief – why does someone like you always post something like this whenever a controller is suggested for use with a PC game? Some genres really do benefit from a gamepad, regardless of the platform you are using. For crying out loud, I was using the original Gravis Gamepad some 20 odd years ago with Commanmder Keen, one of the games you mention. Even back then it was much nicer to use a controller for that game and others of its ilk than it was to use a keyboard.

      • Ditocoaf says:

        I’m not denying that the game can benefit from a controller, I just object to calling it “necessary”. I’m not the classic KB+M elitist here, if that’s what you mean by “someone like you”. I just don’t feel like telling people they absolutely have to buy some extra gear in order to enjoy games on their computer.

        And with things like Commander Keen, it’s totally a matter of preference, like I said. I prefer the immediacy of having one finger on “left” and one finger on “right”, because that’s what I’m used to. If you’re used to having a single stick to push in one direction or the other, that’s what will feel proper to you. But there’s no need to tell people, universally, that they can’t play this game unless they own a controller.

        • Deadly Sinner says:

          Yup. Personally, I like and own controllers, and I even sometimes use one with games that would be better with keyboard. But there are very few games where controllers are are required. These are primarily games in which the camera is divorced from the player character, as seen in games like Devil May Cry 1-4, but also include special cases, like the Dark Souls series. Possibly flight combat games as well, depending on how precise you need to be or whether the game supports mouse aim.

          Apart from that, whether you use a controller or not is largely preference. Platformers do not require a controller, since all they need are four digital directional buttons and a couple of action buttons, which the keyboard handily provides. Though somewhat inferior, racing games do not require a controller, since, unless you are playing a sim-level game, tapping the directional buttons for small movements works just as well. Fighting games are better with a keyboard, since WASD + six numpad buttons is far closer to the original arcade input than a controller (though keyboard sucks at the thankfully rare full circle inputs.)

      • Bobka says:

        Because it’s a fair point? I used to skip games that reviewers said “needed” a controller, but eventually I started playing things anyway and realized, you know what? I don’t care. I can play and enjoy these games without needing to buy a controller (I actually have one, but I dislike the things so strongly that I only use them when I want to play local co-op games on my PC with others).

        I’m sure I would enjoy it more if I put hundreds of hours into learning to become comfortable with a controller in the first place, but I don’t have hundreds of spare hours to spend bumbling through an awkward and uncomfortable input device, constantly pressing the wrong buttons, when I could be spending my free time playing games with an input device I enjoy.

        • Sheng-ji says:

          It takes an hour, tops, about the same amount of time it takes to learn to rub your tummy while patting your head. Of course, you’ve got to want to learn…

          • Bobka says:

            I’ve used controllers for at least a few dozen hours, and I still constantly press the wrong buttons about 50% of the time, and angle the analogue stick in the wrong way in high-pressure situations. It’s not as simple when you’re not a pre-teen.

        • Focksbot says:

          “I’m sure I would enjoy it more if I put hundreds of hours into learning to become comfortable with a controller in the first place …”

          Crikey – do I have some kind of uber-talent hitherto unrecognised? Because having fought on with keyboard and mouse for every game I’ve played for most of my life, when I finally gave in and bought a controller to get through a particularly punishing bit of Psychonauts, I found it completely intuitive and pifflingly easy to master.

          Maybe this is an oversimplification, but doesn’t it in part come down to this – mapping different directions of movement to individual fingers makes a game fiddlier. On a flat plane, therefore, you want a thumbstick or d-pad, and in 3D you want a mouse.

    • SillyWizard says:

      I found Super Meat Boy to be unplayable with a kbam. I mean, I could do stuff, but I certainly couldn’t do stuff as smoothly as necessary to beat the times I wanted to beat, and to avoid dying 10x more than I do with a controller.

      This game looks like it’s in about the same league as SMB.

    • Shieldmaiden says:

      What I find amusing about this argument is that I grew up with a Spectrum and then an Amiga, and if anyone had suggested that a joystick wasn’t a standard part of your computer apparatus, they would have been considered a raving loony.

      Also, you can technically operate a PC without a mouse, but no-one argues that one shouldn’t be required for gaming.

      • Ditocoaf says:

        Look, I just don’t like barriers to entry for PC gaming. Most people don’t have a controller. If you have one and like it, great! If a certain game plays better with one, great! It’s not standard gear like a mouse, though, and it falls firmly in the “extra shit I don’t need” category for a lot of people.

        THE ONLY THING I’m saying is, don’t be too hasty to tell people “get a controller or don’t play this game”, which is what you’re saying when you say “a controller is necessary”.

        RPS made that claim for this game, and also Transistor the other day. Which is a travesty, because people interested in playing Transistor shouldn’t abandon that just because they don’t have a controller. It plays really well without one, but since the particular writer preferred a gamepad, he made a generalization for what all people would prefer. Sometimes that sort of generalization is accurate, but you should be careful not to scare people away from a game needlessly.

  7. JimmyG says:

    Hey Marsh, all of the article’s links are wonked, looks like.

    • Marsh Davies says:

      Thanks! WordPress had decided my inverted commas weren’t good enough, so added a bunch more.

  8. The First Door says:

    I must admit, I’ve spent way too much time playing Ball Game, Capture the Horse, and Grab The Gold (make it rain mister whale!) in four player. There is a sort of incredible and rather enjoyable chaos that happens when you’ve all got different weapons and you only half remember what head you picked! Plus the fact you can just randomly attack people in the menu screens is excellent for expressing your frustrations with your play mates!

    • mechabuddha says:

      In multiplayer, somebody blocked the ladder up to the second level in the level select area by throwing grenades beneath him. Me and 2 other plays spent a good 5 minutes trying to get past him, and it ended up being more fun than any of the actual levels we played.

  9. Robmonster says:

    Given the choice of getting this on an Xbox 360 or the PC which would be best? I do enjoy the sitting-on-the-sofa style of Xbox gaming….