Four years it’s taken The Behemoth to make BattleBlock Theater – that’s nearly a Fez-length gestation. But the studio behind Alien Hominid and early XBLA poster child Castle Crashers has used its time well, delivering an ambitious cocktail of ideas and genres that initially feels disjointed, but soon coheres into one of the service’s finest moments.
The spine of BattleBlock is a slick, well-paced platformer, which tells the story of a group of puppet friends who find themselves the victims of sadistic theatre-loving cats after their boat runs aground. The objective of each level is simple: collect at least three diamonds to open the exit. Balls of yarn also await in particularly precarious areas, and are used to bribe corrupt guards to get new oddball ordinance. Those diamonds, meanwhile, will liberate your fellow captives, unlocking cosmetic avatar options in the process.
Each act contains nine levels, a finale against the clock and three ‘encore’ levels. The platforming never achieves Super Meat Boy’s flow and grace, but it only falls short of Live’s standard bearer by a cat’s whisker. Inertia is expertly judged and stringing together a chain of wall slides, double jumps and death-defying leaps to best perilous traps is as moreish as it is hectic.
In co-op, BattleBlock’s levels transform from memorable to essential. Puzzles metamorphose into new forms to test teamwork, with you able to throw, grab or simply stand on the shoulders of your partner to progress. The clever use of switches, more challenging tiles and ravenous enemies recalls LittleBigPlanet’s best co-op puzzles, albeit delivered at a more breathless pace. With a partner in tow, it’s easier to forgive the occasionally misjudged jump distances and awkward melee combat, which always seems to devolve into a war of attrition, breaking the otherwise-impeccable rhythm.
This tangle trips up BattleBlock’s suite of versus and team multiplayer modes, too, because the fighting simply isn’t enjoyable enough to support a straight-up deathmatch. However, the modes where you paint wall blocks in your team’s colour or collect money from a golden whale to deposit in a floating safe fare better.
BattleBlock Theater also draws comparisons to LittleBigPlanet with its level editor. While its possibilities are more limited, it’s a far less daunting tool. Simply choose your level’s dimensions, then place blocks and enemies drawn from a menu opened with the R trigger. Themes, colours and backgrounds are accessed through the L trigger. It’s thoroughly welcoming and a clutch of sharing options, including community playlists, should ensure a long lifespan.
The Behemoth’s lunatic sense of humour is let off the leash entirely in BattleBlock Theater. Its barmy story is delivered by a genuinely funny narrator (who chides you cheerfully in-game, too), while enemy designs include such oddities as dual slices of toast that work together to sandwich you. Bright, colourful and mostly dismissive of current trends, it’s clear The Behemoth wants to delight players with every moment of its latest performance. That it succeeds in only most of those moments is still a remarkable achievement.