When life’s got you down, just think: you could be a prisoner stranded on an island, forced to risk life and limb in a sadistic stage show put on to entertain a bunch of overgrown cats. Such a bizarre state of affairs is the actual premise of BattleBlock Theater, the 2D platformer from indie powerhouse The Behemoth that’s mechanically gratifying and delightfully weird in equal measure. And by golly, it’s the perfect pick-me-up when you’re in the mood for some absolute, unbridled silliness.
Now, despite the outlandish scenario, the gameplay itself is lovingly familiar. All you have to do is run and jump around levels constructed from various types of blocks, collecting enough green gems to activate the exit. The controls are pleasantly tight, and the ability to double-jump, climb up pipes, and push objects right from the get-go makes moving through the levels a cinch. At least, at first; eventually you’ll have to figure out how to bypass hostile cats, giant laser beams, labyrinths of spiked surfaces, and frightening antlered creatures known as Raccalopes. You will most definitely die trying, but fear not: lives are infinite, and checkpoints are plentiful (unless you’ve got what it takes to play on Insane difficulty).
BattleBlock Theater’s become something of a virtual nicotine patch for me: I’m craving the chance to play more of Pit People, the upcoming strategy game from The Behemoth. And though the gameplay in that forthcoming game is a far cry from the simplistic sidescrolling in BattleBlock Theater, the glorious presentation is in much the same vein: Dan Paladin’s adorably chunky art style, mixed with the incomparable narration of Will Stamper. In each of BattleBlock’s frantically acted-out cutscenes, Stamper’s singsong voice gives life to the absurd story, but his best moments are all the quips and squeals he makes during the actual gameplay. Every time Stamper jollily exclaims “Everything’s coming together like butt cheeks!” as I snag a particularly tricky gem, I beam with pride. Gems are the keys that power up the exit of each moderately sized level, and it’s your call whether you want to potentially suffer to seek out and score them all, or simply settle for the requisite three before you peace out.
That’s one of the best bits about BattleBlock (besides Stamper, of course): you’re free to determine your own level of challenge, and if you decide to chase for full completion, this is essentially a bottomless well of content. The stage designs are such that you’re never cruelly punished for failing, and the precision of the double-jump physics ensures that all your darkly funny deaths are your own doing. To score a coveted A++ medal in each level, you need to snag every gem and an elusive ball of yarn in a hurry. But you’re never pressured into torturing yourself until you’ve nailed a series of flawless performances, and Stamper will kindly encourage you just as often as he gleefully mocks you. Of all the great platformers out there, BattleBlock’s structure reminds me of all the totally optional collectibles in Crash Bandicoot’s original PS1 adventures: there if you want ’em, but never restricting you from just having fun.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned yet how much added value there is in the co-op play, which tweaks level layouts to promote teamwork and allow for some dastardly (but friendly) griefing. There’s a collect-’em’-all aspect to the many oddly shaped heads you can unlock for your little platformer, and the many different weapon types enable all kinds of neat trickery for zipping through the stages. And as if there wasn’t enough replayability, you could spend dozens of hours messing around with multiplayer minigames, cavorting through community-made levels, or concocting your own blocky gauntlets piece by piece. I’m of the belief that The Behemoth only gets better with every game they make – and until I can dive headfirst into the tactical, hilariously ridiculous world of Pit People, BattleBlock Theater should tide me over just fine.
Each week, we’ll be highlighting the best last-gen classics and retro titles you can play right now on your Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U. For a full list of backwards compatible titles, be sure to check out our coverage for Xbox 360 games on Xbox One and Every PS2 game on PS4.