If The Behemoth's two previous games proved anything it was that old fashioned genres can be rejuvenated with original art direction and a surreal sense of humour. Now, after a long wait, BattleBlock Theater is here to do for puzzle platforming what Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers did for side-scrolling combat.
An unhinged, stream-of-consciousness narration tells the story of a strange race of puppet-people shipwrecked and forced to perform in a dilapidated theatre. For an audience of cats. If this all sounds a little too whacky, it's to The Behemoth's credit that the humour rarely made me cringe, and only some of the more exceptional crudity feels like it's trying too hard. It's presented as you'd expect: bright colours, thick outlines, plentiful expression and a pleasing level of detail.
That audience of cats, then. Each level is presented as a theatrical gauntlet constructed from a huge range of blocks. The block types and the ways they interact with each other form the basis for the game's puzzles. For example, you need to release a sliding rotary blade so that it can hit some switches to remove obstacles, but the blade then chases you down a corridor where you pick up speed on ice and jump over the magma that would launch you onto ceiling spikes. Kinetics and momentum play a big part, and you'll sometimes find yourself flung around a level for a bit. Later stages require you to survive and solve puzzles at the same time.
All the while, the narrator makes sarcastic comments and the audience reacts to your accomplishments; the cats offer a polite round of applause for each gem or ball of twine you collect. You'll need at least three gems to exit a level, which you can then use to free over 200 of your fellow captives, one-by-one. These escapees become playable characters, though they all control identically. There's one ball of twine per level, which can be swapped for new weapons on the black cat market. The greedy, purring crowd are given plenty of performances; each of the nine stages features nine regular levels, a time-trial finale, and three tricky extras.
Playing through these fantastic and inventive levels reveals a couple of small problems. Movement is generally good, but I'd prefer it to be a little quicker and more precise. The enemies dotted around are a chore to fight, both because of their suicidal charges and the unresponsiveness of the combat mechanics. Their main purpose seems to be to cause chaos in particularly dangerous areas. You'll die a lot, but failure is barely punished because you instantly respawn at generously-placed checkpoints. Select the 'Insane' difficulty and checkpoints disappear.
You can play the story mode with one friend (local or online), and each level is tweaked to encourage co-operation, whether it's flinging each other over gaps or standing on a switch to allow your partner to progress. There are also four-player co-op and versus modes, which stand apart from the story and offer diverting, if shallow, mini-games.
The game's best alternate mode is the level editor; as usual, only time will tell whether it's both simple enough for players to use and powerful enough for them to create exciting stages with. The block-based system certainly works in its favour, though, so expect to see levels that challenge even the game's later stages for sadism.
Rankings at the end of each level will compel completionists to dive back in for an A++ score while getting three gems and heading for the exit is enough to move on - getting the top rank means finding up to seven gems, the ball of yarn, and finishing within a strict time limit, a task on which hours could be spent.
To my mind, BattleBlock Theater is (a crude) Adventure Time to Super Meat Boy's Ren And Stimpy: just as crazy, but more forgiving. Even though the core levels are only tenuously linked to the inane storyline, the cutscenes between stages are funny and the constant voiceover does add a gleeful morbidity to proceedings. What's more, the platforming's challenge and variety reflect a small developer making a big, impressive game.
Version Tested: Xbox 360
Game played for and completed in 8 hours.