BattleBlock Theater Review

Friendship is demonstrated in several ways. Friendship can be buying a drink for someone because they’ve had a crappy day. Often for me friendship will be sitting down to play some co-op on that new game that just came out. But friendship isn’t all charity beers and gaming partners. When I’m around friends I can relax, be myself, and can cast off any pretensions I might put on around mere acquaintances. Being myself, I find, sometimes means being an underhand, petty, squabbling, and cruel idiot. I chalk this up to human nature rather than me being particularly malevolent– we’re all ultimately fallible contradictions of love and hate, right? Being myself occasionally means telling an off-color joke, or laughing when a friend falls over. Being myself in BattleBlock Theater means pushing my friend into water and then using his drowning, flailing body as a platform.

In BattleBlock Theater “Friendship” is the name of a ship that wrecks 300 friends on a strange island. Friendship, I’m told, is then running a sanity-bending gambit of platforming challenges to save them. BattleBlock Theater is ostensibly a puzzle-platformer. That is to say there are blocks that need to be jumped across, and that the game regularly mixes in blocks which need to be pushed in order to complete puzzles. I don’t mean to sound unenthused about either of those elements, because they’re both applied marvellously.

There are no themed levels in BattleBlock. There is no ice level and no fire level; nothing to really separate each maddening organization of cubes from one another but the stage number.  Is that right for a platformer? What would a Mario game be if it were a hundred levels of forest? I’ve suggested before that the platformer often works by re-imagining the childhood joys of exploration. Of course, that’s not the area that BattleBlock wants to explore. What BattleBlock loses in aesthetic sensibilities – the joy of coming to a new area, complete with bold, new color scheme – is made up for with its visual simplicity. Arrangements of blocks quickly become a language, one that I have the entire game to learn. It becomes easy to spot a collectible gem, eye the surrounding arrangement of blocks, and know instantly, intuitively, what I must do to get that gem.

What hooked me on BattleBlock wasn’t the pacey platforming, and trim, tightly constructed levels, though. Nor was it the puzzles, which are bite-sized versions of familiar block-pushing, button-pressing, and rock-carrying conundrums. The Behemoth does here what the studio did to make its previous title, Castle Crashers, such a roaring success – attempting to nurture a community.

Do you remember trading cards back in the school playground? I must have spent hours thumbing through decks: “Got, got, got, haven’t got, got, got, WANT!” In BattleBlock, there’s a similar game with the prisoners I play as. There are 300 heads to randomly unlock in exchange for gems found within BattleBlock’s levels, and these can then be traded with anyone you’re playing with, locally or online. Playing with others, a trip to the Theater’s gift shop was always a given, just in case one of us had something interesting to trade – some spare gems perhaps, or a prisoner with an eyeball for a head. Time will tell if BattleBlock consistently pulls the kind of crowd that Castle Crashers did, but with trading, a slew of purely competitive gametypes, a robust level editor, and community playlists, there’s plenty of reason to stick around

Still, as satisfying a challenge as BattleBlock’s platforming is, as cool as it is to be able to play “trade Pokémon cards” with playable characters, as wonderful as the narrators wild swings between immaturity and hilarious poetic eloquence are, and as reassuring as it is to know that the game’s community will churn out an endless stream of new content, it’s all merely extra stuff to me. It’s a gilded frame to a painting that depicts two friends desperately trying to kill one another over a golden hat that bestows ten bonus gems.

Playing the game with a friend causes its elements of cooperation and competition to be in a kind of gloriously unpredictable flux. One moment I’m working nimbly together with my partner to snatch a gem from the bowels of some laser-lined chasm. We’re throwing one another, helping one another up ledges, and using the other’s head as an impromptu platform. Perhaps it’s accident, perhaps its spite, but a second later my friend has shoved me into a pool of water to drown. He crouches several times, his prisoner avatar squeaking, to add insult to the injury. I respawn instantly, at his side. What follows is a shameless, pointless melee of fucking one another over. And it’s brilliant fun. Never mind about the meticulously plotted cube levels, their platforming quirks, the serviceability and occasionally ingenuity of their puzzles, or their deliciously brief pace of consumption. Playing BattleBlock Theater was all about those moments where cooperation turned into competition, where friends turned vindictive enemies, where a wrong input meant the difference between completing the game that BattleBlock is on its surface, and beginning a game of our own design that BattleBlock is very good at facilitating, and I very much suspect that BattleBlock is at its core.

That the levels are brief, and that the respawns come fast, allow BattleBlock’s anarchic co-optional play. I wanted to play the game with a friend, because as satisfying a platforming challenge as solo play is (as satisfying as any Mario game, as satisfying as Rayman Origins) it could not beat the thrill of stepping off a switch and seeing my friend eaten by a monster as a result. Like I said, we humans can be dark creatures at times, and what is friendship if not being completely true to ourselves?

Friendship is a lot of things, but mostly it’s asserting platonic authority by shoving my friends into a pit of spikes, only to have them respawn a second later and do the very same back to me.


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Author: Aled Morgan View all posts by
Aled has served with distinction as a UNSC Spartan, become a Pokemon master, and saved the kingdom/world/galaxy more times than he can remember. Mixing a passion for gaming with a passion for writing since he was a child, Aled will play anything and everything he can get his hands on. When he isn’t trawling through virtual worlds or pawing at a keyboard to make words happen, he plays Ultimate Frisbee.

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