Battleblock Theater hands-on preview
Two friends are on an adventure, one finds a gem and one finds a hat. But Hatty wants the gem, so his unnamed friend gives it to him and Hatty starts to cry. Everyone wonders why. The confusion is interrupted by giant cat guards that arrive to send the unnamed friend to prison. Oh, and we’re in a theater. On an island. That’s the setup for Behemoth’s upcoming game, Battleblock Theater.
Battleblock Theater will be a 2D platform puzzle action game, otherwise known as a plactuzzleformer, featuring four player couch and online co-op as well as an online arena for adversarial play. Players can also play solo, but the game is definitely intended as a co-op experience. Levels scale to fit the amount of players to ensure that the difficulty is always appropriate as you advance the story. On the multiplayer side, there will be plenty of different gametypes, ranging from the casual to the hardcore (five have been announced and there are more to come).
At San Diego Comic Con, we got to do a cooperative playthrough with the Lead Level Designer, Aaron Jung Johann. Before starting the game, we got to customize our characters with different head shapes, facial styles and expressions, colors and weapon choices. Then we set out into the theater to tackle plays in an effort to save our friend Hatty—even though he seems to have betrayed us. To keep in line with the customization options, you can also change your character setup completely while in the theater—whether you’re unsatisfied or just want to experience all the awesome faces.
Level selection is simple: players enter into plays after a couple minutes spent slide-kicking each other and punching each other into ceilings for the heck of it. The levels in the demo were fairly straightforward, consisting of finding gems to continue on with the level; we just had to get three gems, but there were many more in case we missed some. Getting the gems usually involved some mix of fighting cats, platforming about pillars and precipices, figuring out puzzles, or some combination thereof. All three of these mechanics worked really well and had their own bits and pieces to figure out.
The action aspect of Battleblock is simple: punch, uppercut or slide kick with X, use your projectile/weapon with B, A is to jump and double-jump, and Y is the ever-important context-sensitive action button which (depending on the situation) allows you to throw your buddy, help them up ledges, pull blocks or play in water to “pull” a boat to you. Enemy and player death in Battleblock Theater primarily follows a couple rules: lasers, spikes, swimming or explosive weapons result in instant death; otherwise three normal hits will do the trick. All enemy cats can be approached any number of ways, some funnier than others. For instance we brought the fan weapon to the play and as such would often push cats to their doom or reflect their weapons right back at them.
The platforming and puzzle aspect also worked well. This block of Battleblock makes great use of the Y button, forcing players to recognize throw zones and identify who needs to go and be where to accomplish their goals or nab gems. Many different types of blocks help spice up the experience. Some of my favorite blocks include a magma block that rockets the character off of it, a block that deploys more blocks in a straight line to form a platform but is pressure sensitive, and the all-important laser block, which fries anyone who dares test their laser-proof-ness. To help players along, some helpful signs show up indicating what to do when first encountering the use of a mechanic, while a question mark sign may be used to invite players to try different things in a certain area.
Cooperating in Battleblock is intuitive; goals are accomplishable, enemies defeatable and puzzles identifiable, but success is not guaranteed. Sometimes players get blown up, drown, are impaled, or simply get pounded to death, but as long as at least one of the players is alive, their mates can spawn near them! If not, everyone spawns at a checkpoint. Dying happens frequently (and frankly is one of the best parts of the game) so Battleblock doesn’t intend to punish players for doing it under normal circumstances. However, ever mindful of the veteran players and masochists, there is a sort of “elite” mode where player death is more permanent than in normal modes.
Speaking of dying, cooperating isn’t always the highest item on the agenda in any given game of Battleblock. More often than not puzzles and platforming opportunities present hilarious moments for griefing. By griefing, we mean purposefully steering progress away from completion, usually by abandoning friends or outright killing them. For instance we mentioned using the fan to send enemies to their doom, well a couple times our buddy suffered at the same fate. He eventually would return the favor by punching our character into a laser. Since there’s no real punishment for death, griefing is not only a very fun activity but also a greatly encouraged one.
Completing levels and saving your buddy isn’t all that players do in Battleblock though. There are tons of other prisoners trapped in the theater you’re trying to save! By collecting gems in the story and in the arena, players can accumulate enough money to release prisoners for use in the game. There are hundreds of prisoners to release and faces to wear for the many head shapes. When playing online a trading system (which we’ve detailed here) allows players to get rid of prisoners they don’t want for ones they do. Don’t forget weapon unlocks either, which are received by bribing cat guards and can be collected in many of the levels. All unlocks are totally random, so to get exactly what you want you’re encouraged to play online and trade with the community.
Behemoth has really streamlined the cooperation system in Battleblock, with a context-sensitive button allowing for many approaches to situations. The simple rock-paper-scissors style combat with projectiles, punches and slides is accessible, but also has room for mastery. Behemoth also plans to include options for players that can’t complete certain levels in the play: you’ll be able to move on to the next theater (and thus complete the story) without having to complete every play. Our time spent last year with the multiplier speaks to tons and tons of replayability and thoughtful gametypes such as capturing each other’s souls for points or collecting gold from a floating whale.
As of yet, there’s no release date for Battleblock Theater, but progress has most definitely been made and it shows. The foundation has been laid out and is complete; all that’s left is to tweak levels, encounters, multiplayer gametypes and for Dan Paladin (Lead Artist) to make hundreds more prisoners.