The Behemoth is an interesting company; they are a small group with a big reputation and are some of the coolest people I have met. They had a modest hit with Alien Hominid as first a flash game, then a Gamecube/PS2 release and finally as an XBLA title. This put them on the map, but Castle Crashers is what really brought them to the forefront of people’s awareness. Castle Crashers became a breakaway hit on XBLA and has since allowed them to migrate the game to the PSN with great success. They are now working on their newest game, BattleBlock Theatre, and I had the pleasure of playing it and having a long chat with Dan Paladin (one of The Behemoth’s co-founders).
Paladin (great name) is a very passionate person; he has literally given his blood, sweat, and tears to The Behemoth and their games. He is the lead animator and artist at the studio and the distinct look of all of their games is from his talented hands and imagination The look and art style has been emulated many times and when I asked Paladin what he thought of that, he was fairly candid. His view is that as long as the game and look is distinct enough he is not bothered. He did find it interesting that Fat Princess has a distinctive chicken (The Behemoth’s mascot image) in the game though.
For the company, Castle Crashers was very important as they started working on BattleBlock Theater. In the past they always had to worry about time and money, but following Castle Crashers they can work without stress. Paladin acknowledged that Castle Crashers is selling well and consistently on both platforms and that gives them peace of mind, but Paladin is careful not to get too confident. “We need to remember sometimes that we have not had two pennies to scrape together in the past” Paladin said “We need to work on BattleBlock Theater as if Castle Crashers will stop selling at a consistent amount any day.” In fact the odds of that happening are slim, but it is a good attitude for a small developer who wants to remain independent.
BattleBlock Theatre, their next opus, is a title Paladin was thrilled to show it this year at PAX East. “Last year a lot of people didn’t understand what was going on in the game” Paladin told me, “This year it is more cohesive, it feels like a true level with goals and challenges for the player.” I completely agree with Paladin on this one, I played the game at last year’s PAX East and while the graphics and core mechanics were solid, the level was pure chaos. It was PvP matched with enemies and we were always frantically trying to figure out what was happening. This year’s build was much more cohesive and fun with an easy to understand goal that was fun to achieve.
BattleBlock Theater is, of course, a quirky game that has your two characters (who are best friends) stumble upon a castle that is certainly not ominous during a storm. The castle is populated by evil cats in the game, they pit our heroes against time and enemies for their own amusement, hence the title of the game. The cats can be seen at the bottom of the screen at times watching in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 style.
The story of BattleBlock Theater is introduced in a very cool cutscene created by Paladin using a stick puppet style. It is funny, extremely well done, and very well voiced by a friend of Paladins. “I originally was animating the introduction” Paladin told me “You know a full on animated cutscene, but then it was suggested we use stick puppets as the basis and at first I thought people would think I cheaped out, but I think it turned out really well.” “You would be surprised” Paladin continued, “but the stick puppet style was actually a lot trickier to implement because it needed to look authentic whereas an animated cutscene can be whatever I want it to be”.
With the brilliant introduction over (and I really suggest you watch the embedded video, it is hilarious), the game proper starts. You are first presented with the ability to customize your characters head and weapon before entering the playing field. The weapons range from offensive things such as a disc that can explode, to assist items like a sticky dart that you can jump on top of. The game lets two players enter the fray together (online and local co-op) and try and reach the exit in each level. There are typically enemies, crystals to collect (get enough and the exit opens), blocks that can be activated and moved, as well as platforms to traverse.
The best part of the game is that you can play very cooperatively and try to reach the end as fast as possible together, or you can do your best to screw your partner as you progress. The very helpful sticky dart can also be launched in time to foil a partners jump, you can bump them off ledges or get in their way during the level. The ability to play together or against each other is fully complimented by the fact that there really is no penalty from death–if you die you resurrect immediately. This adds a very fast and frenetic pace to the game and a very fun competitive aspect when playing with friends. In fact, my girlfriend and I played the levels at PAX East and there may have been some elbow bumping as we got in each others’ way.
The Behemoth seems like a very cool group of people and when they are at trade shows (like PAX East) they all work the booth and Merch desk. Speaking of merchandise, I can honestly say that The Behemoth has the best t-shirts at PAX East (even better then the Penny Arcade shirts). They also have amazing knight figurines from Castle Crashers, stickers, buttons, little figures, and of course shirts from the game. Their PR person (who has the title of Mayor of Bemothtown on her business card) was working cash; the founders were getting shirts from the back and talking to customers. The merchandise is not a cash cow, although I thought it should be–the goal is to help fund the trip to the show with the proceeds. The team also worked together and built the custom cabinets for the BattleBlock Theater demos. The game was presented in oversized (and widescreen) arcade cabinets with really nice arcade sticks. The art on them individually done by Dan Paladin.
BattleBlock Theater is a game that looks to be as fun and humorous as Castle Crashers, but with a completely different and addictive play style. It is a game to look forward to on Xbox Live when it is completed. Unfortunately there is no release date yet, but Paladin was hopeful that it would be sooner rather than later. The Behemoth is also a company that bears paying attention to, they are a passionate group who invest themselves into their games and the Indie gaming community. I was very impressed with their vision and drive and this obviously translates into the games they release.