Castle Crashers was all about teaming up with your mates to bash goons and rescue princesses, but there was one little twist. After defeating a boss, your team had to turn on each other and fight to the death, the last man standing rewarded with a kiss from the girl. Friends turn to enemies and, when the next level starts, back to friends again. If anything encapsulates Battleblock Theatre, the new game from Castle Crashers developer The Behemoth, it's that moment - turning to your mate with an innocent smile and planting a sword right between the eyes.
Known as Game #3 for most of its development, Battleblock Theatre has been around in various forms for a while; some will remember trailers touting a 2010 release. Though it's usually shown with two players, the lovely arcade cabinets The Behemoth are touring it in are now set up for four, and the developers have dropped hints there may be even more supported in the final version.
The setup: you're on an island ruled by mental cats, who have thousands of prisoners they send into deathtraps for amusement - the Battleblock Theatre. Levels begin with grainy intro cards, and the aesthetic carries over into the level furniture, where often bits and bobs like bushes are cardboard cutouts. More than anything else, as a Behemoth game, this looks the part: the developer has a distinctive style that just can't be copied, a mix of bong-eyed cats and cheery cartoon sadism that's instantly familiar.
There's a hub world where you pick the 'play' to be performed, and before each level you get the option to customise the look of your little prisoner as well as choose a weapon. There are hundreds of variants on the basic characters, classified as different prisoners to be unlocked in-game, and selectable hats are always to be applauded: the final game will also include an online trading system for players to exchange prisoners and weapons, suggesting the unlocks will be semi-random.
Each level has an exit unlocked when you've collected three green gems, but they're also filled with other pickups (including a single ball of yarn, for completists). The levels are full of co-operative elements: buttons that trigger bridges or open holes in walls, but have to be kept pressed while one member of the team takes advantage; dinky boats to float across water; gaps to throw each other across.
But enough fannying about: this isn't about playing nice, as our witless Yankee companion was about to find out. In Battleblock Theatre, more often than not, you meet the hand of friendship with a fist of rejection. The first thing we did was push him into water, impassively paddling with our hand as he sunk. I apologised, then when the next chance arose, threw him onto some spikes. Bombs kept on accidentally getting tossed in his direction, and there was no resisting the temptation to feed him to the gaping maws of a ravenous cat-dog thing. Most elements are pretty deadly, judging by the guinea pig's short lives, and kills take one hit.
Death isn't really a big deal, though. As long as one player is still alive, you instantly respwan nearby - in this demo on normal difficulty, at least. In hard mode, Battleblock Theatre limits each player to a single life: not an outrageous challenge judging on the levels we've seen, but going on past form it will doubtless turn out ridiculous.
One button makes your prisoner push something if he's standing still, or slide if moving, another either throws your buddy or, if you're near an edge, holds down a hand to help them up. As well as these there are weapons, physical attacks, jumping, ducking, and all manner of other context-sensitive moves.