The Behemoth is one of those developers that I always think are too easily forgotten about. You know The Behemoth, right? They made Castle Crashers and BattleBlock Theatre, those irreverent, cartooney, comedy sidescrollers that always earned themselves a dedicated following in the years since their release, possibly because the public like alliteration more than is generally acknowledged. They also made Alien Hominid, which I haven't played yet. Unlike the other two, nobody kept insisting that I try it out, which I suspect is due to the fact that it wasn't alliterative.
But now they have another creation that'll keep that trend going. Pit People popped up on Steam Early Access last month to high praise from the community, which caught my interest straight away. Not that Steam scores are any guarantee of quality, but The Behemoth always made good games and if there’s anything I hold dear to my heart, it’s hauteur indie work.
Now I just had to sit and cross my fingers as it downloaded, praying to the great pixie in the sky that the developers could pump out another winner with which to start the year. And then I had to download it again when my antivirus software had a panic attack about one of the game’s files being named “Trojan.” Nothing’s ever easy, is it?
Pit People is available on Steam Early Access for $14.99.
Our story begins in an apocalyptic fantasy world, where various factions fight each other for basic survival needs, even as the very lands and sky rail against them. In the midst of this chaos, a lowly peasant and a member of high royalty are brought together by loss, and before long they realise their need for collaboration and unity, joining strength and standing against against the greater forces that would seek to destroy them…
Except this is a game by The Behemoth, so that isn't doing the story nearly enough credit in terms of describing how silly it all is. So here’s the real skinny: When the entire planet gets ruined by a giant space bear crashing into surface (presumably the space bear that got blown up at the end of BattleBlock Theatre; is The Behemoth trying to make an extended universe?), the world is ravaged by earthquakes, rioting, general annoyances and rainstorms of green blood from the desiccated body of The Great Old One: Edward Bear.
“And good thing too,” says the opening cinematic, as told to us by a narrator that has a greater love for chaos than a stick of dynamite. He directs our attention to our first playable protagonist, Horatio, a simple blueberry farmer who is trying to defend his land and son Hamlet from a barbarian attack. Horatio’s refusal to die in poignant tragedy leaves the narrator increasingly annoyed, and he petulantly squashes the house with Blueberry Junior inside, sarcastically shrieking “OOPS, BUTTERFINGERS.” Our hero is left homeless, childless and without purpose, wandering the land and looking for a place to call his own.
And it's not long later that he discovers the Princess Pipistrella, a capable fighter tasked with defending her castle from “grumpy warriors.” Her royal dad snuffs it and the evil narrator provides a space shuttle for the murderers to escape, so vengeance and justice are now the name of the game, with the two heroes traveling across the land to hone their skills, acquire gear, and recruit new comrades, including Yosef the wild-haired Demiclops, Sofia the Spanish explorer, a rather nervous cupcake and whoever else you can kidnap along the way. No, seriously. Recruiting teammates is done by throwing a net over them and sticking them into a large cage for safekeeping until you get back to the hubtown. Naked Snake would've been proud.
Like all games by The Behemoth, comedy is a big factor, but unlike Castle Crashers and BattleBlock Theatre, it’s a little more hit-and-miss. Partly because the whole story is completely surreal, so it doesn’t feel like it's playing off anything or there’s any target to be made fun of, as it's all too random for that kind of pinpoint satire. In the previous two games there was some structure and even a semi-serious plot at the core – rescue princesses/escape scary island – and the fact that it was played for laughs was what made it funny, turning a serious situation into a ridiculous one. Battling a dragon is a pretty straight-faced idea, but Castle Crashers made it funny by having its own dragon try to distract you with a giant, poorly-made sock puppet.
And that’s the problem with Pit People – there’s no dragons, only sock puppets. Every NPC has randomised gear and weapons, and they’re usually something absurdly silly like balloon animals or glam rock wigs, but before long the absurd has become the norm and it loses any impact. Likewise, there's no reason that certain enemies are introduced by leaping off the back of a giraffe that floats through the air, but they do it anyway. Where’s the joke? Surely it would be funnier if the vast majority of enemies were normal looking, except in every battle there was one weirdo with all the silly gear that his team felt thoroughly embarrassed about?
But let it be said that there’s no laughs to be found. Much like in BattleBlock Theatre, the best stuff is in the cutscenes, which usually made me laugh more than once and were only made disappointing by how short they were. For it is here that we get the highlights of the game, namely where the spiteful narrator is trying to force our heroes into doing something they don’t want to do. “And then Horatio shared all his blueberries with her,” he intones at one point, whereupon Horatio splutters out a stream of outraged denials and protests in the strange, babbling non-language that everybody in the game speaks. It’s a joke we’ve seen before in The Stanley Parable, but it's probably funnier here, as we watch this rather mean-spirited deity figure get increasingly annoyed at the characters’ refusal to just get killed like he wants them to. He hasn't started burning them with a magnifying glass yet, but at this point it feels like a matter of time.
But I did make it to the end of the currently available campaign, and all together it took me less than three hours, with some side quests and grinding for gold included. That’s not a lot of game for fifteen bucks, and whilst I am curious to see where the story goes, I will confess that you’re not really buying a game that’s worth your money yet. I presume – and deeply hope – that it’s a worthy investment as we see the game grow and develop over time, otherwise this review may have to be retroactively changed to a less kindly one.
How does a turn-based combat strategy game about managing little minions around a hexagonal grid sound to you? Because that’s what we've got here. If that seems a little obtuse, imagine a melding of XCOM and Civilisation, only the new innovation is that you have limited control over the actions of your squad. You can move them wherever you like, but once they’re in place they’ll choose what they end up doing and who they want to attack. So positioning Pipastrella between two enemies means that there’s equal chance that she’ll smack either one of them, and that’s up to her and not you, boss man.
Despite my best efforts to work with Pit People, I can't really find myself praising this mechanic too highly. It does add a unique element whereby you have to manipulate your characters and try to put them in places whereby the only option they have is the one you want, which I admit is pretty interesting. But strategy games are all about making tactical choices, and removing the power to make the most meaningful tactical choice of all feels like a step backwards.
But that’s not to say it isn’t still fun. There are a lot of classes and races to try out, each with their own powers, and it does mean that Pit People fulfils the most basic requirements of any strategy game: namely, that there isn’t just one way to win. And for a game that's so determined to act stupid, it certainly demands that the player bring their biggest brains with them. Tricks like bottlenecking enemies and the clever positioning of your team is the difference between emerging with a bag of loot or a bag of your own intestines, and that’s something I can respect.
There’s also a distinct hint of Pokémon around the fringes. Between story missions you can try side quests or just go out into the overworld to fight enemies, and having a character armed with a net means that when there’s only one villain left in a fight, you can tie them up and lock them in a cage. Make it back to hubtown without dying and whoever you abducted will be forced to join your band of goons forever.
And of course, there’s customisation. A lot of that, actually. You can customise how big your team is, what people are in your team, how those people look, what they use, what they wear, what they do, what they weigh… Basically everything aside from the length of their nostril hairs, and that's probably just waiting to be released in the next update.
But all this stuff isn’t bad, and can actually be rather satisfying. Nonetheless, it is made less enjoyable by two problems, and the first one is apparent from the start: the user interface is dreadful, and possibly beyond saving if there's not a serious overhaul. And that's really troublesome, because this is a strategy game, where even the most simplistic situations will look like overdesigned pictures of a general’s military map. And areas like the hubtown are so cluttered and loaded with movement and detail that it becomes difficult to focus on one thing, and I had several visits to the mission-select zone before I found the option to pick the Main Quest, hidden among unjustifiable amounts of flim-flam. I thought the story was locked off, I didn’t realise I had to play a game of “Where’s Waldo” to find it!
The second big problem is one of disclosing information. Pit People has clearly had a lot of work put into all the rules, abilities, powers, gear effects and combat – and you have no right to know any of them, it seems. For example, I worked out early on that changing your minion's items alters what they weigh, but what’s the actual problem with being too heavy? The game doesn’t tell you, and I wasn’t going to risk it and find my goon moving at three miles an hour in the heat of combat.
The few things it does explain still end up raising more questions. OK, so swords do less damage on those wearing helmets and maces don’t. I guess that makes sense, but do maces do extra damage, or just the regular amount? And what qualifies as a helmet? If somebody’s wearing a large hood, does that count? With the amount of random clothing in this game, it does become difficult to tell. And this wasn’t helped by one enemy wearing a helmet, yet the information bar naming him as “No-Helmet Harry.” Yeah, I wish I was kidding. Why don't you just ask me to solve the phrase: "this sentence is false" whilst you're at it?
I have to bring up Castle Crashers and BattleBlock Theatre one last time, because it's that kind of look again. Same visual style, same exaggerated yet simplistic features, same boxy-looking characters marked out by extraneous details like hairdos, hats and beards, much in the way that all South Park characters look the same until you put a wig on them. It looks as fine as it always does, though any attempt to make them detailed usually ends up the looking slightly creepy, and I can’t tell if it’s meant to be. The wide-faced giraffe that smiles constantly at you in the loading screen is almost scarier than anything in Resident Evil 7, but I can’t say that the developers haven't discovered the perfect visual style for their preferred brand of humour. The way that everything moves is bouncy and lolloping, flopping ungainly across the battlefield like everyone was walking on a giant trampoline, and it does make the mere act of movement somewhat entertaining to watch.
The soundtrack is also fine, with appropriate tunes that work well and capture the atmosphere, with the one exception being the song that always plays in the hubtown. Within minutes I found it aggravating me, but not being a musical expert, I struggle to explain why. At first it’s fine – hell, it makes sense that it would be this kind of music, silly-sounding banjo string plucking and upbeat percussion behind it (I think, like I said, I’m no expert) – but before too long I found it starting to get on my nerves, with every twang scraping across my ear drum until I found myself reaching for a podcast to block it out. The game does provide the option to change the music, but you have to unlock new songs to do so and I never found any.
But I will admit that the voice acting – what little of it there is – manages to be pretty good. Will Stamper steps back up to the plate as the narrator, the one actual person in the whole thing with a real voice and command of the English language, and he definitely does a fine job, with good comedic timing and an accent that’s funny without ever being over-the-top. All the other characters speak in squeaky gibberish that sounds like somebody making fun of a Team Ico game, but that makes some scenes funnier when all we have to contextualise what they’re saying is Stamper’s reactions.
Yep, this is an Early Access game. It definitely feels unfinished, but the core works pretty well and what needs to be improved is obvious. A few updates would turn a decent skeleton of a game into a full-bodied one, though I doubt we’ll see something that’ll cut out the annoying free will that all the characters seem to be exhibiting. I guess I have more sympathy for the narrator than I first realised.
|+ Scripted humour is very well-written||– Little bit too random, and still quite short|
|+ Gameplay boasts many options and choices||– Pretty bad at explaining rule systems|
|+ Visual design is a good match for story style||– User interface needs a lot of work|
|+ Good voice acting and character personality||– Not sure about my characters having free will…|