Currently in alpha, Gang Beasts is free to download and you should grab it right now. It's a surprisingly nuanced multiplayer beat 'em up that combines playgrounds packed with perilous physics and a control scheme that makes combat a sequence of shoving, grappling and tripping over your own fists. Rounds often come to a halt as the last Beasts standing collapse into a meat grinder together, unsure who is pushing toward and who is pulling away.
It's already a wonderful game, both hilarious and intelligently designed, but rather than simply praising its silliness, I've been thinking about how the whole thing works and why it's satisfying, while also looking at the possibilities that the future of jelly-combat holds.
Gang Beasts inspires euphoric reactions, which can be difficult to decipher. Is it a clown performing an elaborate routine or a fussy neighbour standing on the end of a rake? Like many local multiplayer games, crowds are drawn to it but only, of course, if crowds are available. At Rezzed, it occupied the end of a stand right at the quietest edge of the showfloor and every time I passed by, the battling jelly babies had an audience.
There’s a falsehood in that previous sentence actually – I didn’t ‘pass by’ once. Every time I found myself in the vicinity, I’d become part of the audience, watching friends, families and strangers doing battle. Laughter is the main reaction, as it so often is with games that combine combat with chaos and intentional clumsiness, but occasional gasps of pleasure and surprise could also be heard as one of the levels revealed a new wrinkle in the game’s rubbery skin, which is alternately as tight as a drum and as saggy as a Basset Hound’s jowls.
Playing at home, without an appreciative crowd and invariably with one other competitor, the sagginess is more apparent. Of course it is, you might well cry out, because that's not the point! Perhaps this is a game for the big stage and perhaps it doesn't belong in my tiny bedroom/study (nothing that I do here is studious), but I only find myself in environments where Gang Beasts will have a crowd to please three or four times a year. If your social life doesn't involve gathering around a screen with your friends, Gang Beasts may not have any sort of lasting appeal.
It'd the easiest thing in the world to enthuse about the moments that make up an hour-long session of Gang Beasts. There's the initial reaction when a player learns to grab the bodyparts of an opponent. An incoming fist becomes a lever that can be used to ground the attacker, pivoting, feet planted, so that both characters end up locked in a violent embrace.
A skilled practictioner of the arts can lift an opponent, hurling them against walls or into meat grinders. Defensive moves transition into counters, sometimes accidentally, and a brawl becomes a hot sticky mess of body parts. I once had a persistent pugilist clutching my eyeball as she hung over the edge of a fatal drop, refusing to relinquish the ocular grip and admit defeat.
Then there's the sheer joy of the Ferris wheel level, which seems like a more whimsical extension of the window-cleaners gondola that is a definite highlight, with its collapsible barriers and long, lonely tumbles into ignominity and death. The beauty of the Ferris wheel is the discovery that falling from the platform doesn't lead to an instant Sumo-style failure, instead causing the bout to transition into a boardwalk battle. We were disappointed when we first landed on the planks and realised that combat would continue - it's a flat space with nothing to commend it or to end the conflict unless someone is daft enough to clamber back onto the wheel, or over the railings and into the water.
The Gang Beasts are ineffective in a stand-up fight, preferring to wrestle and grapple one another into deadly machinery, flame pits or any conveniently punishing pratfall. Place them on a flat surface, as the game's single existing cooperative environment does, and the game becomes a somewhat random and tedious slog 'em up - Double Dragon in a vat of treacle. We assumed the boardwalk would become a bored walk, circling one another and occasionally landing a jab or holding onto one another like two drunks who don't know if they want to dance, cuddle or fight. And then a couple of planks collapsed as I walked across them. I grabbed the sides, leaving my jelly-man hanging, his legs kicking the air above the hungry sea below, his arms lodged into position so that he was only visible from the shoulders above.
Everybody else gathered around and punched me until I was unconscious and slipped out of position and beneath the waves. Like so much that happens in Gang Beasts, it was a hilarious extension of the physics and malleable character controls, but it also called my attention back to my main quibble with the game as a competitive brawler. As far as I can tell - and believe me, I've tried - it's impossible to counter the collapsing planks. You fall, you die. But you can hang on and prolong the inevitable for ages and ages. It's a sight gag rather than an interactive possibility.
There's nothing wrong with that but, even at this early stage of development, Gang Beasts has the clear potential to be something more than slapstick. It has the potential to be interactive, improvised competitive slapstick, which is a truly glorious thing.
One arena has the players hopping beween two trucks that are hurtling down a highway. The best tactic, if you want to win, is to stand almost completely still, making minor adjustments as the momentum of the vehicle causes your character to wobble dangerously close to the edge. Too often, inactivity is the best approach to any given situation and engagement is best avoided. Wait for opponents to end themselves and you're likely to be raising your heavy hands in victory. It’s funny to watch people fling themselves into incinerators, but the difficulties faced by aggressors soon detracts from any real competitive edge. I often survive and even win a round simply by clinging to opponents while they do all the hard work, of lifting, positioning and hurling me toward death.
Here’s the thing – the joke works. Wibbly-wobbly characters, with far too much momentum and far-too tiny legs, are hilarious, particularly when they’re biffing one another in perilous environments. Every single scenario could be the climax of an action film, if all of the actors were replaced by slightly deflated sentient Space Hoppers. Actually, no, the Space Hoppers would have some semblance of agility – these creatures are like Morph wearing concrete shoes and tungsten gloves. You could watch somebody playing through the current set of levels on Youtube or around a monitor, and you'd be almost as entertained as you would be by playing the game yourself.
Eventually, if development moves in the right directions, there will be much more to the game than fifteen minutes of flailing amusement, and if that's the case it'll earn far more than the fifteen minutes of fame due to the usual comedy physics simulators. Gang Beasts contains the seed of an exceedingly relatable but complex combat engine that could lead to one of the greatest grappling games ever made. It's the fulfilment of the mad promise that Sumotori Dreams planted in my mind all those years ago - comedic, physics-driven combat that rewards the players as much as the spectators. And just look at the planned boss battles. Delicious.