Wot I Think: Pit People
A brilliant cartoon attached to a so-so strategy-RPG
Equal parts absolutely delightful and absolutely infuriating, turn-based strategy-RPG/surreal cartoon Pit People probably couldn't have a chosen a worse time to lumber out of early access. The reason for that is Into The Breach. I came to Pit People straight off the back of my Into The Breach review, which means I'd just experienced a revelation in how brisk and elegant the age-old formula of taking turns to shuffle a small force of units across a set of tiles to bash or shoot enemies can be.
Because of that, it's hard to forgive Pit People's drawn-out, slow-motion wars of attrition. But it's even harder to put it down, because it's such a firehose of ideas, visual gags and spoken comedy outside of its cold and chewy tactical meat and potatoes.
I'll try and summarise Pit People's story for you, but I fear that would give you about as useful a sense of the game and its tone as if I'd written 'bat mayonnaise lucifer.' You're this guy, and you're trying to rescue someone from a sort of evil teddy bear god but also there are talking ice creams and you're soul mates with a cyclops and... Look, you go and bash monsters while a bunch of wild stuff happens, in a world that has zero rules in terms of theme. You get robots, you get bazooka-wielding tongues, you get rideable spiders, you get, well, an awful lot of cyclopes, actually.
The anything-goes, post-trope visual noodling of Adventure Time is a clear inspiration, but it's paired with jovially acidic wit that sits somewhere between the good-natured surrealism of West/Kingdom of Loathing and the nihilism of South Park. Which is not to say it's cynical - in fact it's an extremely playful affair throughout - but just that it refuses to take any element of its tale or characters seriously.
This is not to say it's necessarily uproariously funny either. Plenty of its dozen-a-minute gags land but I've not had too many big belly laughs. Rather, I've enjoyed an ongoing delight at its constant invention and unpredictability, as though a fizzy drink was shaken vigorously then opened over the in-game map. A quest-capping boss fight will always speed off in an unexpected direction, the big bad/narrator's commentary drips with eye-rolling apathy, and getting a pizza slice for a sword or a budgie's head for a hat is a much more satisfying reward than +2 damage or whatever.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that the aforementioned meat and potatoes are so dreary. Sure, it's a joy to to send your ever-changing roster of fighters into battle, each time wearing new stupid hats and a giant lollipop or a marker pen or a beetle for a shield or a police siren for a head and all that jazz, but every fight is slow war of hitpoint attrition in which no single turn really matters. Your guys will automatically attack an enemy on an adjacent tile (choosing randomly if there are multiple neighbours), so strategy comes down to positioning and equipment choices.
Every fight takes at least twice as long as it needs to, as up to a couple of dozen different fighters' health bars gradually slide downwards, with the battle not over until one side is wiped out entirely. I appreciate that instant death after a tactical screw-up might be discordantly hardcore against the perpetual raised eyebrow of the cutscenes' tone, but what I wouldn't give to sidestep most of the slow shuffling around, waiting for everyone to bash each other.
It's always telling when a strategy game includes an auto-resolve option - like an admission that the core combat loops simply aren't entertaining or tight enough to survive this much repetition. But even Pit People's auto-resolve involves a whole lot of time-wasting - it doesn't skip to a results screen like Total War, but instead you sit back and watch in real-time like Football Manager, with an option to assume control at any point if things go South. I tend to leave it playing in the background while I talk to the cat.
And though the boss fights - i.e. those obtained from storyline quests rather than Final Fantasy-style random encounters on the world map - are massively entertaining and unexpected in terms of presentation, they tend to involve a few too many stages, a few too many grunts to hunt down, and far too many minutes of my life. The interface isn't a great time either - picking the unit you want to move is a fussy business, while menus rarely function in familiar ways.
I want to roll around in Pit People's ball pit of visual ideas, but the combat can feel like having to sit through adverts for Nescafe or Audi before the main feature starts. How I longed to return to Into The Breach's brilliant brevity.
Where Pit People's design does shine is in its Recruit feature. You can add any enemy in the game to your e'er-growing roster of madcap fighters (of which up to six can be fielded at once), which is particularly delightful in boss fights. One moment the guy's bellowing about how he wants to burn everything you ever loved, the next moment he's by your side holding a giant chicken drumstick and wearing a Magic 8-Ball on his bonce.
The wrinkle to recruitment is that you can only capture someone if you've killed every other enemy on the field, which can lead to some glorious moments of counter-intuitive combat. Ignore the massive snakewoman who's steadily massacring your entire team and play cat and mouse with her underlings instead. Oh, and you also need to buy cages, and you have finite inventory space, so, yeah, it's all a bit Pokemon, but here the joy is much more in what your new lads look like and what ridiculous stuff you can dress 'em up in than what they actually do.
Add that to the deliriously silly cutscenes and wonderful animations, and there's a sense of two very different games trying to co-exist here. One is Surreal Sadistic Pokemon, the other is a flabby and rather routine turn-based strategy. The fights can be plenty challenging, especially if you venture online or into the openly-described-as-unfair gladiator arena mode, but I was never able to shake the sensation that they're just a delivery vehicle for a really great cartoon.
Pit People gets a full release today, having been available as an Early Access game for the past year. It's available for Windows, via Steam, for £10.99.