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Premature Evaluation: Pit People

Equip turkey leg. Hit necromancer with turkey leg.

Every Monday we send Brendan on a cartoonish quest to kill or capture an early access game and force it to battle in the fighting pits. This week, the comic antics of Pit People [official site].

Oh thank god, it’s funny. Having missed Castle Crashers and BattleBlock Theater, previous games from The Behemoth, I didn’t know what kind of comedy to expect. When I heard the South Parky voice of this game’s antagonistic narrator (the same voice actor from their previous game), I feared the worst – second-hand dick jokes, gateway satire, walking talking poops. I was relieved to feel my first lol, the result of a character’s quick, unexpected death and the narrator's flamboyant disregard. It’s also a decent strategy game, which isn’t a genre I’d usually associate with giant purple bears bleeding onto the surface of the earth. But there you go.

The gamey parts of this joke machine are pretty straightforward. It’s a turn-based tactics game in a hex-covered landscape. You gather up to six fighters and off you go baddie battering on silly quests – defend the castle of princess Pipistrella from the Helmet people, save a defenceless cupcake from being eaten by an evil Birthday Boy armed with a giant dessert fork, rescue the town of Freeware from the imperial R3DC04T army by reinforcing the US flag-waving troops. There’s a world map to roam around, uncovering shroud, quests and bad guys as you go, and a hometown where you can customise your team by giving them new weapons, helmets, shields, moustaches, coffees, VR goggles, bowling balls, cinder blocks, smoking pipes, raspberry icing, all the usual videogame inventory.

There’s a bunch of character roles and some will change depending on the weapons equipped. A fighter with a blunt weapon like a mace (or a giant leg of cooked chicken) can damage enemies who are wearing helmets far more effectively than a simple swordsman can. A fighter with a shield can block ranged weapons like crossbow bolts (or thrown Soviet hammers made of gold). But these are just your humanoid characters. There are also chatty, healing cupcakes, vampires that absorb health while attacking, zombies that come back a couple of turns after dying (but weaker), ‘Spidaurs’ that can be ridden like steeds and lay restraining webs all over the shop, and gurning, idiot unicorns that launch their horns as a form of explosive artillery. Among many others.

The compulsion is to get all these types of fighter to be on your side, then compose a reckless team made out of werewolves or hovering electronic plugs. But to recruit a hero type into your pool of champions, you need to capture it first. Towards the end of a battle, the last person standing on the enemy team can be caught with a net, so long as you brought a cage from town to put them in. There’s a strange Pokemon vibe to this.

Similar tactical games, like Battle Brothers, have you recruit mercenaries or farmhands for gold earned as you travel. Here, you’ve got to weaken a whole team of bad dudes, while carefully avoiding killing the one guy or gal you want to convert in the final moments. It takes longer to build a crowd of usable mercs, but they never die completely (they just return to the hometown if killed in a battle) and you need to think differently when out to catch rather than kill. For example, I’d normally kill any pixie I saw as soon as possible, because they make things explode and cause fire to spread along hex tiles, making the arena a minefield of hurt. But to catch a pixie (this one had drone wings and a siren for a head), I had to let it live and concentrate on the other fighters in the group, dancing around the fires as much as possible until the pixie was the final enemy.

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The rest of the game is simply about levelling up, getting new gear and giggling your way through the main story. Your main character, Horatio, has been displaced by the narrator, who is also a giant purple space bear who fancies himself the god of this weird new earth, a post-apocalyptic land of Adventure Time stylings. As Horatio meanders he makes friends and fights non-friends. There are lots of fun moments in the cinematics between battles. For example, many of the characters don’t have visible mouths, so it was fun to see an aggressive guard scooping up some icing from the head of an imprisoned cupcake and shove it all directly into his eye, saying “Mmmmm!” as if that is how everyone eats in this bonkers reality. Later, there’s a surreal, monochrome cutscene of conjoining spirits when a Cyclops from the town’s fighting pits asks Horatio to become soulmates, apropos of absolutely nothing. He joins your crew as the first ranged character. I have had them fighting side by side ever since.

The fighting pits aren't just for show. They also let you fight “Unfair” battles for gold and status, pitting you against 3 waves of tough AI enemies. But after a short hop across town to turn on the “space phone” you can indulge in multiplayer fights as well. I haven’t gone too deep into the tournament scene but I did enjoy a 2v2 scrap in which my teammate came loaded with electrifying robots and two engineer gnomes lying lazily on floating armchairs – his whole team was composed to do a large spread of area damage. It made me realise that there’s room for some loco team compositions – three men with belts riding three spiders into battle, a trio of unicorns volleying exploding horns across the sand as three swordsmen with nets slow the enemy down. The only downside is that if you want more of a certain character, you’ll need to go out and capture them.

It’s not a bad strategy game, by any judgement. But the draw for me was the story, shunning the sidequests for the big story ones, chasing all the best jokes. The main giggle the game keeps returning to is that the Great Bear is intent on narrating the lives of your heroes, as if he is the principal storyteller. In a way, he is, since he is the only character who can speak without the aid of speech bubbles and in clear English, as opposed to the Sims-like mumbo-jumbo of all the other characters. But your heroes are at odds with his trollish narration, often turning to the camera and mumbling with incoherent anger, refusing to do what they are told.

It’s the same jokey premise of other games, Stanley Parable or South Park, and while it still makes for repeated laughs, it doesn’t feel as strong because it isn’t you as a player going against the Great Bear’s wishes, it’s always a cartoon in a cutscene. On the rare occasion you do get to go against the Bear’s narration – exploring the world map instead of going to the main city like he says, for example – he doesn’t respond to the disobedience, or he didn't for me anyway. It’s not a big complaint, and I’m sure it’s something that’ll be worked in later. The game also doesn’t rely too heavily on this one gag, which would be the temptation for a lot of games, and that’s something to appreciate.

The real downside to all these shenanigans is that they come to an end too quickly. What’s there of the main story can be completed in a couple of hours if, like me, you’re ignoring a lot of the sidequests and map exploration. There’s more silliness in the sidequests, which have multiple parts and get harder with every stage, but I wanted to keep the narrator's jokes coming and before long I had exhausted what I felt were all the best japes. I liked the comedy much more than I thought I would, but I’d recommend waiting until more of the story is there, or even until it’s fully complete.

It’s a game I would want to binge through in a few sittings, absorbing all the gags until the main quest was done and dusted – and there aren’t many comedy games out there that can keep me engaged in this way. I don’t want to pick at it piecemeal, getting dripfeeds of story with each update. That desire to gobble it all in a few days says a lot for how much good clean fun there is.

Of course, you might be fine with chortling in an episodic fashion. Or you might just want to play a daft multiplayer tactics game as soon as possible. In that case, you could do a lot worse than Pit People. It’s hugely unfinished in its storytelling, but in fighting terms it’s surprisingly well-polished, as well as being packed with characters, weapons, armour and nonsensical cosmetic items. Myself, I’ll come back when it’s done for good. When the Great Bear wills it.

You can get Pit People on Steam for £10.99/$14.99. These impressions are built on build 1555821.

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