‘Pit People’: Our first take

'Pit People' is a funny turn-based battler in Early Access

‘Pit People’ might be worth jumping into early for the laughs, if not the gameplay.

Pit People is the kind of game where a flying giraffe swoops down into the middle of a gladiator pit to drop a dude with two machine guns into the fray. A giant evil space bear has crashed into the earth, with apocalyptic but weirdly hilarious results. Deadly green bear blood still rains from the heavens in regular intervals. The bear loves nothing more than chaos, and frequently messes with the decent people left on the ground, stomping on their children and giving space shuttles to their enemies.

The fourth game from The Behemoth, developer of Alien Homonid, Castle Crashers and Battleblock Theater, Pit People differs from its predecessors in that it’s a turn-based strategy game. Its aesthetic sensibilities, however, will be easily recognizable to fans of those previous games. Blending the Ebaumsworld-style art of the 2000s-era internet with a Redditor’s sense of humor, it’s the kind of game that both references and creates its own memes.

But although the humor is there, as an early access game Pit People feels unfinished — not just in the fact that it’s literally incomplete, but that its ideas don’t fully mesh into a cohesive game.

Two-faced

Pit People isn’t totally sure what it wants to be. It’s definitely funny, especially to those who dig The Behemoth’s sense of humor. It’s not for everyone, but if you liked Castle Crashers or Battleblock you’ll understand this on a comedic level.

The game stars Horatio, a farmer of giant blueberries who sets off on a journey after his son is squashed by the giant space bear. He meets Pipistrella, a badass princess, and they recruit other warriors, including a cupcake who heals teammates by flinging its frosting at them, damaging its own health one dollop at a time. They venture to the City — the game’s hub world — to seek fortune in the titular Pit, a fighting coliseum of lax regulations and ample bloodshed.

The Behemoth’s signature humor is everywhere. The bear crashing into Earth had catastrophic results, throwing all of society into chaos and destroying the world as we know it. But its strangest effect was shattering time, causing it to become fragmented into “turns.” That’s probably the game’s best joke, and it’s relegated to a bit of loading screen text.

The mechanics of the game aren’t so confidently defined. The game seems torn between being a deep and complex turn-based battler, a la Final Fantasy Tactics, and a light, accessible romp in the same ballpark as — well, Castle Crashers. Crashers has a lot going on if you get into it, but it’s also the kind of game where you could hand just about anyone the controller, explain the basic concept and have a good time. Pit People wants to be both of those types of games as well, but in its current state it struggles to do either of them well.

The entire combat system is position-based, a simplicity that makes it easy to understand. You direct your fighters on a hexagonal grid, telling them where to go — but not what to do. Most characters have one type of attack, and those with two attacks pick which one to use based simply on proximity to targets. If a fighter is in attacking range of two targets simultaneously, they’ll pick one randomly.

If even that seems too complex (or frustrating), there’s an auto-battle mode in the options menu that does everything for you. You can simple walk away an entire battle and, on the default difficulty, you can win every story battle currently in the game that way.

On the other hand the City is home to so many different features and options it will make your head spin. After the tutorial missions you can venture out into the world and capture new teammates in battle. After completing the game’s tutorial missions, your team can compete in the fighting pit, upgrade equipment, accept new story missions, or fight other players online.

It can become a bit confusing, because Pit People is bad at telling you what’s going on, out of battle as well as in it. When an enemy gets hurt in combat, damage numbers pop up, but not a character’s total health, so those numbers are basically useless. In the City, nearly everything is represented by indecipherable icons. Sometimes a dozen different hieroglyphs will pop up on the screen, with no indication what any of them mean. There’s a shop where you can supposedly buy new equipment and fighters, but the game just makes a “boop” sound at me when I tried to buy anything. Maybe I don’t have enough gold. I have no idea, because the game doesn’t tell you how much anything costs. No amount of cheery chiptunes and happily animated buildings can make that less frustrating.

Deadly green bear blood rains from the heavens.

Since the game is in early access, many of these elements might change in drastic ways. In a message on Pit People’s Steam page, The Behemoth said the game has already been in development for three years. (You may recall hearing about Behemoth’s “Game 4”). The studio plans to keep it in early access, continuing to add, tweak and redesign, for anywhere between “a couple months” and a year. It’s impossible to know what will change between now and then. The current version is short on story content, but there are many more side missions than you might expect, as well as higher difficulty modes, couch co-op, and online PvP battles. The full story being present will help, but what The Behemoth really needs to work on is making the game better at communicating with players through its interface and menus.

Pit People’s battle system might be disappointing for those hoping for something as deep as Advance Wars, and the deep customization may prove headache-inducing for players who thought they were getting a new Castle Crashers. But if the developers can find a better balance between the two before Pit People exits early access, they might have another hit on their hands. If you don’t mind taking a leap of faith and giving the studio behind Castle Crashers and Battleblock Theater the benefit of the doubt, Pit People might be worth jumping into early.

Highs

  • Signature The Behemoth humor
  • Battles simple to understand
  • Lots of side content

Lows

  • Confusing customization
  • No tutorials or explanations
  • Battle system might be too simple
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