From it’s first memorable moments, Pit People walks out on stage, fly unzipped, and makes its weird intentions immediately known.
That’s no surprise as Pit People is a new offering from the developers of the Xbox Live arcade gem Castle Crashers from back in 2008 and Alien Hominid way back in 2004. Players acquainted with either of these cult classics will quickly recognize the stylistic calling cards of the past.
From the pasty square headed people to the gratuitous cartoon violence, much of what made those game distinctive is back. I’m pleased to report that I am still as impressed and weirded out by all of it as when I booted up Alien Hominid way back in Newgrounds flash game era.
The eccentric style and humor, vibrant visual variety and witty tone all carry through and make up the strongest elements of Pit People. Everything from the little effects to the set piece boss battles are visually distinctive and well thought out, all while maintaining a charming, self aware, surrealness. While things like poop humor do get tired at times, the atmosphere is light and humorous. The story is also silly and appropriately hangs loosely to the game.
Pit People’s gameplay departs from the side scrolling action of its ancestors into two parts: a campaign map with RPG management elements and a more familiar hexagonal strategy system for battling.
After a brief intro you’re given a wagon to explore a procedurally generated world. Each “zone” is very large and packed with encounters and varied quests to discover. I’m usually only able to do a few quests before the giant bear god that narrates your adventure plops me down in a new zone. There’s tons of quests, items and new combatants to bring back to your home base.
The hub area is where you’ll be mixing and matching the wide array of dresses (I wish you could actually; many characters are stuck with a white tee which is a real bummer) and accessories for your doll collection. Fighters come in two main flavors. Humanoids use conventional weapons: swords, shields, laser pistols, toilet wands, bacon etc. There are also various creatures you capture from battles who rely on species specific abilities. A favorites of mine is a mushroom who farts in a ring around him and flips his adversaries off.
I’m a big fan of how the creatures have diversity and tactical versatility. For instance, you can use a levitating toilet gnome to launch your tank into the enemy archer line. However, it’s a real shame that every creature you capture of the same species is functionally identical as items are only visual. Allowing a pixie to have cold effects by equipping a Santa hat would go a long way to opening things up.
Conversely, the humanoids are pretty much blank slates so you customize them as you see fit with items. Ironically, while there’s so many cosmetic changes, there isn’t much in the way of items that really manage to change a unit drastically. Almost all the items confer pretty minute differences between others in the same class. For instance, the lobster claw and the chalice mace are both hammer weapons. The difference is one damage vs. a small critical chance. It’s extremely jarring that the wild multitude of visual changes stands is such stark contrast to the comparative meekness of the actual effects.
When it comes to the meat of the gameplay, you command your ragtag bunch in turn-based fashion on a hexagonal-based board. You order your units to a specific hex and after resolving your turn, they move to their spot and exchange pleasantries with the other team. It’s all very familiar to anyone who likes Civilization or games of that type.
I just can’t shake the feeling that the strategy driving Pit People seems a bit short of strategic. There are a number of small, chaotic things contributing to this feeling. Fighters have randomness to their actions, so who they swipe at if multiple targets are available is up to them. Ranged units like the unicorn artillery are exceptionally chaotic as what they decide to shoot is a real crap shoot. Area of effect moves are similarly fickle with their damage splashing on nearby tiles unpredictably.
The order of actions which units take is important but if there’s a system, it isn’t obvious. AI only sometimes use their abilities correctly. The action resolution tends to end up a big clump of flailing limbs, damage numbers and explosions. It’s sometimes difficult to appreciate what it is you’ve done. These niggles by themselves are not bad but they contribute to the big problem: I don’t really have much choice in how I control my fighters.
Move, Hit, Rave, Repeat
Battles follow an extremely rigid pattern. Each unit has a favorite target (hammers good vs. helmeted units etc.) and proceeds to chase each other around the battlefield to ensure that target is attended to. Shielded units hound archers. Archers have no recourse other than to run away and shoot. That cycle repeats every turn. Your units will stick to the pursuers to peel them off quickly as possible. That cycle repeats every turn. Everyone avoids cyclops and gorgon as much as humanly possible. In turn, these slower units do their best to be a big a hindrance as possible. That cycle repeats every turn. Mushrooms want to surround themselves with as many enemies as possible, and usually there’s only one spot you can reasonably move. Robots can teleport, so if I have a pixie, it can expect electrocuted prongs up it’s ass every turn. Once you know what each monster is capable of, there isn’t a whole lot more to look forward to besides these cycles.
It’s all made worse by the lack of any meaningful consequence in normal mode. Even gross mismanagement of your squad doesn’t matter at all. Hardcore (permadeath on) mode helps, but then losing a unit means another series of predictable battles to rebuild. PvP battles on hardcore (where for some reason you can play against people who don’t have hardcore on) means resigning right before a fighter dies or risking hours worth of grinding to put together another squad. It works adequately enough but the missions are the only variety in objectives the game has (which doesn’t exist in PvP). It’s not enough to distract from the lacking core elements.
Issues further compound in co-op. I love couch co-op and hate how dry that space has been in recent years. But the gameplay of Pit People doesn’t really lend itself to cooperative play. In the games I played with my friend, after his initial excitement faded, it became more like two old people silently putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The game doubles the number of units and each player controls their squad on the same turn. The boards become clogged and considering the tactical deficiencies mentioned above, everything becomes the same jumbled, repetitive duet as the single player. Maybe a system with an alternating turn structure would be more engaging for both players.
Should you buy it?
The full release of Pit People seems to be on the horizon, so I do not envision massive changes between the build I’ve played and the final version. The bottom line is that Pit People is good and will be great for most. The story, visual elements and top level ideas are great. I’ve been untoward only because I see the foundation of a really fantastic game which needs more to reach that. More strategic options in how I move my units and how battles flow. More surprises and weird mystery to the mechanics. More items and enemies to keep me guessing and learning. More thought on how co op and PvP works.
All these things are close to but not quite good enough for me. I get that it’s an entirely unfair to expect a game to live up to my standards and perhaps some of my complaints will be patched/DLC’d later. The potential for greatness is rare. To settle for something which doesn’t quite realize that is grounds for a verbal paddling.