Pit People is the fourth title developed by The Behemoth, and also the fourth genre the developer has tried its hand at, after some side-scrolling blasting (Alien Hominid), an old-school beat-em-up (Castle Crashers) and devious puzzle platforming (BattleBlock Theatre). Pit People is a turn-based strategy game in the vein of Fire Emblem or XCOM, and it’s got the same art style and irreverent sense of humor as the developer’s previous games–and even some direct world-building carryover, if you pay close attention.
At a glance, Pit People looks like a simplified tactical game, and in many ways that’s true. But what sets it apart from the norm is the relationship between your position on a battlefield and the automatic action you’ll take once you move to a new location. Land on a tile touching an enemy, and you’ll attack them as expected. But land on a tile touching two enemies and your character will pick and choose which to attack on their own. Likewise, you need to be extra careful when lining up a ranged attack lest you automatically attack an inadvertent target nearby.
At first, this makes the game feel too limited for real strategic planning. Over time, though, these restrictions come to inspire foresight and creativity. The moment one of your characters splits from the pack, they’re likely to be ganged up on, and premeditated blocking and baiting become important. Most characters (including your own fighters) have a lot of health and take many hits to down, so figuring out how to do the most damage while preserving yourself can be tricky. Some characters perform area-of-effect attacks that can also damage allies, so if you put a teammate between an archer and their target they might accidentally hit them with an arrow. Pit People may have distilled the logistics of the turn-based strategy purely to placement, but there’s still plenty of thought required. It’s not up there with the heavyweights of the genre–this simplified system makes the game easier to get into, but there are never really instances where you need to craft a grand, clever strategy that requires thinking ahead more than a couple of moves.
The way you build your team is the game’s smartest hook. If a character can be armed with specific gear (which applies to most human classes), you can have them forego any sort of shield and instead give them a net. During combat, the net can be thrown from two spaces away to bind an enemy to their space for the next turn, but when there’s only one enemy left on the field, you can hurl your net to recruit them, adding them to the list of characters you can control. It’s the same hook that made Pokémon so big (it’s surely no mistake that your team has six slots), and trying to keep the most enticing member of the enemy party alive so you can capture them at the end of the fight adds an interesting wrinkle to the campaign.
There are several different kinds of units, and while their attacks and abilities can be modified with a variety of equipment, they all serve specific functions–archers attack from long range, cupcakes can heal but can’t attack, mushrooms can spray poisonous clouds, and so on. But capturing isn’t just restricted to standard enemies, either–if you can defeat all a boss character’s underlings, you can recruit characters who play a part in the game’s story. The character designs are as cartoonish and fun as The Behemoth’s characters have always been, with lots of gross-looking monsters and weird takes on standard RPG classes, which makes recruiting as many of them as you can more compelling–even if, at a certain point, it sinks in that you’ll probably never use most of your under-levelled recruits.
According to one of the game’s loading screen tips, you can recruit over 500 units. At its core, Pit People is a collect-a-thon–the campaign is brief, and the moment you finish it, the missions start cycling again from the beginning (there are a heap of optional side-missions too, which are mostly good fun). The true goal of the game is to build up your army, level up your best units, collect the best loot from battles, and then take it all into the titular Pit, a combat arena where you can either face waves of AI or fight opponents online. A lot of the loot is purely cosmetic, which makes the grind a bit less interesting than it could be, but putting together a team and taking them online to see how they fare is an interesting experience.
Unfortunately, the lobbies have been quiet since the game’s 1.0 launch, and finding people to play against has been difficult. This is a shame–the competitive multiplayer is a fun addition. The whole game can be played cooperatively too, online or off, which means fighting with two teams against double the enemy count in each mission. Because characters tend to lack passive support roles, it’s not a game where playing with a friend will necessarily enhance your experience, but it’s a nice option to have and doesn’t detract from the game in any significant way either.
Pit People is a fun take on the turn-based strategy genre, even if it’s not the deepest out there. Building an army with the recruitment mechanics is great fun, and pulling off a difficult victory is always rewarding, especially when you manage to scrape through with only a single, battered unit left. On that note, a quick word of warning–do not start the game with permadeath enabled, no matter what your usual predilection in this genre is. If you lose certain characters that you need to take on story missions, you simply won’t be able to finish the game, and while you can restart a battle (most of the time–one mission ended with my entire team spontaneously exploding, the game autosaving before I properly realised what had happened), getting through a match with no losses is difficult.
This would be acceptable–you’re signing up for a more difficult experience, after all–but it also renders the Pit all but unusable. Getting through a match against the AI or an online opponent unscathed is essentially impossible, making this an even more hardcore option than it usually would be within this genre. It’s not just that the permadeath mode is unbalanced–it essentially locks you out of certain modes, which is not clear from the beginning, and because of existing genre conventions it’s fair to assume that some players will go in expecting permadeath to be the ‘right’ way to play. Follow this advice: let your characters come back when they die, and you’ll be okay.
Pit People’s irreverent appeal isn’t enough to make it stand alongside the greats, but it’s entertaining and mildly engrossing. It maintains the cartoonish charm that The Behemoth always imbues their games with, and the gameplay cycle does a solid job of getting you invested in your scrappy team of fighters. Hopefully, over time, Pit People will build more of an audience and the online modes will improve, but even if you prefer to just stick to the single-player campaign, it’s a fun time.