In Gang Beasts, little wobbling homunculi duke it out for no other reason than an addiction to pugilism. It’s a local multiplayer game where Jelly Baby-like brawlers throw each other off ferris wheels, into incinerators and in front of oncoming trains; a fighting game for people who don’t care about techniques, combos or perfect timing.
Jelly Babies are objectively the best sweet ever invented. They combine the joys of cannibalism with sugary gelatinous goodness. Where in the world would we be without these wonderful treats? But next time you dig into a packet of them, I bid you to stop for a moment. Take a closer look. Gaze into their dead eyes. What do you see? You see a lust for violence.
A man roars. It’s deafening. Ear drums pop and birds fall from the sky. He yells at invisible gods: “How did this happen!” His little green fighter in a dinosaur costume falls to its death, dragged over a barrier by what can only be described as a Jelly Baby cosplaying as a blue Pikachu. In the centre of the battlefield, a fez-wearing pugilist waves its arms in the air and runs around in a circle, its mind lost in victory.
Two lorries speed down a motorway. Jumping between them, the warriors slap, punch, kick and grab. One falls between the vehicles, presumably turned into a fine paste. We look at its player with mocking grins. It’s just the two of us now. Then one: it’s me, and I’m proud. But wait, the match hasn’t finished. The camera pans. Holding onto the side of one lorry, with grim determination, our friend previously thought taken by the road perseveres. “What the fu-” As I stare in disbelief, my brawler is smacked in the face by a road sign and is swiftly killed.
Gang Beasts has made me fat with stories. Whoever coined the term “emergent gameplay” was thinking of this game. Developer Boneloaf describes it as a party game, and everything that is wonderful about it comes from the pleasure of seeing – and doing – stupid things with a group of friends. And the tools that facilitate this fun are as simple as they come.
But first those tools have to be discovered. The wee jelly men wibble and wobble as they walk, like staggering drunks. They lurch and bump into things a little, and the first seconds of the first match see brains slowly getting into gear, making slight adjustments for the fighters’ odd gaits.
Then those first tentative steps into violence are taken. One button to jump. Another to throw a sloppy punch. And another – one for each arm. The kick attack is discovered, and then crouch. But these are not skilled fighters; these are drunk baby-men. The fighting is loose and clumsy, like a mess of limbs and curses pouring out of a kebab shop at 3am on a Sunday morning.
I can exactly pinpoint where things started to come together: it’s when we realised we could grab each other and the environment, with one or both hands. Grabbing stuff is one of the first things humans learn how to do – because it’s bloody important. In Gang Beasts, it can save lives or, more often, end them. If a fighter is unconscious, taking one too many punches, it can be lifted up and tossed over the side of a level or into a trap. But grabbing can also be used to stick onto railings and walls, preventing any of the jelly-men from dragging an opponent off.
I refuse to let go. We’re in a boxing ring – the first battleground of Gang Beasts, and the simplest – and my little killer is gripping the rope with one little jelly hand, while the other is being pulled and tugged by a foe. The third brawler appears from behind, latching onto the second one. Now we’re all stuck together, in a gross sticky orgy. But then I’m loose! Punches fly wildly, my study erupts into yelling and howling, but somehow we all knock each other out. We know that the first one to wake up will just throw the other two out of the ring, and it’s as tense as a photo finish in a race.
Gang Beasts’ silliness does not preclude it from having lots of these tense moments. There’s not the intensity of the fighting games you might see at EVO, where it’s more serious than a gunshot wound, but there’s no dearth of nail biting and facepalming.
The environments, filled with obstacles and death traps, are usually the cause of this tension. Getting stuck on a subway track with a train on its way, scrambling across falling floors, trying to find something to grab when giant fans are sucking you towards a swift death – the arenas are the real enemies.
Eight stages are all you get at the moment, each with their own peculiar eccentricities. It’s not a lot, really, but replaying them over and over still coughs up surprises as players learn to mess around with the physics or discover new traps. Experimentation makes the game feel a lot larger than it currently is. There could be less and it would still be a hilarious, messy joy to play.
Billy No Mates won’t find much to entertain him here, but anyone that can rustle up a few friends – it supports up to eight players, and I can’t even imagine how crazy that gets – will find a lot to love. It’s at its best when there’s not just a lot of players, but an audience too. Gang Beasts thrives on noise: cheers, smack talk and a bit of oohing and aahing when something new is uncovered.
New modes, a co-op story, more character models and stages are all planned – but even at this early stage there’s nothing quite like it. It’s a good excuse for even the most antisocial shut-in to make some new pals.