Gang Beasts is one of those games I never would have heard about, let alone play, if it weren’t for word of mouth. I especially wouldn’t know about its release on the PlayStation 4, were it not for Tim Schafer and Double Fine publishing the game. Now that I finally got a chance to play something I’d heard so much about, my experience was, sadly, a mixed bag. At its best, Gang Beasts makes couch co-op fun again. The chance to yell and shout as player-controlled gelatinous blobs punch and toss each other around, is one I’ll always take because, let’s be honest, it’s fun to yell and shout. Taking the game online is a different story, though. The server is unreliable and, providing you can get in a match, the chances are getting paired up with players that took the time to learn a pretty clunky control system.
The concept of Gang Beasts is pretty easy to follow. You and three other local players, or seven for online play, are pitted against each other in a contest to see who can be the last one standing. There are no weapons with which to murder each other. Instead, each match challenges players to see who can be the best at punching someone’s lights out and tossing them out of the arena. Through a combination of punches, kicks, and headbutts, the trick is to knock a player unconscious and use brief window of time to pick them up and throw them to obstacles or pitfalls that will take them out of the match. Each battle quickly descends into sheer lunacy in part by the game’s goofy, fluid physics engine. It affects how the avatars lumber across the arena, their wiggly, jiggly bodies slamming into each other with the same consistency of squeezing two Gummy Bears together.
The goofiness of the character movement is matched by the outlandish arenas you’ll fight in. I found this to be the most imaginative aspect of the game. Contests take place in wacky places like atop zeppelins, across two semi-trucks speeding down the highway, a factory floor, and a foundry. Each of these locations have their own environmental obstacles that complicate an already hectic battle royale. For example, players have to contend with loose boards and platform bits on the street billboard stage and in a silo-looking structure, a fan in the center of the room periodically activates and sends everyone into the air. This is probably the best and the most funniest area in the game. Watching a gaggle of Jelly Babies frantically grab onto iron railings or each other is pretty hilarious.
Gang Beasts can be fun but be prepared to put in a lot a work before you get the most out of it. It’s a shame that the game doesn’t have a proper tutorial or an immediately accessible control diagram (it’s there but you have to dig a little bit in the options menu). I found the practice of moving and attacking clunky, uncomfortable, and not conducive enough to just “pick up and play.” This would have been a great game to introduce to my non-gamer wife and friends but I’m concerned with the finger gymnastics involved. There are separate buttons for jumping and lifting people you’ve grabbed onto.
The most confusing series of button presses involves climbing around the environments. Because both arms can be operated independently, scaling walls involves alternating arm buttons and holding a separate button to lift your body upwards. Beyond these issues, I was concerned that there isn’t much feedback when throwing punches and kicks so there’s no way to tell if you’re doing much damage (if at all). I found the headbutt attack to be the most effective and resorted to using it during a fight as much as possible. (As a side note, a load screen tells you to repeatedly push X to get out of being unconscious and it never seemed to really work that well for me.) Whether or not the target is knocked out, pressing and holding the punch buttons doubles as a grapple move that allows for fun, one-on-one melees.
The uncomfortable control system proved to be the least of my problems when taking my Gang Beasts online. The first time I tried to go online, two out of four attempts were successful. Two days after the Christmas holiday, I couldn’t get on after five attempts. When I did get online, I found that I had a 50/50 chance of getting into a game or caught up in a “Waiting for players” loop in which level after level would load without actually starting. I don’t know what’s going on with the netcode for Gang Beasts but in this department, it’s been pretty disappointing. When I did get into a functional online match, my inexperience led to a lot of quick defeats. I wish this game took a page from PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds which sent you back to the lobby as soon as you’re killed. I say that because having to wait until the end of the match can be pretty dull if you get taken out early. In one instance, the final two players spent most of their time screwing around with the environment instead of fighting each other.
Gang Beasts is one of those games I wanted to try because it captured the attention of a small, but vocal portion of the Internet. Like Battlegrounds, this ended up being a game I’d rather watch other people play. The controls don’t feel particularly intuitive and are pretty punishing for new players. You’re going to take more than a fair share of lumps before the game “clicks.” On the other hand, I think you'll get the most out of the game by playing it with friends in the same room, especially since online matches can easily be one- or two-sided. Despite being a published video game, Gang Beasts has the feel of an early access title. For it to be something accessible to a larger audience, I think it needs more time to bake.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.