My gelatinous man in a chicken suit careens across the train platform with all the grace of an uncle on a wedding dance floor. I mash the bumper buttons and he flails his arms in whichever direction he fancies, occasionally catching an opponent’s jellied jaw with a satisfying thwack.
Soon, there’s five of us in a ball of death. Heads smash together, people hit the floor, wake up, and rise straight into a dropkick from behind. Occasionally, someone will hoist one of the unconscious above their shoulders and dump them on the train tracks, ready to get splatted. And all the while, a yellow man in a top hat is edging his way up a back wall like a crap Spiderman, just because he can.
Gang Beasts is primarily a game you’ll want to play when your friends are around. Its loose controls and nonsense physics make its short rounds perfect for quickfire laughs, and its gimmicky levels – from the slippery top of a blimp to a factory full of meatgrinders ready to swallow you up – are designed specifically to let those jokes unfold. One round you’re headbutting a chum into a pit of boiling pink goo, the next you’re missing simple jumps between two lorries speeding down the motorway, squishing on the tarmac below.
The controls are a big part of what makes it fun. Your controller bumpers correspond to your character’s left and right hand and make you punch, but if you hold them you’ll grab onto objects. Combine grabs with the jump button and you can clamber up any surface in the level. Press kick and you’ll wave your foot vaguely in the direction of an enemy, hold it and you’ll bend over backwards. Press all of the above at the same time and you can twist your body into handstands, jump slide beneath enemy attacks, and turn bits of debris into throwable weapons.
Now, it is possible to master these controls, and contort your characters the exact way you want. I can’t do it. But I’ve seen other players swing between pieces of rope like monkeys, only letting go to perform a full backflip and headbutt someone en route. Most people will be relying on a mixture of button mashing and guesswork. It’s more fun that way, too, because you’re constantly surprised by the moves you’re able to pull off. Just look at this twisting bodyslam from the grey guy in the clip below. There’s no way they meant it.
This randomness works best in four-player local co-op or online games, where there’s nine fighters crammed into each arena. Both are pure chaos. You’ve got one friend punching you in the face, one hanging off the side of a building, and the final one somehow perched on top of you, clinging onto your head with both hands.
It doesn’t work so well when there’s only two players, especially if one has played a lot more than the other. Once you’ve mastered the art of grabbing an enemy, lifting them above your head (there’s a button for reaching up), and dumping them off the edge of the map you’ve got a big advantage. If you add in a few climbing lessons, a flying kick, and learn how to angle your headbutts right then you’re going to be able to see off most newcomers in a duel. That means it’s just not that enjoyable 1v1, or even when playing against the computer-controlled AI in the ‘Waves’ mode.
In tightening up the controls during its three-year Early Access, I feel like the developers have made it harder to enjoy the game in a group with players of different skill levels. The fact that you can learn certain tricks means it’s immediately obvious who the better players are. The most fun I’ve had with it is still the first time I played in 2015, where I (and everyone else) had no clue what to do and I was just relying on instinct. Early Access has not been particularly kind to it in other ways either: there are still glaring bugs that should have been ironed out ages ago, like pieces of the level that are meant to fall apart that end up floating in mid-air, or invisible rails that you can grab on to. Online performance isn’t great, and navigating the levels is plain confusing because all the text prompts are crammed into a corner in tiny font.
But I still think it’s one worth adding to your party game collection. If you have enough friends to set up four-player games then it’s a must, and even with two it’s great if you jump into a game together online. In large groups there’s enough randomness to level the playing field, and you can play it again and again, through multiple sessions, and always get different results. And there’s just no getting away from the fact that watching jelly babies punch each other in the face repeatedly is simply amusing, and well worth the tenner it costs.