Pit People is a great strategy game that is also absolutely bonkers

My team consists of a unicorn, a man wielding a sharpened candy cane, a cyclops throwing M-80s, a woman holding a giant stalk of broccoli and a floppy disk as a shield, and a sentient cupcake that heals them all. Pit People, the newest game from Castle Crashers developer The Behemoth, is not your average turn-based RPG. Coming to Steam Early Access this Friday, Pit People has already become one of my favorite strategy games in years, even if it's still a bit rough around the edges.

You put together a ragtag team of up to six fighters—most of which I essentially kidnapped from my enemies with a very Pokemon-like capturing mechanic—then level them up and outfit them with new items earned either by completing missions or fighting in a gladiatorial arena. Combat is snappy and simplified, having you choose where each of your units will move, then locking the commands in and watching as they all carry out your orders simultaneously. Units will automatically attack anyone in range, so you don't even have to specify targets. It doesn't have as much depth as some other strategy games like XCOM, but I love how accessible The Behemoth has made a traditionally opaque genre without making it feel dumbed down. 

Part of that missing depth is made up outside of the fights, back at the base where you can customize who is on your team and what equipment they are using. You can choose between different types of swords and clubs, bows and throwing weapons, helmets and shields—all of which have dozens of different variations you can find by playing, or by inviting others players to trade items, play together, or fight against you online. Many of these collectables are just cosmetic differences within their weapon type, a box cutter and a giant lollipop are both a medium sword, but some weapons change the behavior of their type too, like the M-80s which add AOE explosive damage to what's usually just a throwing axe. There are already over 1,300 collectables in Pit People, and dozens of different types of units—including unicorns that shoot explosive horns, hulking cyclops with heavy weapons, adorable mascots buffing your team with bagpipes, and ferocious trolls made of nothing but hair and claws.

The Behemoth has managed to do one of the things that makes beloved cartoon show Rick and Morty so popular: it's created an absurd but coherent world where anything can happen. Any theme, any setting, any character or prop you want to mash together is on the table. Aliens, robots, and living mushrooms fight alongside uzi-wielding giraffe riders and armor-clad cyclops knights. A blueberry farmer using a WW1 mortar launcher and a spanish conquistador with an endless supply of nets can storm a castle, then chase down their fleeing adversaries and have an epic fight on the wing of a space shuttle. Nothing is off limits, and it's all continuously exciting. 

That grab bag of styles mixed with The Behemoth’s signature cartoony art style does cause some problems with readability on the battlefield though, especially in co-op. 12 units worth of movement paths, location icons, and warning indicators for AOE attacks results in a lot of clutter—made more difficult because one player's cursor and icons are dark blue and the other’s are light blue, two frustratingly similar colors. 

And its UI issues aren't helped by Pit People clearly being designed for a controller first. Playing co-op on my couch with two Xbox 360 controllers felt like the way it was definitively meant to be played, and rivaled Divinity: Original Sin's combat as one of the best co-op RPG experiences I've had. Whereas using a mouse and keyboard worked OK, but often felt clunky. The character customization menus didn't work quite as I expected them to, and I was frustrated by the fact that I couldn't just click one of my units to select it in combat, instead having to scroll through all my characters with the mouse wheel.

The phenomenal voice actor Stamper returns from The Behemoth's BattleBlock Theater to be the narrator and main villain, and he's once again a highlight of the game. Unfortunately, there just isn't a whole lot to Pit People's story yet. The Early Access version releasing Friday pretty much only includes the tutorial missions, and then one larger story mission after that. There are side missions to complete as well, but the amount of stuff to do feels relatively bare in comparison to the seemingly finished combat and customization, and the massive arsenal of collectables already available.

The pit fight arena mode is the main attraction after you run out of missions. In it, you can either fight three AI teams in a row (which the game explicitly calls an "unfair challenge") or against other players online. I haven't had a chance to play in public matches online, but the PvP matches I played against friends were a lot of fun, a notable step up in difficulty from battling AI enemies. The strategy in an actual match is still somewhat simple, but seeing the choices your opponents have made outside of the arena allows human opponents to stay fresh compared to fighting the AI. The items they have equipped and the weird characters they have fighting give them their own sense of style, built up by unlocking more stuff. 

While I love what I've played so far, I think I'll probably end up putting Pit People aside until it leaves Early Access. What's there is great, but I want more, and I don't want to spoil what's slowly added as it grows toward a full release. I'm excited to hear more of Stamper through the game's story, and hope they've cleaned up the mouse controls and battlefield legibility by then.  

Tom Marks
Tom is PC Gamer’s Associate Editor. He enjoys platformers, puzzles and puzzle-platformers. He also enjoys talking about PC games, which he now no longer does alone. Tune in every Wednesday at 1pm Pacific on Twitch.tv/pcgamer to see Tom host The PC Gamer Show.