According to the Gang Beasts website, developer Boneloaf originally sought to create the spiritual descendant of scrolling beat-'em-ups like Final Fight, Streets of Rage and Golden Axe. Having grown up with those games, they strike me as excellent things from which to spiritually descend. However, playing Gang Beasts in its Early Access form does not remind me of the many happy hours I spent in the company of Cody, Haggar, Axel and that one guy who looked like Conan. Gang Beasts is more like the after-party at a Jeremy Kyle taping, watching 50-year-old alcoholics groping their way through a fight where successful acts of aggression are less important than the basic ability to prop oneself up.
None of this is a bad thing, at least to begin with. You and up to seven other players each control an angry little pillow of jelly (I'm talking about Gang Beasts now, even though the Jeremy Kyle thing still works) and your job is to overcome your adversaries by pummelling them with your mighty fists and then disposing of them in one of the many hazards that fill out each distinctive stage. You generally do this by putting your enemy into a brief KO state and then hoisting them above your head and throwing them into an abyss, or through the jaws of industrial machinery where they can be squeezed into oblivion. (There's no gore to speak of - it's usually like watching someone steamroller a hacky sack.)
This would probably be fun anyway, but the thing that elbows Gang Beasts out of the fighting game genre and into the party game pile is the controls, which by any objective measure are rubbish. Gloriously rubbish. You have individual control of your hands, which you can wave around to jab at other players, and by holding instead of mashing the punch buttons you can grip onto things. Another button lets you raise your arms above your head like Daniel in The Karate Kid. Another flops you down on the ground. And everything is sloppy and lagged as though the programmers are slurring their code, meaning that even the most basic offensive strategies are mangled by imprecision, leaving you to wheel around groping for whatever cack-handed opportunism can save the day.
You start off haring at your nearest opponent, fists lurching outward as though they're tied to bits of string and someone's yanking on the other end, before usually completely missing them with all but a glancing blow. Your opponent is often doing the same. The fight can then go a few ways. If you remain isolated, the pair of you will probably start circling each other like hot pockets caught in a tide pool, failed jousters locked in a vortex of inability. If you somehow go down, the other will try to hoist you up and urge you over the nearest perilous railing, although you will probably regain consciousness and steady yourself by grabbing onto the scenery, locking you into the gladiatorial equivalent of a romantic teenage phone conversation where neither side will hang up.
Or maybe someone else will get involved, which complicates things. In this case, things quickly evolve into one of those three-way WWE bouts where the objective is to propel the other guys over the top rope, but any time anyone gets close to doing so the leftover combatant miraculously wakes up and sabotages the attempt. No matter how beaten down, half-ejected players often manage to wobble and hop their way back into the fray. There are sound effects and so on, but the general soundtrack to Gang Beasts is the noise of the people playing it hooting with delight at every one of these turnarounds.
Often as not, at least some of the party will go off and just explore the level. The nine currently available stages vary wildly in complexity and theme, which perfectly complements the drunken comedy of playing the game. You fight in a window-cleaning gondola on the side of a skyscraper - can you detach it from the building? You fight on top of trucks racing along on a freeway - can you jump between them? You fight in a subway station among speeding trains - can you duck under them? You fight among meat grinders, incinerators and giant fans. Arguably the only dud is a boxing ring. The literal high point is a Ferris wheel at the end of a pier. Attempting to win often seems less important than trying to climb things or see whether you can get through that door or hop over that barrier.
There isn't much in the way of options yet - this Early Access build is very bare bones. You can adjust costumes slightly and player numbers, but you can't even remap the controls yet and the interface can be a little temperamental and counterintuitive. There's only one game mode so far, Survival, although the developers want to add a tutorial, a single-player mode and more multiplayer events. Online play seems like a distant dream.
One thing you can toggle though is grip strength, which in its 'off' state allows you to climb things by holding the jump button and then holding and releasing the bumper buttons in overlapping alternations, as though you're hauling yourself up something hand over hand while rubbing your tummy and patting your head. Like everything else in Gang Beasts' bag of tricks, it sort of works in a sort of brilliant way, allowing you to grope your way up walls and steel beams in a manner that exudes skill while achieving precisely nothing.
If there's a criticism of Gang Beasts (and there is - that's where I'm going with this paragraph), it's that after an hour or so of laughter and hijinks, this kind of activity becomes the endgame. The initial thrill of hurling and heaving your gelatinous avatars around wears off a little, leaving you to toy around with the environments and each other to see whether the physics have anything left to make you titter. Obviously Gang Beasts is an Early Access game, so there should be much to come, and there needs to be for it to really stand the test of time. It could do with all sorts of things: traps, props, special moves, you name it.
Hopefully it will get those things, or other things that are better ideas. In the meantime, Gang Beasts is good for one extremely entertaining party, after which you just have to hope the flow of updates will continue, giving you more to wrestle with in the days of parties to come. There is a brilliant spark of fun here, but not enough matchpaper to light any kind of fire. You'll be heading back to TowerFall Ascension before you know it, although you'll have plenty of happy memories to keep you company.
Eurogamer's alpha, beta and Early Access reviews are reviews of games that are still in development but are already being offered for sale or funded by micro-transactions. They offer a preliminary verdict but have no score attached. For more information, read our editor's blog.