Fortnite has a lot to answer for. It wasn’t the first battle royale game, but its gigantic success has ensured that no online shooter game is now complete without a mode in which dozens of players land on an island and blast each other until only one remains. Now, after two long years, comes a fresh and interesting take on the concept – one that replaces guns and bombs with giant foam obstacles and human-sized beachballs. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is where battle royale meets a soft-play centre.
The setup is simple: 60 players have to compete over a series of obstacle courses, and only some of them will make it to the next round. On the final challenge, the last surviving competitor is the winner. Some of the courses are ridiculous races across bouncy-castle landscapes, where sliding doors and swinging boulders knock unwary sprinters into the abyss; others throw players into a game of football (with the aforementioned giant inflatable balls). A riotous challenge where you have to steal other players’ tails is a bit like the children’s party game where you all have balloons tied to your ankles and must stamp on everyone else’s – and it’s just as vicious.
With only three buttons – jump, dive and grab – it’s easy to pick up a joypad and join in. Much of the action is anarchy, but tactics do emerge. On one challenge, players have to run through a series of doors, but some doors are fake and won’t open, so it is wise to lurk just behind the pack leaders to find an uncontested route. On another circuit, competitors have to work out safe passage across a tiled floor where some tiles disappear, sending victims tumbling back to the beginning. Unfortunately, the only way to test if a tile is safe is to stand on it, so players must attempt to push each other forward to take the hit. In future years, academics studying the psychology of crowds will have a field day with this data.
The game takes place in a DayGlo-style cartoon world. Everything is bright pink, bright yellow or bright red; everything is shiny and large and padded. It’s as if an athletics tournament was brainstormed by Teletubbies. The characters look like supermarket own-brand versions of Minions, and players can unlock new outfits and accessories through playing or paying. You don’t have to dress as a pineapple in a tie-dyed tutu, but why not?
Fall Guys is raucous, ridiculous fun. Some players will be reminded of 1970s family gameshow It’s a Knockout, while others will see a resemblance to Takeshi’s Castle: both involved the ritual humiliation of participants through zany tasks and both featured a compelling mix of knockabout comedy and sociopathic competitiveness. Fall Guys is the perfect heir to those legacies for the broadband generation, a game made for Twitch and YouTube streaming.
Amid the chaos, perhaps what it lacks are intriguing variables. After two years, Fortnite still has 300 million players because the landscapes are fascinating to explore and every encounter with rival players is different. Fall Guys has lots of obstacle courses and no doubt more will be added in subsequent seasons, but the strategic possibilities are comparatively narrow, so your enthusiasm and amusement may not last long. You can only play it online, not with friends in the same room – so the potential of Fall Guys as a party game is lost. (Although the developer has hinted that a local multiplayer mode may be added.)
Still, this is an unmissable, sugary treat, bursting with kaleidoscopic entertainment, and is available for £15.99 on Steam and free via PlayStation Now. It’s a perfect entry point to battle royale games for those who are intrigued by their structure but put off by their violent undertones. And even though you can’t play against your family, you can all gather around the TV and enjoy the hilarity of 60 bean-shaped critters trying to simultaneously cram themselves through a narrow doorway, or across a rotating platform. It is lovely to see a game like this – so aware of its own silliness and so aware that it is exactly what we need right now.