Platforms PC, PS4 (reviewed), XBO
Developer Powerhoof
Publisher Powerhoof
Release Date April 11, 2017

Review code provided

Crawl is a roguelike dungeon crawler with a focus on asymmetrical multiplayer. Up to four players enter a randomised dungeon. One player controls the intrepid dungeon crawler, the hero who has set forth to find a way to escape with his life. He must fight his way through the various floors, monsters and eventually defeat the end boss in an attempt to escape with his soul.

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The other three control the monsters. You and your friends (or AI bots) will switch back and forth between playing as the dungeon crawler and trying to end his life. It’s an excellent setup for a multiplayer game, as you fluctuate between working together with your friends and working against them. It’s a dungeon crawling experience quite unlike any other – one that’s a whole lot of fun with a room full of your mates.

You begin Crawl in a single room and must fight it out with your buddies. Last one standing gets to play the hero. Everyone else gets to control ghosts that can’t directly attack or interact with the player. Instead, ghosts must haunt objects and traps found dotted around the various rooms. They can also use pentagrams to summon monsters from their pool, taking direct control of them in an attempt to disembowel the player. Whoever gets the kill is resurrected as the hero and continues the journey.

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The fun of Crawl is built upon a really well designed progression system that balances each game so that everyone is having fun, regardless of whether they’re dead or not. Players gain levels for killing monsters, as you’d expect, and become more powerful the longer they can survive. Once a player reaches level 10 they can activate a portal to take a crack at the end boss (which the ghosts also control).

But the other players are getting more powerful as well. At the end of each floor, when whoever is playing the hero heads down a level to continue their adventure, everyone gains Wrath. This is used to evolve your pool of monsters – making them more powerful or giving them more devastating attacks and abilities. You gain Wrath for every level someone else’s hero gains.

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What this means is that if you’re stuck playing a ghost for a while your monsters will become more powerful at a much quicker rate. If the other three players all gained 3 levels each, for example, your Wrath would increase nine times, where the others wouldn’t gain as much. You can invest this Wrath in much deadlier (and more fun to play) monsters, which makes it harder for the others to progress. Then, when you get your turn at being the hero, everyone else’s monsters aren’t as powerful.

It’s a balance system that certainly has its flaws. If game’s go on a bit too long then rooms where players are spawning ridiculously powerful monsters are spell almost certain death, regardless of level. Other than that this is a well crafted system that aims to ensure that no player is left behind and everyone is having a good time. Judging by the reactions of everyone I’ve played the game with, that’s almost certainly the case.

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Boss fights work in a similar fashion. When a level 10 player challenges a boss, the other players get to control it. The bosses in Crawl have a variety of different limbs, extremities or attacks that the three players must co-ordinate to stop the hero from winning. Once again, everyone is having fun regardless of what they’re doing. There’s a good variety of bosses to fight and each boss encounter is markedly different from the others – coming with their own quirks, mechanics and strategies for victory.

Even once you’ve gotten the rhythms of a boss fight down, the unpredictability of having its attacks controlled by your friends constantly keeps you on your toes. Where bosses in almost all other games have recognisable patterns to decipher, your mates are a hell of a lot more erratic. You can learn all of the different things a boss can do, but you’ll never be able to wholly predict how it will attack. The players only get three cracks at it before all of their souls are damned forever, so there’s little room for error.

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Players also gain access to shops. Somewhere on each floor is a vendor with new weapons, spells & trinkets that can really make the difference between life and death. You’re given the ability to spend gold to tailor your play style with equipment and abilities that feel genuinely different from one another. Once a player has bought an item, though, it’s gone forever. Even if another player is resurrected and returns to the shop, they’ll only have their pick of whatever’s left. There are a surprising number of different types of shops that can spawn, which carry various different types of items.

In fact, there’s a shocking amount of variety found in Crawl right across the board. Finishing a run unlocks new monsters, new evolution paths for monsters, new weapons, items and spells and even new spirits with their own roster of monsters. There’s a huge amount of continuously unlocking content available in Crawl to ensure that you’ll be encountering new stuff for a long time to come.

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All of this adds up to an excellent game that’s a ton of fun. Providing you’ve got friends who don’t mind trekking to your house for a few games (and bringing controllers with them). Crawl criminally doesn’t have online multiplayer. If you haven’t got friends playing with you then you’ll be forced to rely on the AI bots for company, which makes the game a lot less fun. A lot less. The AI in Crawl isn’t really up to the challenge of taking on a player.

Sure, in a war of attrition they’ll eventually murder you. But it’s just not all that fun to play Crawl alone. Most of what makes Crawl a fun game is playing it with friends – temporarily working together to murder one of your mates, giving each other crap as you batter each other back and forth. Making ghost noises while you fly around the hero’s head when you’ve got nothing better to do. The AI is just sort of…present. And not very challenging.

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It makes the lack of an online multiplayer component sting, because Crawl is a game I could see myself losing dozens of hours with if I could play it with my friends on a regular basis. If you’re into dungeon crawlers where you get to fight your friends this is a great game. There’s a little less precision than I would like in the slightly floaty controls, but it’s completely forgivable and barely even noticeable while your shouting at your buddy who’s trying to run you over with a mine cart.

It can also be a bit difficult to tell what’s going on during the more chaotic moments. Crawl is a game with an 8-bit retro aesthetic. The pixel graphics look awesome and fit the tone and atmosphere of the game perfectly. But when there’s a huge group of monsters attacking you, along with ghosts flinging traps your way, this chaos combines with a pulse pounding soundtrack to create a very confusing mess of sensory overload. There are times when it’s almost like the audio and visuals are just another weapon to be used against you.

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I mean that as a compliment (sort of). Both graphics and soundtrack are great (as is the narrator who expertly sets the tone of the adventure at the beginning of each run). I have no doubt that I died as much to floaty controls or not knowing what the hell was going on as much as because I screwed up or because my mates got the better of me. Crawl’s best trick was that I didn’t care. Dying just lets me play a different game, letting my monsters loose on the bastard who blew me up with a fireball.

Summary

Crawl is a fairly decent dungeon crawler that’s made a hell of a lot better when played with friends. It suffers from some slightly imprecise controls and an art style that, while great to look at, can make for a confusing cacophony of chaos that can lead to player death. It’s also a riot to play with some friends, with some of the best multiplayer gaming I’ve played so far this year. The only downside to that is that there isn’t any online options.

But get a few friends around the TV with you and you’ll have a good time. Crawl accomplishes this through an impressive balancing system that ensures everyone is having fun, regardless of how well they’re doing as the hero/ghost. By tying monster power to how far other players advance in level, letting you unleash more powerful creatures accordingly, Powerhoof have created a multiplayer dungeon crawler with a high replay value that’s good for a laugh for a long time.

8v2


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