“Death is no escape down here”, the closing statement of the narrator as the tutorial comes to an end. This statement is probably true for most games, where death is really never more that an inconvenient setback rather than anything finite. Crawl however does things a bit differently, where death simply switches you from team living to team dead.
Crawl was originally released on Steam early access back in July 2014, but just under 3 years later it has now made the transition to full release available for PC, Mac, Playstation 4 and Xbox One. Developer Powerhoof, based in Melbourne, describe Crawl as their re-imaging of the 4 player co-op classic Gauntlet mashed up with the more recent ‘Bullet Hell’ genre. What they actually have created is more of a team co-operative experience where its one player vs everyone else.
The game itself is simple, you and up to 3 other players will work your way through various levels of a randomly generated dungeon with the goal of defeating a boss and hence forth winning the match. The difficulty comes from the fact that only one of you can win, and only one of you can be alive at a time. For the living, you’ll need to out-play your comrades with the aim being to reach level 10 allowing you to have a stab at the boss. For the dead, you’ll need to use the objects, items and you’re ability to spawn and control monsters to kill the living so that you can take their place.
Each match, which take 30 minutes at most, starts with an immediate face off between all the players in a ‘last man standing’ battle to the death to determine who gets to play as the living player first. As the living, you’ll have 2 main aims. Firstly to earn enough experience from killing monsters to level up and secondly to find gold so that you can upgrade you stats, items and abilities in one of the games many shops. As the dead, your role is to do whatever you can to kill the player, with the player who delivers the death blow taking the living players place. Each room contains a selection of objects and items that can be used to thwart and hamper the living players progress. Items, such as crates and pots can be thrown at the player as they pass. Pentagrams can be used to spawn powerful monsters which can be used to battle the player in combat. Objects, such as flaming torches and traps can be manned and sprung to damage and slow the player. The more damage you inflict, or items the player smashes drops ectoplasm, which can be spent to spawn small gelatinous blobs that can be used to impede the living players progress.
Experience is earned between opposing teams, and done so in a way that ensures the level of the living player directly relates to the level of the dead. During the transitions between levels, players can spend their experience to upgrade the monsters. This mechanic ensures that all players maintain relative balance, and no single player can gain too much of an advantage as the game progresses.
Once you do reach level 10, the portal which can be used to teleport to the dungeons boss can be activated which grants you a chance to battle the boss and win the match. The boss you battle is determined during the matches setup, which tasks each player with selecting a, for lack of a better word, deck which determines the monsters you can spawn as an undead player and the boss that you will fight at the end of the dungeon. During boss fights as with the rest of the game, the dead don’t just sit idly by instead possessing and controlling some of the bosses limbs alongside the bosses own AI to make it as hard as possible for the living player to win. Defeat the boss, and you win the match giving you bragging rites over your friends. Failure results in you being dumped back into the dungeon with a mere pixel of health, a near dead corpse for the undead team to finish off.
Presentation wise, the game is themed very much on the 8/16 bit era, with some delightful looking but simplistic artwork. I’m a big fan of pixel art, and again the artwork here is a treat to look at however I felt that a little more resolution would help to improve the game. Details in rooms aren’t so easy to pick out, which means often you’ll fail to spot a trap that needs manning or a collectable. Alongside the artwork, the audio hammers out some beautiful tunes alongside a superbly voiced narrator whose passionate words really resonate with the games competitive and gory atmosphere.
The games real Achilles heal however comes from it’s lack of online play, which sadly limits the audience of the game somewhat. In the absence of friends to join you on the couch, the game offers AI controller bots to make up the numbers which do a reasonable enough job, but matches lack the camaraderie of playing with friends. Its absence is notable, in particular for the PC platform for which ‘couch co-op’ is far from the norm compared to consoles. I can’t see any technical, or gameplay, reason why online play couldn’t be supported, and hopefully this might be something that the developer could leverage in the future to really open up the games strengths to the masses.
Overall, Crawl is an excellent game that favours fast-pace gameplay over any real strategy. It captures well that classic ‘arcade’ experience, and is a perfect party game with short intense matches which will bring out the real competitor in each player. If your gaming social circle is largely online then the single player, although fun, lacks the camaraderie of co-op play. If however you’re looking for a couch co-op experience to play with others then Crawl is a refreshingly new experience that you should definitely give a try.
Crawl was provided to us by Microsoft via a download code for Xbox One.