Fans of dungeon crawling step on up, Crawl enters the arena with a new take on the genre and attempts to rub shoulders with the rest, but can it firmly find its own feet among the crowd? The game is a retro-like offering that starts players out in the belly of a dungeon, and after spending 19 nights in the depths of the earth, a madness takes control of your party, ultimately sending you into a selfish frenzy where only one can survive the brutality within. The setup is about as simplistic as they come, but the concept is actually pretty unique.
The aim of the game is to reach level 10, which will grant you the ability to teleport to the boss. Once the boss is downed, the game is over. That sounds straight forward enough and overly lenient on paper, right? Wrong! Those buddies of yours that took the swan dive at the beginning of the game are now ghouls, and are more than eager to pay you back in kindness. How so? Well, you have the only remaining body that is just itching to be taken over. What follows is a constant back-stabbing fest that will have you and your nearest and dearest going toe-to-toe over that meat suit, right up until the end game.
That’s not to say that you need other players to enjoy the game. Crawl offers up a single-player, in which AI will take control of the ghouls and do their best to put a stop to your progression. Now whilst the game is indeed a fun one to play in single-player, Crawl is undoubtedly at its best when you’re fighting for your life against family and friends. Nevertheless, with that being said Crawl doesn’t support online play, meaning you will need to physically pull people into your living room to get the best from the experience. If you cant do that, single-player allows you to play via Easy, Medium, and Hard mode.
As alluded to, anywhere between two to four players are able to join in on the fun. However only one player can control the living body at any given time. Ghoul players are able to posses objects and traps throughout each of the several rooms within the dungeon, which can range from pots, statues, and more. Ghouls also have the ability to take on the forms of demons whenever a pentagram is nearby, and use that demon to physically battle the living player. When the living player is eventually downed, the ghoul to deal that final blow will take on the role of the living body and the player who was alive will be cast out as a ghoul, and so on and so forth. Only the living player can face off against the boss, but that’s not to say that ghouls are out for the count at that point. On the contrary, ghouls are still able to dish out mass damage via taking control of parts of the boss.
The gameplay is mercifully straight forward. You’ve got your standard attack and your special attack, but you can indeed purchase other buffs, weapons, and spells from the shop within the dungeon. These range from permanent buffs to single use spells that will implement new special attacks. Naturally only the living player is allowed to purchase from the shop whilst ghoul players look on from afar as you get ready to dish out some pain. There’s a good balance between playing as a ghoul and playing as the living hero, but that’s not to say that everything goes hand in hand very well. There’s not much of a learning curve to rest against, and although (as aforementioned) Crawl has a simplistic nature of play, it can be somewhat headache inducing for your first few attempts as you get to grips with the game.
A single run in Crawl lasts less than an hour, in fact after I became comfortable with the controls and had a firm understanding of the experience, I was able to nuke one run in less than 30 minutes. I spent far more time learning how to play the game, or at least how to play on par, than I did in my best run. I suspect some players will be turned away by the overly chaotic gameplay to begin with. What I found most useful in place of the games lack of explanation, was to switch on just two AI bots and play the game on easy. This not only gave me some breathing room, but it shaved a layer of chaos from the experience and enabled me to understand the basics of play.
Although the game has a good balance, it does often feel as though the ghouls have the upper hand. They cant die, they can constantly chuck objects at you, and you can only really fight back when they take on the form of something solid. Ghouls can also nab ectoplasm which can be used to drop blob-like enemies while they wait for a room to clear or a pentagram to appear. The demons you can summon from the pentagrams are reflected by what deity you select at the start of each game. The living player on the other hand can collect XP to climb in level (with level 10 being the goal) whereas ghouls collect wrath, which in turn is used to buff their demons.
Visually, even for a pixelated game, Crawl does very little to impress. Each and every segment of the dungeon is bland, uninteresting, and utterly boring to observe. Random generation plays a large factor in the game, being that the dungeons, bosses, shop items and more, are all swapped out and rearranged to ensure that each play through feels unique. The downside is that when everything looks dull and uninviting, you kind of miss the point of having a feature like that in place. To help combat that, the developers have put an unlock system in place that sees you earning new goodies, both cosmetic and non-cosmetic. You can find all of what you have unlocked over in the vault, along with challenges that you can work towards. One such challenge has you taking on the roll of the monster, and has you duelling against progressively difficult heroes as you level up. It’s nice to have this included, but it’s hardly a game changing experience.
It’s not a bad game by any means and there’s certainly some degree of diversity to enjoy, but the short play sessions and lack of things to do other than level up to take on a boss, pulls Crawl down from greatness. It’s an experience that puts too much weight on the hopes that players will be satisfied with replay value alone, but when every session feels the same regardless of random generation, it doesn’t bode well in the grand scheme of things. To top it all off, this game is pitched as an RPG. By nature RPG’s have longevity, management, and at least a decent amount of content, something that Crawl lacks in all departments.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.