We’ve all played RPG’s before with friends at our side, but what happens when your friends control the monsters instead? Developed by the two man team over at Powerhoof, Crawl is a local co-op dungeon crawler for up to four players, and provides the answer to that very question.
In a rather interesting turn of events, one of you controls the hero, slaying monsters, gaining levels, and buying loot, while the other 3 players use ghosts to possess traps or summon monsters with the simple goal of killing you to become the hero instead. The point of Crawl is to survive long enough to reach level 10, then activating a portal to the final boss encounter. The player that reaches and defeats the final boss first wins the game.
Levels carry out between floors and deaths, so if you managed to reach level 3 as the hero before one of your former best friends landed a killing blow, you’ll still be level 3 should you manage to vanquish the new hero and take their place once again. It’s an interesting take on competitive co-op, as the three players running as ghosts don’t just want to kill the hero, but want to be the one that sinks the dagger in to their backs. You can’t win unless you’re the hero, so there’s just as much competition to survive as there is to maim the fleshy beacon of pixel justice.
As the hero, you can access shops to buy better loot, like swords and spears, or even potions and spells. Crawl features a basic two-button setup where one functions as a basic attack, while the other is the special ability. By default, your special ability is a dodge roll to avoid incoming attacks, but you can purchase replacements at the shop that increase its distance, summon an orb that shoots lasers, and so forth. But what about the monsters?
In the time I spent with Crawl, I can assure you that there will be games where you barely get to control the hero at all. The upside to this is that you can evolve your controlled monsters between levels through an in-game currency system. At the start of each game you’ll select which God to worship, which determines which monsters you’ll control as a ghost. The spider god, Teok, for instance, offers spiders, gnomes, and snakes, while the wolf god, Murkan, has rats, snakes, and skeletons. As you prey upon the hero, you’ll earn Vitae to spend between levels on monster evolutions. What was once a tiny goblin could easily become a hulking Minotaur in the next stage, and likewise for your spiders and slugs becoming demons and dragons.
Each creature that you possess has the same attack functions as the hero, so your Minotaur will cleave its massive axe in melee range, while its special ability rushes from one end of the room to the other, taking the hero with them in the process for massive damage output. If there aren’t any monsters to control, chances are there’s traps to possess instead. These traps range from crossbows and spike traps, to whirling blades or flinging blobs of slime. So regardless of which side of the game you’re on, there’s something to look forward to.
Graphically, Crawl is another in a long line of retro pixel games, but character models and animations, as well as the environments, look absolutely fantastic. You’ll never have to hunt for interactive objects since they’re all relatively clear, and everything from blood spray to magical spells are pixel perfect.
Aside from its chaotic couch co-op action, another area Crawl excels in is its epic chiptune soundtrack. It features a lot of high pitched, SNES and Genesis-era Castlevania style tunes, so everything about its soundtrack just oozed awesomeness.
And now is the not-so-fun part where I tell you what Crawl does wrong. The game itself has an incredible amount of potential, and there’s a lot of fun to be had, but unfortunately that fun relies heavily on you having other people to play with locally. As a small two-man team, Powerhoof is concentrating on making Crawl a great local co-op experience, but without the ability to play a multiplayer game online with friends, there isn’t much to do but play against A.I. bots when you can’t get everyone together. A.I. bots are fine if you want to get your feet wet, but after a few rounds I was ready to play with live people again. In fact, I’m not sure just how much I’ll actually play Crawl if there isn’t someone around to dive in to its dungeon with, and for a game with this much potential, that’s really a shame to admit.
I know it can be a challenge for small development teams to incorporate online functionality to their games, but Crawl‘s entire selling point is its multiplayer gameplay. But without having friends to play with whenever you get the itch to dungeon crawl, it’s basically akin to playing Mario Party alone. Other couch co-op games like TowerFall still found a home and became successful, but there are other modes of play besides just 4-player combat. In Crawl, that’s just it.
If you have local friends who frequent your house, Crawl is an insanely good time. Its short 30-minute games, combined with its accessible pick-up-and-play control scheme, make it ideal for parties or for larger groups of people to pass the controllers around. However, if you’re running solo, you’ll most likely grow tired of fighting the A.I. rather quickly and there isn’t anything to do after that.
*An Early Access Review differs from our standard reviews in that it’s our opinion on the current state of an unfinished product. All of our Early Access reviews are done using the most recent version of the game available at the time the review is published, unless otherwise noted in the article.
Bradley Keene is the Executive Editor here at What’s Your Tag?, generally handling reviews, public relations, and our social media communications. He’s an aspiring video game journalist, Baltimore native, and on again/off again WoW player that favors roguelikes, horror games, and point-and-click adventures. His favorite console is the Dreamcast, favorite game is the original Metroid, and he could watch The Goonies for the rest of his life. Contact him by e-mail at the address above, or follow his insanity on Twitter.