At its core, Crawl is an 8-bit gem–whose music is just as impressive as the art– in a sea of games striving to capture the feel of the beloved experiences of our past. What Crawl gets right is something that so many games set on revelling in the nostalgia that usually comes with an 8-bit art style, fails to include–couch co-op multiplayer. Thank you, Powerhoof.
When I think of my favorite pastime video game experiences, the ones that stand taller than the rest are the ones where friends and I stay up way later than we should, drinking way more Mountain Dew than we should (I know, cliche, right?), screaming way more at each other than any game should have us do.
To test out the four-player action the game promised, three friends and I gathered in an office, energy drinks in hand and hours set aside to completely devote to this game. Ten minutes into the round, I felt a way I haven’t felt in years.
After choosing your character, each packing a different set of upgradable monsters and perks, you’re tossed into a dungeon room. Each character rises and without needing to be told, you know to eliminate the others in the room. I was eliminated first in the first round.
The last one standing becomes the “hero” while the others become ghosts. A quick slideshow of instructions occurs before each round begins explaining that the goal of the game is to reach level 10 (or higher) as a hero and enter the pit, or final room, where, with enough skill, you’ll defeat the boss and effectively win.
Easy on paper but so, so, so much harder when the round begins. Where does this difficulty come from? The friends sitting next to you.
As a hero, you’re simply trying to kill monsters, gain experience, find gold, and buy new weapons, spells and more, all in an effort to prepare yourself for the next room, and the next room, and the next room. Should one of the ghosts defeat you though, they’ll take your place as the hero, leaving you as a ghost.
Eventually, you’ll reach level 10. At this point, you’ve hopefully purchased one of the games many, many weapons, multiple spells and plenty of artifacts to keep your hero stronger than the rest. Of course, you can continue to peruse the rooms found in the dungeon in pursuit of more experience and gold, but after reaching level 10, you’re granted access to a portal that will take you to the final boss.
If you haven’t prepared enough, the fight will be quick and over before you even realize it. Not only is the boss attacking you, but the ghosts you’re playing with are possessing parts of the boss and using them to attack you. A hero can attempt to fight the final boss three times before the round of Crawl is over, which ends with a quick indication that the boss you failed to defeat has now emerged from the dungeon to likely destroy the world.
As a ghost, though, surprisingly enough, things get a lot more interesting. Almost every room the hero enters has something for one of the ghosts to possess. A ghost can possess a barrel, which allows you to aim and shoot it at the hero. A ghost can possess a trap, which they can aim to shoot at the hero, and so much more, such as flamethrowers, spike-tossers and cursed treasure chests. Every so often, the hero will enter a room, meaning the ghosts have also entered the room, with symbols on the ground indicating that a monster can be summoned.
At the beginning of the round, each player picked a character and each of those characters comes with three monsters. When a ghost possesses the symbol on the ground, one of those three monsters is randomly summoned for that player to control. In my time with the game, I played as a wolf with a spear, a skeleton with a bow and arrow, a wizard, a conjurer, a Cthulhu-like Kraken and so much more. Each monster comes with a standard attack move, some ranged and some not, and a special move such as a pounce attack or the ability to conjure up zombies. Every time a hero levels up, each monster gains wrath. Wrath can be used at certain points in the game to level up your monsters. By doing so, they take on new forms with better attacks. I found this form of levelling up particularly unique in that when the hero excels, so too does the hero’s enemies.
Sometimes, you’ll enter a room with enough monster-summoning symbols on the floor for all ghosts to become a monster. Because a hero can’t leave a room until all monsters are killed, the three-versus-one fighting that ensued was not only exciting but chaotic.
Which brings me to one of only two problems I had with this game.
Because of the 8-bit art style and the pure chaos that ensues when three players are attempting to kill one hero, the screen often became a cluttered mess, leaving me to button mash until something happened. Whereas the rest of the game relies on teaming up with your fellow ghosts, possessing numerous traps found throughout each dungeon, and searching for the next monster-summoning symbol on the ground, these cluttered moments left me feeling angry and annoyed.
As the hero, you can’t even really see what’s going on. There are three monsters attacking you while you’re (hopefully) attacking one or all of them. You will not really know what is going on because it is all jumbled in the mess of blood, health bars and muddled 8-bit interactions between the four characters. As a ghost, the strategic fun you’ve been having is lost in that you’re simply hoping to emerge victorious from the brawl by slamming the A button over and over again. You will not know that it over until it is over.
Because I was playing with three friends though, I never grew annoyed by this problem enough to call it quits. Sadly, I cannot say the same about single-player, which brings me to my second problem.
Crawl has no online multiplayer.
If you’re not fortunate enough to have three friends available like I did, and four controllers, you’re simply left to play alone or with A.I. bots. I didn’t notice anything particularly bad about the A.I. but I did notice a severe lack of accomplishment when I defeated an A.I. hero or an A.I. monster. That’s because I wasn’t defeating my friend who would then yell at me in expletives, only fueling my addiction to continue more; I was defeating a something that didn’t really care–a bot.
Had this game come packed with online multiplayer, I might find myself diving into it every day to take on random strangers, whom I can strategize, communicate, congratulate and of course, talk smack with. But, because there is no online multiplayer, I anticipate playing this game only when I’m able to coordinate schedules enough to have three friends present to join me. Because of this, I cannot recommend this game to anyone looking for something to play regularly.
A Steam review copy of Crawl was provided by Powerhoof