Review: Crawl


Got me on my hands and knees

This is a review for Crawl. Yes, that Crawl. The one with all the gorgeous pixel art and GIFs you’ve been seeing on Twitter since God knows when. The one you might remember having played a few years ago, maybe with friends, hanging out on some random night. That’s how I remember it, at a New Years party two years ago along with Samurai Gunn and Nidhogg. A dim, distant night that comes back to me as a blur of swords and frantic screams. Even then Crawl was something special.

So, you might be forgiven for thinking Crawl was released a long time ago. However, that doesn’t change the fact that despite being one of the most enjoyable party games to grace the PC since 2014, it’s still been in a pre-release state all these long years. Until now that is.

A definitive, “full release” version of Crawl has finally hit both PC and consoles. The monster has gestated long enough. It has had its fill of blood, it has supped long and hearty on anguish and tossed controllers, and is finally ready to subjugate the world of man under its terrible, burning gaze. Crawl isn’t the great party game you might remember if you played it a few years ago, or even six months ago. It’s better.

Crawl[PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One]Developer: PowerhoofPublisher: PowerhoofReleased: April 11, 2017MSRP: $14.99

The pitch for Crawl has always been fantastic. It’s a multiplayer dungeon-crawler where you and your friends take turns playing as the hero and monsters. I don’t mean in a time trial way, or a pass-the-controller-on-the-left-hand-side kind of way. I mean in the rip-the-hero’s-soul-out-and-become-him kind of way.

The stage for each game of Crawl is set by madness, betrayal, and murder. The narrator, a cantankerous wizard who sounds somewhere between Vincent Price and Jeffrey Combs, says a few words to establish the scene, and then the four human players fall upon each other with knife and club until only one emerges from the bloodbath to wander the dungeon alone.

As the hero, you do typical dungeon-crawler things. You explore rooms, dodge traps, loot gold, and use it buy new equipment, spells, and items. You level up as you defeat monsters, drink strange elixirs, get stronger, etc. Everyone knows the score, we’ve all played Zelda or Diablo, or whatever other action-RPG you care to name.

But what about when you’re not the hero? What if your friend split your skull in that very first room? That’s when you roam the dungeon as a ghost.

Ghosts are non-corporeal, but can still harm the hero. They can possess any random trap and spring it at just the right moment. Or they can haunt some random chair or pot to hurl at him, like any good poltergeist might. Better yet, ghosts can possess summoning sigils found throughout the dungeon and reincarnate as a random monster as predetermined by whatever dark deity you selected at the start of the game. A rattling skeleton, a slimy slug, a sneaky little gnome with an endless supply of bear traps to toss around – whatever gets the job done. Kill the hero, and you get to come back in your own human body.

But, only if you get in the last hit.

This is the heart of Crawl, the loop that has always made it a great game to stay up late yelling at your friends and knocking over drinks with. The constant rotation of temporary teammates as the monsters work together to bring the hero down, the mad scramble of competition and dissolving of the fellowship to get that last hit, and then the fevered hunt/flight of the new human. It worked back when Crawl first hit Early Access and it works now.

Of course, the game has also changed a lot since those early days. The prolonged testing/feedback period has allowed Powerhoof to sand off many of the rough edges and jagged points of the original release. While there are all kinds of complicated nuances to learn, Crawl does an expert job of expressing them clearly and cleanly, letting new players catch on quickly when passing the controllers around.

Clunky systems and annoyances from the earlier versions of the game have been reworked or removed. The problem of a single player snowballing to victory off a strong start is still an issue, but not nearly as bad as it was in early versions. Much of this is due to how strong many of the monsters are and how Wrath, the currency for upgrading your monsters, is now elegantly distributed based on how many XP levels other players earned as a hero on any given floor. This ensures that the person who has played as the hero the least will always have access to the strongest monsters. If one or two players race off to an early lead, that just means they’ll be facing down the worst of the dungeon’s denizens sooner and give the trailing players a chance to catch up.

There is a lot to love about Crawl‘s presentation. It has a charming arcade aesthetic, all gothy B-movie tropes and occasional software glitches. The narrator is consistently entertaining, perfectly straddling the line between cheesy and tongue-in-cheek. The music is always on point and never fails to set the mood. But make no mistake, the monsters are the real treat of the game.

There is an astounding wealth of different creepy crawlies and boogeymen to play as in Crawl, and every single one of them is more charming and endearing than the last. From undead wizards to disgusting fishmen, they all look great. As you spend Wrath and upgrade through the different tiers of beasts, you gain access to terrifying demonic knights, death-ray-spewing beholders, and even giant turkeys – the very epitome of evil.

Each monster has two moves. These are usually some kind of direct attack combined with either a dodge move (slugs will dive into the earth and reappear elsewhere, a bat demon will furiously flap away in retreat) or some kind of obstacle or hazard (pools of acid vomit, litters of rat babies, a wall of flame, you know, demon stuff).

In truth, most of the monsters are wimps on their own. It takes coordination with your (temporary) teammates and creative use of the monsters’ secondary abilities to create a gauntlet of misery that wears players down. It’s more reminiscent of the special zombies of Left 4 Dead than any hack-and-slash.

That said, the balance doesn’t always seem right between monsters. While nobody expects a cast of 60 plus creatures with unique skills to be totally balanced, there are some monsters that are just so powerful and easy to use that they completely overshadow the rest of the options. In the group I was playing with, we quickly identified our favorites and mostly stuck with them. A shame given how imaginative the rest of the monsters are.

Of course, the hero players aren’t powerless. There is an insane variety of weapons and items to find and even the score with. Projectile weapons like the bow and sling can help against some of the most annoying monsters at the cost of raw damage. Spells like floating lasers or cursed blades that poison, chill, or summon giant swords from the sky can also ruin a monster’s day. Again though, some items seem so underpowered compared to others that they are more novelties than anything else.

All of this fighting and fussing leads to the ultimate confrontation. When a hero reaches level 10 or greater, they can activate a sacrificial portal and face the greatest of evils in a bid for their escape. This rarely ends well.

The bosses in Crawl take the form of giant monstrosities that each of the three ghosts pilot Voltron-style. One player will take control of an arm, a head, a tentacle, or a giant unblinking eye and use it to crush, bite, or immolate the challenging human. Survivors who make it out will reap the reward of their tenacity with extra unlocks and accolades. Losers, who have the audacity to challenge the boss three times and still fail, will have their humanity stripped from them to resurrect the Old God and their three-initial name stricken from recorded history.

Unfortunately, the bosses are another area where Crawl‘s struggles to balance all of its disparate parts. Much like the normal room monsters, each boss has a package of skills and moves that are meant to complement each other and lock the human down for a beating. If these moves aren’t used with care, they tend to be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. When fighting an inexperienced team of ghost players or the A.I. placeholders, the bosses tend to go down pathetically easy. However, when used by a team that understands how to use the monster’s skills in concert, the challenger doesn’t have a prayer.

In my group, we went from survivors triumphing as a given at the end of each dungeon, to an eternal reign of evil in the span of just a few matches worth of experience. Unless someone managed to create an incredibly stacked character and was feeling cocky, we ended up playing hot potato with who would actually have to face the boss for the third attempt and almost certainly lose their name/record. This doesn’t feel like an intended or fun kind of behavior to emerge from the game, but it happened.

So far I’ve been discussing the game entirely in the context of multiplayer. This is because Crawl is unquestionably at its best when played with three other humans on the couch (or splayed out on loveseats, futons, or the floor if you happen to have particularly thick carpeting). There is no option for online multiplayer. If the retro pixel styling arcade trappings (complete with faux-ROM check error screens), and NBA Jam style player select/name system didn’t give it away, Crawl is a throwback to classic shoulder-to-shoulder competitive games and is meant to be enjoyed in the old ways: When players made offerings of their quarters for a chance to kill their friends and congregated at altars of plastic and wood, bathed in tacky neon and bad hair metal from the jukebox.

With respect to the long-dead arcade scene out of the way, you can still have a great time with Crawl on your own. The game allows for A.I. players if you’re flying solo (or just want to round out a full match) and they do a competent, if not spectacular, job recreating the experience. There are challenge modes to unlock and complete for every monster, quests (achievements) to undertake, a massive vault of items, spells, and weapons to discover and check off, and Easter Eggs galore to search for. You won’t have as good a time with Crawl on your own as you might have with a group, but there is enough meat to justify a solo dive if you’re curious.

Good things take time. So do you evil things. Works of art take long hours to polish and perfect. Dark beings must slumber in the void for eons before they wake and feed. Crawl spent a long time getting to where it is now, and the results speak for themselves – it’s the best time you’ll have knifing your friends in the dark, betraying all bonds, and desperately trying to escape the clutching tentacles of the abyss.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

[Disclosure: Current Destructoid writer Jed Whitaker and former Destructoid video man Spencer Hayes appear in this game as dark elder gods (which is how I expect Jed usually thinks of himself). As cool as that is, I didn’t allow that info to influence my critique of the game. Crawl is a great game even if it doesn’t include pixel renditions of your co-workers. But since current staff appears, this review is unscored.]