As PC gaming is on the rise, and consoles move further away from the couch multiplayer experience, games like Crawl are few and far between. At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking Crawl is just another title in the long list of indie dungeon crawlers found all across Steam lately. Love it or hate it, the dungeon crawling formula has paved the way for indie developers to take a crack at their own iterations of the genre. Crawl is one of the more refreshing new ideas out there. Crawl’s focus is on same screen multiplayer, and from the second you play it you’ll find that it nails all of the essential elements of that gaming experience.
My gaming journey began with these kinds of games. Couch multiplayer games that created perfect moments of humour, tension and competitiveness between friends. Everyone remembers getting pissed off at your friend for hitting you with a blue shell, or the elation of pipping them to the finish line in Mario Kart. Nintendo has remained a champion of couch multiplayer, but other consoles have taken to online gaming as their focus.
There is something unique about the couch multiplayer experience that you just don’t get when playing online. It’s a good humoured competitiveness and connection you can only really get when you’re side by side with your friends.
Crawl‘s pixelated dungeons pit you against your friends in an asymmetric experience similar to Evolve, but in reverse. One of you plays an adventurer looking to regain their humanity, while the remaining three players take control of the dungeon’s monsters and traps. Kill the adventurer as a monster or trap and you become the adventurer. This only lasts until your so called ‘friends’ take you down in turn, or you manage to reach level 10 and beat the final dungeon boss. You’ll find yourself switching between human and monster repeatedly in a desperate struggle between your friends to see which one of you can find salvation from the depths of Crawl’s dungeons.
It’s a simple, but unique concept. However, it’s not just this idea that makes Crawl a good game, it’s the little details that drive the experience. The music packs a brilliant atmospheric retro punch that will have you feeling like you’re playing in an arcade. Playing through the opening tutorial you’re given a sense of this desperate malice that motivates your character to escape the dungeon. This is largely down to some fantastically satisfyingly sinister voice acting. Retro visuals are commonplace now in game like this, however there’s nothing negative to be said for their execution of this style. and all this helps to tell that old school multiplayer tale.
The multiplayer is very clearly the focus, and while CPU AI is pretty good, the game only really truly shines in all of its bloody monster whackin’ glory when played with friends. This does limit the playability of the game to those times you have some friends over. Or perhaps some younger siblings will do, or maybe even your own kids if you’re feeling particularly malicious. Maybe this is why the local multiplayer experience is fading, it requires face to face interaction with other human beings, which to many is probably scarier than crawling through these dungeons for real.
If you do have a group to play with however, Crawl digs deep into that spiteful part of everyone’s psyche, and it’s undeniably fun. The simple stick and two button control scheme makes the game easily accessible, while the variety loot, monsters, and bosses make no two games the same. It’s a scramble to be the first to reach level 10 and defeat the boss. It’s not a particularly fair scramble either. Kill stealing is completely encouraged, getting the best items can be luck, and even the monsters you spawn are randomly chosen from a pool. However, with a little skill in the right places you can turn the tide against your friends. Even when you feel like there’s no possible way you can win, you can still do all that you can to stop your friends from winning. If your friend manages to be the one to find his way to the boss, you still get your chance to play as the boss and stop them from winning. Spiteful doesn’t really cover it, but so long as it’s all in good humour you should still come out of the experience as friends.
There are plenty of unlockables to extend the game’s lifespan, and you might find yourself playing just to unlock the next playable monster or cool new weapon. Your monster set is decided by which monstrous god you worship, and using ‘wrath points’ you can unlock new and stronger evolutions for these monsters. Wrath is gained whenever your friends level up and is a neat way of keeping the balance. Of course levelling has its benefits too, increasing your health as a human and if you’re levelling up, you’re probably collecting stronger loot along the way. There’s this fun back and forth and you and your friends scramble to be the one to finally beat the dungeon’s boss, levelling up both your human character and your monsters along the way.
If you’re alone however, Crawl could feel rather dry. The fun is in beating your friends, and the AI just isn’t the same. While it’s a fun game, it’s longevity comes from the local multiplayer experience and it would be wrong to recommend it to anyone as a single player experience.
Crawl is everything you could want from a local multiplayer game in a time where the genre is looking all but abandoned. It inspires a brilliant spiteful brawl and has the variety to keep you playing over and over again. It is however a purely multiplayer experience and not much more. Get it for the multiplayer, get some friends around, and you won’t be disappointed.