One player is a human adventurer, and the others control the bad guys. When the human dies, the player who scored the kill takes over. This multiplayer competition adds a whole new dynamic to the dungeon crawling experience.
Although Crawl is a local multiplayer-focused game, it also supports single-player and begins with a solo tutorial. An extended version of the introduction plays during the tutorial, but every game begins with a short one (brief but annoyingly unskippable), as well. Both are creepily narrated by Adrian Vaughan, who establishes a dark mood for things to come.
In short, a party of adventurers has delved into a dungeon and performed some arcane ritual. This drives them temporarily mad, H.P. Lovecraft-style. Whether you have two, three, or four players or bots, all of you fight to the death during this first scene. Only one player can make it out alive, after which he soon regains his sanity and begins to search for a way out of the dungeon.
Human versus ghosts
Crawl features a simplistic two-button control scheme in which the human player can run in any direction, attack, or perform a special move. Those simple controls add to the classic arcade style the developers are going for, although Crawl doesn't play especially like any arcade games I've come across. The two-button scheme also helps prevent confusion when you become a ghost.
All of the players or bots who died at the hero's hands exist as ghosts who can fly anywhere on the screen. Their goal is simple: to kill the human and take his place in the land of the living. Whoever delivers the final blow swaps places with the human, who then becomes a ghost himself. This creates a dynamic in which everyone wants to make it out alive, but only one person can. So everyone gangs up on the living player, acting as the enemies in the adventure.
Ghosts can't directly attack, but they can possess objects and fling them Poltergeist-style or activate blade, spike, and fire traps. They can also activate pentagrams found on the floor of some rooms and spawn as a random enemy from the pool of three associated with their deity of choice. As a monster, you have a regular attack and a special move, not unlike the human player.
Monsters start out weak and are relatively easy to kill, but they can be leveled up. Between floors, all players get to spend a resource called Wrath (collectable only by ghosts) to level up their monsters or change them into new, more powerful species like goatmen and beholders. Thus, the creatures the living players face become deadlier with each floor.
The human player grows too, of course. Experience from killing monsters levels you up, raising your vitality, strength, and agility stats. The hero can also visit shops and buy new relics (which give various bonuses like causing pentagrams to heal you), weapons (swords, staves and bows), spells that replace the default roll ability, and potions that boost stats.
Besting the boss
The goal during all this is to reach the portal to the boss. A boss portal appears somewhere on every floor, but it can only be entered by a living player at experience level 10 or higher. During everyone's time as the living player, you're all trying to level up enough to get into that portal. You could wait and level up beyond 10 to get better stats for the boss fight, but you risk dying and allowing a competing player to level up and enter instead.
The boss you face will be one of three possible beasts, such as a gigantic three-headed dragon or a grotesque horror with limbs growing from the ground. These fights are thrilling but not without a learning curve for the human player. The ghost players control parts of the boss monster, of course.
If the hero dies during the fight, he'll return to the dungeon and have to wait until the next floor to find a portal and try again. The team only gets three total tries at a boss. Should nobody succeed after the third attempt, the game ends with the resurrection of the old god, its vengeance unleashed upon the land. So don't lose, OK?
Each time somebody manages to beat the game, you'll unlock new items, deities (you chose one to provide bonuses at the start of the game), or challenges that will make future runs more interesting or challenging.
Crawl has a menu option called The Vault that lists all of the monsters, weapons, items and objects the player has encountered or unlocked so far. Every monster in the game has a unique playable challenge, for 61 in total.
These single-player challenges act as training, allowing you to practice playing with the monster of your choice. The goal in each one is to kill a certain number of adventurers. The AI-controlled humans spawn with increasingly better equipment, so it will take some skill and practice to reach the target number of kills. Naturally, there are Achievements for beating a few specific challenges and one for beating them all.
The Xbox One version of Crawl features 45 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. That's a lot of Achievements — probably more than a relatively short game like this needs. One run through Crawl only takes 15 to 30 minutes. But with this treasure chest full of goals, Achievement hunters are going to have to complete a lot of runs to get them the full Gamerscore payout.
Some of the goals are cumulative and will come over time, such as respawning as a human 100 times, spending 10,000 gold, and killing a thousand monsters. But numerous Achievements involve beating the game on Hard in a certain way, taunting each deity (which gets you debuffs) and beating the game, and other challenging goals. Some will be too tough for average players, so be warned.
Overall impressions of Crawl for Xbox One
Crawl is clever little game from two-man indie studio Powerhoof. Playing through an adventure with friends while constantly competing against them is much more frantic and wild than your average co-op action-RPG experience. The feeling of elation that comes with scoring the final hit on a human and returning to life just can't be beat.
While Crawl is a very good local multiplayer game, the single-player experience doesn't quite measure up. You can play against one to three bots (the fewer bots, the easier) and select the difficulty of the bots. Competing against ghost bots is fun for a while, but given the short nature of each run, repetition sets in eventually. You should consider Crawl a maybe if you mostly play by yourself, but it's a must-buy if you have friends or family to bring along on your crawls.
Crawl is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam. It costs $14.99.
- Play as both the good and bad guy during every adventure.
- Killing friends and taking their place is sadistically amusing.
- Great Lovecraftian pixel art atmosphere.
- Repetitive as a single-player game.
- Would really benefit from online multiplayer.
Xbox One review code provided by the publisher.