Fighting through the muck of development, challenging and then falling the beast known as “Steam Early Access”, indie dev duo Powerhoof’s crazy multiplayer dungeon-crawling ARPG party brawler video game, Crawl, finally exists in complete form.
April 2017 saw the full release of the game on PC (Windows, Mac and Linux), PlayStation 4 and Xbox, but the game has just recently also thrown its hat into the ever-expanding indie game catalog of the Nintendo Switch eShop.
The descriptors I used for the game might seem a bit excessive, but let me explain. On the surface, Crawl may seem like any other modern room-to-room dungeon-crawling Roguelike with randomly generated dungeons, leveling up etc. which is partially true. What separates it from others of this genre is that it’s also a multiplayer experience in which up to four players (or one human and up to three A.I.s) explore multi-floored dungeons, level by level, while competing against one another.
Only one player can remain a “Hero”, i.e. a living human, while other players control “Specters” that can conjure up and/or control monsters and traps to foil the Hero, in turn turning the Hero into a Specter as well. The Specter to defeat the Hero, in turn, becomes the Hero until any other Specter is able to knock him down and take his place. This goes on until a hero can challenge the dungeon’s boss to either escape or perish doing so.
All the while, during this struggle to gain permanent Hero-status and escape, or for a lack of a better term, win the game, players can level up both their Heroes and Specters/monsters by collecting gold to spend at shops (where one can purchase new weapons, potions, special abilities etc.) and by gaining XP and Wrath Points, tallied at the end of each layer/floor. Wrath Points can be spent to evolve your monsters, making them stronger with unique abilities and traits, though these evolutionary paths are kept intentionally vague.
When trudging through the ruined, dark, dank, underground dungeons in Crawl, not a single moment is wasted in bathing the player with a rich atmosphere; the kind which shares DNA with what makes up the worlds of Lovecraftian horrors and David C. Sutherland III illustrated visions of Dungeons & Dragons.
While these kinds of influences are not unique in modern “dungeon crawling” games- a thematic genre that has made a strong comeback in the genres of Roguelikes and RPGs of all kinds- the adaptations here in Crawl are applied in a simpler, more concise fashion. Perhaps this is a product of limitations on the part of the developers, but the game’s world only benefits from this type of application.
You get the impression of going through a dark fantasy-inspired artist’s notebook of monstrous drawings and perturbed doodles (and I don’t mean “doodles” in a negative way).
This is further emphasized (or un-emphasized) but the very crude, almost featureless, cartoon-ish, retro game pixilation art style. Limits, when dealt with positively, often expand the possibilities of the audience’s imagination—a sort of fascination with what you don’t see, the unknown, beyond the boundaries of what is visible to you. Thematically fitting for a Lovecraftian horror.
But, because of the reference material, don’t assume it’s all serious and brooding; Crawl doesn’t take itself all that seriously, and almost every element of horror within the game has an underlying vein of humor running through it. It’s a good balance between the two that gives Crawl its own personality. Perhaps, otherwise, a cameo from Gabe Newell wouldn’t have been all that fitting.
All these visual elements are supported by an amazing attention to sound design. Tromping monsters making thunderous stomping noises, crunchy attacks with spiked clubs and swords, roaring beasts and satisfying item collect sounds—all that you need from a game such as this, it’s all there, but sounding very home-made and crude, just like the visual design. And here too, it only enhances the feel of the game.
It would be remiss to not mention, however, the powerfully madman-ish voice acting of the game’s narrator, whose voice creeps in to provide rambling scenario backstories in the beginning of each dungeon session. I’ve read a lot of comments on YouTube and the like talking about how someone bought the game based solely on the narrator’s voice in a trailer. (I don’t doubt it– it’s pretty intense and awesome!)
But, does all this A/V finesse translate over to Crawl‘s gameplay?
Crawl’s gameplay, as in how it handles, is also very simple and straight-forward. There isn’t all that great of a learning curve, and anyone familiar with how a video game generally works can join in the merriment.
Since the monsters that Specters can conjure up are randomized, just like the rooms in the dungeon itself, and there is a lot of experimentation that can be done in figuring out how to best evolve a monster, plus the items you purchase to upgrade your Hero are randomly made available, there is a giant “chance” aspect of the game which makes it a better party game than something more serious. Both experienced and less-experienced players can partake here, side by side, without one player having too much of an advantage.
Because of this, playing with other living humans is when Crawl will probably shine the brightest for most people.
The computer A.I. players are pretty smart, but just like playing something like, say, Mario Party, it’s the wildest and most enjoyable when you’re competing against another human mind.
Having said that, Crawl could’ve perhaps greatly benefited from an online mode, where you can play either your friends or complete strangers. I’m not typically one to push for online interactivity where it’s not needed, but I personally feel that the game’s potential is untapped from a lack of it.
Powerhoof have stated that they have looked into the possible prospect of an online mode but scrapped the idea, being a small time with limited resources. Perhaps this is the only aspect of the game that suffers as a result of the team’s limitations.
Along with even more varied dungeons, a lot more monsters and whatnot, online mode is something that I wish for in a sequel to Crawl (hopefully titled Crawling – don’t let me down, guys).
The lack of these items at present, however, is not something that I hold against Crawl, because I find it to be a sweet little package as it is. My wanting of these additional features is an indication of its success. It leaves me wanting more because it’s fun.