Crawl Review

By Cindy Minguez,
"Humanity Regained!" Those are the magic words you're waiting for in Crawl, a new title from Powerhoof that puts a whole new spin on dungeon crawling. Among the slew of retro indie titles we've had, can Crawl hold its own?

crawl1An arcade touch

Crawl is a retro pixelated game that starts in a dungeon's depths. You and your friends have spent 19 nights in the bowels of the earth when a madness possesses your entire party, sending you into a frenzy that will allow only one survivor. To win the game, the survivor must reach at least Level 10 in order to teleport to a boss fight. Win or lose, once the boss fight is over, so is the game. Pretty simple, right? But there's a twist. Remember the friends that died at the beginning? They're determined to return the favor. In Crawl, those who don't survive that first fight transform into ghosts with a single goal in mind — to take back the only body still available to them. Yes, friend, that would be yours.

This central mechanic differentiates this game from the typical dungeon crawler. With two to four co-op players, only one can control the living body at a time. Ghosts can take over inanimate objects with which to attack, anything from a treasure chest to a statue. The ghosts then take the forms of random monsters whenever they step onto a pentagram and battle the hero. If the hero goes down, the ghost that landed the killing blow gets the body — "Humanity Regained!" — and the hero becomes a ghost, so it's a continual fight to take back the body because only the owner of the body can face the boss and escape to live. Ghosts also control parts of the boss (certain limbs, for example) and work to prevent the hero's victory.

The game can be played single-player with AI or in local co-op. If playing against AI Bots, you can choose Easy, Medium, or Hard, deciding yourself how much challenge you'd like. Gameplay is simple with only two basic commands: A to attack and B for special attack. Aiming for both is done with the left stick. Weapons, spells, familiars, and potions can all be purchased from the shop in the dungeon. Artifacts and familiars stack and work automatically, potions permanently affect stats, and spells can be purchased as special attacks. Only the hero can use a shop.

crawl4Up to four can play.

Ghosts pick up ectoplasm with which they can drop jelly-type monsters while they wait for a pentagram that will let them take physical form as a monster. Which monsters you can use are determined by the deity with whom you align yourself at the beginning of the game. Your deity will also give you a beginning bonus. Heroes collect XP to gain levels; ghosts collect Wrath, which can be used to strengthen their monsters, so the ghosts keep pace with the hero doing whatever they can to stop him from getting to the boss.

The game calls itself an action RPG, but since a game averages maybe half an hour, it doesn't really feel like an RPG. It's more similar to the arcade reference it starts with in this sense. Once you get a grip on the different aspects of the game, it's not that hard to keep up, but the learning curve is steeper than one would expect for a game with such a simple mechanic. It may just be the player finding him or herself overwhelmed when first picking up the game. Unless you change it, the game will default to playing against three bots. This can create so much activity that it's hard to know what's going on. Ownership of the body can switch so quickly that, at times, you're not sure whether you're the hero or a ghost. That aspect of the game is rather off-putting and newbies would probably get a better grip early on by setting up against a single bot.

Everything about the game is randomly generated — the dungeons, which monsters show up, which boss you encounter, and what's for sale in the shop — which helps to keep things interesting. The choices are rather limited when you begin, but each game completed, win or lose, unlocks four things (also randomly chosen) such as deities, monsters and monster upgrades, weapons, dungeon furnishings, etc. Each of these unlocks will show up in The Vault, where you can check to see how many unlockables are left. The Vault is also where you find Challenges. Each new monster unlocked can be chosen as a challenge. Instead of fighting the monster, however, you fight AS the monster, starting at the monster's lowest level and fighting increasingly better-equipped heroes as your monster levels up.

crawl3The Vault awaits.

The game also gives a slight advantage to the AI. Inevitably, the bot takes over the hero right before visiting the shop for the first time, allowing the bot to pick up the best weapon, which is beyond annoying. The AI will also race you to the boss and it always loses because it hits that fight before it's ready. Since you only get three shots at the boss before it's Game Over, it's frustrating when the AI uses up all your chances. This is part of the challenge in that you need better levels and equipment to beat the boss, but if you wait too long to try it, the bots see to it that you won't get the chance.

One can see the AI's slight edge even in little ways. You can search items for gold and experience and when the AI is the hero, it always finds something and that something is always good. When the player searches, half the time they find nothing and when they do find something, probably a quarter of the time it's bad, such as finding something rotten that sets them directly to vomiting. This wouldn't be a problem when playing in co-op, but for those of us who tend to play more single-player, this is a definite annoyance.

Crawl imagesThe boss is your final obstacle.

The achievements of the game offer quite a varied challenge. Some are cumulative, such as spending x amount of money or killing x number of monsters. Several involve The Vault, both unlocking items and completing challenges. Challenges are multi-level affairs, so getting them all will be time-consuming. Others involve beating certain enemies in certain ways, such as killing a giant with a pebble. Eight achievements require you to taunt different gods (in which case, it will curse you rather than bless you, forcing you to play with a handicap) and win against three hard bots. Still others require you to beat a boss under certain parameters, such as beating a boss while nauseated or hitting Kourok's brain with bombs. Having a boosting buddy would help with some of these, such as getting through the game without dying, but lots of them are all on you. Completing the game's achievements will take both time and skill.

Summary

Crawl is a fun co-op dungeon crawler that sets the hero against his ghostly former friends as they race to make it out of the dungeon alive. Its innovative game mechanic keeps heroes and monsters at much the same level throughout, so the hero has to stay on his toes as he and the ghosts fight it out for control of the one remaining body in the dungeon. With the procedurally-generated nature of the title, players needn't fear getting bored with the same old dungeons and enemies each time, and fighting one's way through epic co-op battles will be a good time with friends. The game suffers in single-player, however, by giving an obvious edge to the AI and being overwhelming for those just starting the game. The achievements will offer a challenge to even hardcore gamers in both the range of different types of achievements as well as the difficulty of several of them. Fans will find plenty to keep them busy.
7 / 10
Crawl
Positives
  • New take on old genre
  • Fun co-op
  • Plenty of challenging achievements
Negatives
  • Steep learning curve
  • Bots given an edge in single-player
Ethics
The reviewer spent about 8 hours trying to regain the body and earned 7 of the game's 45 achievements along the way. An Xbox One download code was provided by the ID@Xbox team for the purpose of this review.
Cindy Minguez
Written by Cindy Minguez
Cindy has been writing for TA/TT for three years now and is the Assistant Manager of the Newshounds at TrueTrophies. She's an English instructor at a small college and considered a remarkably cool teacher for knowing all about Mass Effect, Skyrim, and Diablo III.