It seems that lately, local multiplayer games have been making a comeback. Not many people remember what it’s like to crowd around a television with your best friends in a stuffy room on a hot summer night. Recent indie hits like Nidhogg and Towerfall Ascension seem to be leading the resurgence of the beloved genre of games. Now, comes Crawl, an 8-bit dungeon crawler by indie developer Powerhoof.
Crawl is a very interesting game. Anyone who has played Nidhogg or Towerfall Ascension can describe either of the two games to friends as a competitive couch multiplayer game. But Crawl? It’s not just competitive, it’s also cooperative. Now, I know what you might be thinking. Big titles like Halo have competitive multiplayer as well as cooperative multiplayer, what makes this game so special? Unlike most games which have a competitive multiplayer mode and then a separate “horde” mode meant to be played cooperatively with friends, Crawl mixes competitive and cooperative gameplay in one mode. And that’s all there really is to this game, just one mode. So how does it work?
Crawl can be played with up to three other friends, or bots if you prefer. When you start the game, one random player is chosen to be the Human. The other three? Well, they start off as Spirits. You begin in a dungeon, with no mini-map to guide you. Sometimes there are two doors to proceed through, sometimes there is only one. Each dungeon is randomized, although they all contain a portal, a shop, and an exit.
Your goal as the Human is to make it through the dungeons, leveling up and buying stronger weapons, ultimately reaching level 10 so that you can activate the portal and take a shot at the final boss. The way to level up is to defeat the Spirits when they take on physical forms. Before the game starts, you choose a deity to worship, and based on that deity, you have three different forms you can take whenever the Human enters a room with seals on the floor. As a Spirit, you float over to a seal, press the action button, and take on one of the three forms your deity offers.
That takes care of leveling up, but how do you gain money to buy stronger weapons and items? There are a few chests in the dungeons that contain gold, but the main way you’ll make bank in this game is by inflicting damage as a Spirit. Whenever you start a 3v1 battle in one of the Seal rooms, you gain a blood point every time you inflict damage on the Human. The more damage you do, the more blood you’ve collected. Not only that, but there are also rooms that have traps in them, which can be controlled by a spirit. If you can land a hit on the Human using one of these traps, you get blood for that as well.
But wait, how does that turn into money…? Up until now, it seems like the Human gets the competitive side of the game, trying to defeat the three other players and reach level 10 to defeat the last boss, whereas the three Spirits get the cooperative side of the game, working together to take the Human down. This is where Crawl keeps things really interesting. Whichever Spirit manages to land the last hit on the Human and kill him becomes the next Human. Once you become a Human, find the shop, and convert the blood you obtained from your time as a Spirit into gold, and go on a shopping spree.
This game is not about how can you reach the objective first, but more of how can you completely screw your friends over so they can’t get to it before you. That may not sound any different, but it certainly creates a different type of mentality.
Another thing that I know came to my mind when I first heard about Crawl was how balancing worked. A 3v1 battle doesn’t seem very fair, with either the Human being overpowered and just taking out the Spirits one by one in their physical forms, or with the Spirits just overwhelming the Human.
Balancing on the side of the Human is taken care of with the ability to buy stronger weapons and items. On the side of the Spirits however, this is taken care of with the ability to level up the physical forms you can take. I mentioned earlier that each dungeon has an exit. The exits are there for various reasons. Early game, no one will be at level 10, so there has to be a way to continue forward once the dungeon has been completely explored and its rooms exhausted. Late game, someone may try to activate the portal and defeat the boss, only to fail. From there they can’t activate the portal again, so they will have to go to the exit to proceed to a new dungeon.
Once the Human leaves the dungeon, the round ends. At the end of the round, “vitae” is awarded to the players, based on how the other players did. So let’s say, for example, that Jim, Jen, Bob, and Ben are playing Crawl. After the first round, Jim has reached level 5 as a human and Jen reached level 6, whereas Bob and Ben were left in the dust and weren’t able to level up as humans. Bob and Ben will both obtain vitae for the five levels that Jim went up as well as the six that Jen went up. That’ll turn into quite a bit of vitae. Jim will only receive vitae for the six levels that Jen went up, and nothing for the five he went up. Since Bob and Ben didn’t level up, Jim gets no vitae for them either. Same principle applies to Jen.
That leaves Bob and Ben with equal amounts of vitae, Jim with a considerable amount less than the previous two, and Jen with the least amount of vitae. What is this vitae used for? Think of it as gold that you use to level up your physical forms. The more vitae you have, the more you can level up, and the stronger your physical forms can get, providing the Spirits with a good handicap against the Human.
Now it’s time for the boss. Once a Human reaches level 10 and activates the portal, they get to fight the final boss. The Spirits don’t get to take on physical forms, but they do take over a different body part of the final boss, essentially making this battle one person against a puppet controlled by their best friends. If the Human wins, games over, and they’re the winner. If the Human loses, he is transported back to the dungeon with minimal health, left to find the exit.
So if you’re still with me, after taking all this information in, you might be wondering just how long these matches might last. The answer is somewhere around 30 minutes. The reason for this is because there is a limit on how many times the final boss can be challenged, and that limit is three. After the third time the portal is activated, it becomes destroyed, and your encounter with the final boss determines the outcome of the game. Again, if the Human wins, they win the game. But this time, if they lose…well, then the game ends and no one really wins. The Human who lost to the boss the third time becomes “consumed” and automatically comes in 4th place. After that, the other three players get ranked based on how much experience they accumulated throughout the course of the game.
For this reason, each match comes out to 30 minutes, more or less. Either a Human beats the boss, or all three tries are exhausted.
Last issue: replay value. Is this a one and done game, or something you can play for hours on end without being bored? The addicting gameplay itself is alone to make you want to play with game with your friends through the night and up until the break of dawn. Aside from that though, the more you play, the more things you unlock. Weapons to use, deities to worship, physical forms to take, items to use, traps to command.
So what’s the final take on this game? Crawl is a fast-paced, addicting local multiplayer game with both competitive and cooperative elements mixed into one. The 8-bit graphics are on point, and the music that plays is suspenseful and creepy. The goal of the game is climb to the top will kicking everyone else down, and it’s something that does not get old.
Crawl is an early access game, meaning it is in still in development. For this reason, I did not focus too much on what I feel are the only shortcomings of this game, which would be the limited number of deities and single boss. Powerhoof has stated that as the game progresses and gets closer to its final build sometime in early 2015, more content will be added. This includes “more monsters, deities, bosses, weapons, items, traps, environments, things to do, and secrets to discover.”
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