Crawl Early Access Preview

I’ve always enjoyed juggernaut-style games – the pressure to survive while you’re “it,” desperately crushing opponents as quickly as possible, and the villainous comradery in ganging up to overwhelm that unanimously hated player. Naturally Powerhoof’s local mulitplayer dungeoneering bloodbath presented itself as a promising way to quench my thirst when it entered Early Access on Steam nearly three years ago. Still in Early Access, the game is already fully functional, polished, and so much fun.

And when I say fun, I don’t mean the kind of mind-numbing rinse-and-repeat kind of fun you’ll get from many other button smashers. Crawl is visceral, tumultuous, hard-to-keep-up-with fun. It evokes an explosive sense of competition and engagement that plays differently every time – and is so dynamic that every single play session, win or lose, is worthwhile.

In Crawl, life is a privilege. While alive, players can gain precious experience by killing monsters; once they have enough, they can challenge the boss for a chance at total victory. This would be easy if not for the other players, whose primary goal is whittling the mortal down in hopes of landing the final blow that grants them humanity. Going through the game’s wonderfully dramatic tutorial (featuring some boilerplate backstory and epic voice-over work) excited me at first, then started to bring concerns about playability to mind. Things like ghost players taking control of scenery, creating and controlling minions, and a player progression system that ties experience to “Wrath” for leveling up monsters… I couldn’t help but think, “How is all this going to happen on one screen?” Then the brilliance of Crawl‘s design began to surface.

As I mentioned, players who aren’t the mortal “juggernaut” exist in a ghost-like state: they don’t collide with the environment and they can’t die. There’s always something for them to do, though, as elements in the environment can be possessed and aimed at the player – things like throwing a chair or spraying flames from a trap. To create a sort of balance and keep the game moving forward, nearly every action on the human’s part affects everyone else. They can just destroy the scenery, for example, to prevent ghosts from possessing it, but this turns it into ectoplasm that lets ghosts spawn little slimes. Slimes are just one of several methods by which ghosts can impede the player from moving forward, as doors remain closed until all enemies are defeated. In this way, ghosts are constantly seeking ways to slow the human down and chip away at their health, and the little hits from objects and traps really add up.

But the core gameplay moments happen in rooms with monster spawners. Ghosts can go to them and be incarnated as a random monster within their set, giving them more of a fair fight against the human and access to a host of powerful abilities. Monsters die easily, but these rooms typically involve at least one human death as well – an intense transferal of a once-powerful player spilling their guts and another rising to humanity in a bright, booming moment that’s all at once sinister and heroic. I play the game for these moments. Once with a bow-wielding centaur I nicked the human from across the room with a killing shot, while everyone else was hacking and slashing away to get it. Since then I’ve been comfortable yelling at the game and everyone playing it for whatever reason I see fit – and it feels good.

Struggle through several dungeons to gain and hold humanity, grab enough experience to reach level 10 with your human, make your way to the portal room without being obliterated, and the true challenge begins. The boss fight entails dodging several types of attacks (from a creature controlled by the other players) while looking for opportunities to stun and damage a massive slime-lord thing, complete with laser beam from the mouth, huge tentacles and a brain encased in glass. Defeating the boss means the whole game – which usually lasts around 30 minutes – is over, so this is where button smashing and real-world fighting get louder and more frequent. It’s here that Crawl is distilled into its purest form: a torrid, treacherous tug-of-war where everyone’s progressing but only one can win.

Powerhoof are working hard to add monsters, items and other varieties to Crawl, but my favorite thing about how they’re developing it is that they’ve put functionality at the forefront of their Early Access experience. The game is already robust, beautiful to look at and features sound design that’s properly arcade-style and brutally violent. For $15, this game is already a steal, and I can’t wait to see it fleshed out to reach its full, gory glory.

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