The second coming of local multiplayer seems to be upon us, and Crawl is but one of many independent games attempting to fill the gap that AAA development has left behind in its apparent abandonment of couch co-op. As dozens of hopefuls have appeared on Steam over the last few years, a handful of fantastic games like Gang Beasts, Towerfall: Ascension, and last year’s Overcooked have stood head and shoulders above the rest. After a somewhat slow development and nearly three years in Early Access, I’m very pleased to report that Crawl joins their ranks as one of the very best games to play in the same room as your buddies—though not without some minor caveats.
For a game with such a simple title, Crawl is a real mouthful to describe. To call it an isometric dungeon crawler/beat-em-up with roguelike elements and asymmetric multiplayer is somewhat accurate, but also utterly useless to anyone who has not already played it, so I’ll save you the headache and put it this way: it’s not quite like anything else. Each round of Crawl begins the same way: 2-4 players awaken in a dungeon and fight to the death. The last player standing begins the game as a human, and the rest begin as ghosts. From there, the hero must race to level up by killing monsters and collect gold to buy items, becoming strong enough to defeat the final boss. The ghosts, meanwhile, can possess monsters, traps, and items to harm the hero, until someone finally lands a killing blow and trades places with the hero. It’s frenetic, fun, and has a surprising amount of depth that only increases as you continue to play.
It’s this depth that really makes Crawl stand out from the rest of the couch co-op crowd, though it comes with some pros and cons. For a game with such a relatively complicated ruleset, it’s impressively easy to pick up and play, but beyond the simple controls and aesthetic is some unexpectedly involved game design. Players are constantly asked to make decisions about which of their character’s stats to improve, which buffs and debuffs to accrue, and which items to purchase. Monsters also get to make choices, in the form of evolutions: each time an opposing hero levels up, ghost players gain a currency called wrath that can be spent at the end of each floor to improve their monsters. Dozens of evolutions are possible and each has its own unique strengths/weaknesses, so it can take some time to determine what your preferred upgrade path is. Monster upgrades are also a key balancing tool, as players who have spent the most time as ghosts will also earn the strongest monsters first, greatly increasing their chances of killing the hero and getting some time in their shoes. To keep experienced players on their toes, Crawl also regularly introduces new weapons, traps, perks, and monsters as rewards for completing a match, so even if you settle on a strategy you like, you may find something you enjoy even more in a game or two. The result is a constant (and quite enjoyable) tug of war, where nobody’s dominance (in a balanced match—more on that later) is ever assured and tables constantly turn.
Crawl also keeps things interesting with some absolutely lovely art and animation work. The retro throwback look has been done to death at this point, but Crawl somehow manages to breathe new life into it with smooth, stylish action and detailed enemy design. It doesn’t quite outdo the likes of Hotline Miami, but it’s distinctive nonetheless and I often found myself marveling at how various abilities and creatures looked when I probably should’ve been focused on defending myself.
For better or worse, a side effect of Crawl’s aforementioned complexity and back-and-forth dynamic is that rounds also have a tendency to stretch beyond the 45 minute mark. It’s this aspect of Crawl that I fear will hurt its long-term appeal, as it severely limits the situations it can be played in. Without any online modes, the only real situation to play Crawl as intended involves inviting three friends over for the sole purpose of playing it (something I did multiple times for the purpose of this review). Sure, you can always opt to play with AI instead of real humans, but most of the fun comes from competing with and/or screwing over your friends, so rolling solo is a vastly inferior experience. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Crawl’s length is inherently negative, or that all local multiplayer games ought to be designed around short sessions; simply that in Crawl’s case, the lack of any shorter modes or online options makes it a slightly harder sell than, say, Towerfall.
It’s also a difficult game—or at least moreso than most others designed around local play. Crawl feels like it’s aimed squarely at gamers in a way that most of its competition is not, which can lead to some pretty one-sided games when you get a group of players with different backgrounds together. The final boss fights are also a serious challenge, even if you consider yourself a seasoned player. Of the three bosses in the game, one in particular (a large tentacled bloke named Kourok) has proven particularly difficult, to the point where I have yet to see him successfully beaten in a full 4-man game (if nobody can get the boss in three tries, the game ends). I’m sure it’s possible, but the balance seems a little off and so fighting that particular boss led to some pretty anticlimactic finishes for my groups.
At the end of the day, Crawl is a fantastic game to play with the right friends. It’s surprisingly deep, has loads of replay value, and looks great doing it. While the considerable length and difficulty don’t exactly make it a great game to break out at parties, if you can get two or three other people together in a room for an hour, there’s nothing else quite like it. It’s fast, cutthroat, and just as fun to win as it is to lose, with interesting things for both monsters and heroes to do at all times. It’s a shame there isn’t an online mode available to make actually playing the game a bit easier to do, because as far as asymmetric multiplayer games are concerned, Crawl now wears the crown.