It’s been a very long time since I played a good local multiplayer game for PC. In fact, the very notion of it still feels peculiar to me. It’s a style of play we frequently see on consoles with games like Borderlands, Gears of War, and Smash Bros., and it’s been proven time and time again that it can work on PC, yet developers seem to avoid it. Not so for Crawl, formerly made for an indie game jam by two-man studio Powerhoof. I unfortunately wasn’t able to gather a group of friends in time for this preview, but that actually led to my most impressive discovery — Powerhoof’s pulled off the unthinkable, and made a local multiplayer game that even works you don’t have friends around.
Crawl is a one to four person competitive dungeon crawler. Imagine Gauntlet, but where only one person plays the hero. Every other player instead controls a monster or trap, trying to kill the player in order to become the protagonist. Again and again, cross numerous dungeon levels, upgrades, and unlocks, until you finally attain the level of ten, the minimum necessary to take on the final boss fight (the current maximum level is fourteen). Then you go on to take the vicious beast you see above this paragraph. The monster is simultaneously controlled by all opposing players, so even in the climax, it’s still an all out brawl. If you defeat your fellow players, then victory is yours and you have saved the land. Fail… and you’re sent round again, but if you fail two more times, the world ends and the monster is unleashed. Also whoever fails the third time, has their spirit lost for all eternity at the bottom of the game’s leaderboard.
This can all happen over the span of about say, twenty to thirty minutes. I ran a couple of runs in the time it takes most games to get past their first chapter, yet it was all quite fulfilling. You might not ever have a marathon session of Crawl, but it’s something I see being played every week for a game or two at least. That alone is an feat of design on Powerhoof’s part, but what actually surprised me as the most impressive feat is simply how good the AI is. It behaves like a human player. It runs back and forth like it hasn’t memorized the layouts times, it double-checks rooms for hidden items, it sticks to a consistent behavior and playstyle, it makes choices with its upgrades, and it just feels authentic. If you had told me I was playing online with other people, I would have believed you. I mean… really it just worked! I cannot emphasize how cool that was all on its own. I’ve been waiting for this kind of botmode in offline multiplayer for years.
There’s very little to complain about, even though the game is still fresh on Steam Early Access. All content currently included is solid. The art is great, it’s got a retro feel to it. The menu screen even behaves like a glitchy old arcade machine, and it shows a Demo Mode, and it just feels like you’re holding the old ball joysticks and ready to hit that singular button, pounding away at it in combat. The sound design is equally stellar, with a top-notch soundtrack. Really, I only have one problem with the game other than the need for more variety in assets for levels and monster selection. The biggest issue is that upgrading your monsters makes no sense. There is no logic behind having me upgrade a from my ranged skeleton monster into a melee focused dark knight. You can’t see what comes ahead after your next upgrade, so you have to play through the various monster progressions to actually know what you’ll get. The lack of text just leaves you in the dark as to what you’re really building towards, and I hope Powerhoof at least provides maybe an optional in-game guidebook to the various classes for new players.
Online play is something I would expect at some point, but currently, even if you don’t like multiplayer games, you can get something out of Crawl. It’s a solid little title, and while it’s so simple, it’s equally deep and complex. It’s like a rapid speed version of Dark Souls’ Invasions, mixed with the best retro brawler ideas. Normally I’d have more to say but… that’s about all I can say about it. It’s just that good. Really, it’s refreshing after a number of less than stellar games I’ve had to play, that I got to finally play Crawl. Even if you’re not the type to buy into Early Access, at least keep your eyes on this one. Powerhoof’s got more charm and talent in one little package than some AAA studios have put into half-decade long developed projects.
This preview was conducted with an Early Access code provided by the developer.