Be the Hero or Kill Them in Crawl

Local multiplayer is back, at least according to many of the indie titles that have cropped up on Steam recently. The latest on the block is Crawl, which pits up to four players against each other in an unusual action RPG. Yes, it’s currently in Early Access, but don’t let that dissuade you. Unlike some unfortunate examples, this game is fun right out of the gate. Powerhoof needs to work on some things before launch, but Crawl gets a lot right.

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Crawl takes an ingenious concept and runs with it. This is a dungeon crawler where all the enemies were controlled by your friends. One player assumes the role of a hero, who collects gold and weapons in an effort to reach the exit of every stage. Everyone else is against said hero, and must attempt to kill them whenever possible. Most of the time, enemy players are harmless ghosts, but once they find a spot to summon themselves things get messy.

Enemies can be summoned at pentagram symbols or throw their spirit into a trap. Traps offer players another shot at hero-killing but are firmly rooted to the ground. The summoning technique turns them into one of three enemy types, each with their own skills. From there they simply attempt to beat the daylights out of their friend. If successful, the player who lands the killing blow gets a shot at playing hero. Otherwise they end up bolstering the hero with XP. Monsters can also gain Vitae, which is used to evolve into more powerful forms. So far there aren’t a lot of evolutions, but branching paths let players choose between different attack styles (long range, close combat, etc).

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What makes Crawl so immediately engaging is the general simplicity of play. You’re either a hero or a monster, and it’s kill or be killed. Each stage is relatively small but offers both sides plenty of opportunities for murder. Once a stage ends it’s time to level up and forge ahead. The pace only changes once a hero makes it to the boss. At this point, every enemy player controls a portion of the boss (eye or tentacles) on a pointed mission against one poor hero. These three-on-one fights are incredibly tough for the hero (as bosses should be) and exciting for everyone involved.

The biggest issue thus far is that not every moment is involving for each person in a four person team. For example, there are many rooms that have no summoning circles. This gives heroes a much needed break, but also can become dull for other players. This issue is compounded if the hero purposefully avoids summoning rooms for as long as possible to “troll” everyone else. Hopefully Powerhoof can find ways to increase interactivity for enemy players. Of course, this might screw up the balance between heroes and enemies, but there’s no better time to tweak these things than in beta.

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Although Crawl is designed for multiple players, it is possible (and dangerous) to go alone. This is probably the least effective means of enjoying the game, as the bots you fight have no real intelligence. They do things that make no sense, aren’t particularly skilled combatants at low difficulties, and become far too much to handle on higher ones. The worst part about playing alone is that you can’t gloat or enjoy the moment with anyone else. Unfortunately, there’s no online play. Powerhoof is considering it, but hasn’t made any promises

Part of Crawl’s entertainment value comes from being totally different from any other multiplayer experience. The pace is quick, the gameplay is easy to pick up, and it provides a lot of satisfying ways to mess with your friends. It should keep you all glued to the couch for a while – though it would be nice to play it across the web. Even if that doesn’t happen, Crawl is quickly becoming a fantastic party game.