Dungeon Crawler. You’ve heard the term before. Dungeons are a popular fantasy genre trope and where there’s dungeons, they’re bound to be crawling with monsters and baddies. Movies, TV shows, and especially games have done a lot with the concept, with popular franchises like Zelda, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones all featuring them. So how does Crawl have a chance to stand out amongst the crowd and make a name for itself? By letting you be the dungeon, of course. No, really.
Just your average dungeon crawler… right?
Crawl is a 2D retro-styled dungeon crawling game. You control a nameless hero with a very raspy, painful-sounding voice, fighting your way through sprawling dungeons. Your mission – to kill enemies and collect their essence in order to utilize a magical warp room, defeat the boss, and escape. Controls are also nothing too difficult. The B button attacks, the Y button does special moves, and you move with the joystick or the D-Pad. Sounds simple right? And it is! Until, of course, you’re killed in one of the first rooms of the game by an overwhelming barrage of enemies and you turn into a ghost. And then you watch another hero waltz in and start doing your job. Yup.
Life After Life
This is where the game introduces it’s genius idea. Death isn’t permanent in Crawl. It’s simply how you switch between the two types of gameplay. As a ghost, you can now freely float around the room and possess items and traps to harm the active hero. If you enter into a room with pentagrams on the floor, you can wander over and possess those to spawn yourself as a monster. Doing that lets you actively attack the hero with the monster you’re playing. Finally, collecting ectoplasm from broken objects lets you spawn slimes to aid you. And while there’s one hero in the dungeon, there are three ghosts. Meaning that while you can’t always get the hero directly, you’ll always have numbers on your side. You’re bound to wear them out eventually after all.
The Work of a Warrior
Each game is divided into “levels”, each with a different name. Though it’s a neat touch, the levels you descend into don’t ever really feel that different, so there’s not a lot of point to the names. One player begins as the hero, and the other three are ghosts. The hero must move through doorways from room to room in order to progress through the dungeon. Each doorway contains a symbol next to it indicating what’s in that direction. A question mark is an unexplored room, a red icon with three stripes is the shop, and a purple swirl indicates the exit portal. Generally, you’ll want to venture into unexplored rooms in order to discover what they hide. Usually, it’s danger.
As mentioned before, pentagrams allow ghosts to spawn monsters. When those monsters are defeated, however, they drop essence, which lets your character level up. This adds additional health to your life bar, but doesn’t do much else. However, in order to use the portal, you need to be level 10, or you can’t even interact with it. So you want to be exploring every room to kill monsters, so you can gain the exp to level up. Along the way, heroes can enter into shops, where gruff merchants will sell you new weapons and special moves to battle with using gold you’ve earned. We’ll cover how you get gold in a bit.
The Work of a Wight
But ghosts will want you to enter monster rooms as well. As a hero, your life bar never naturally regenerates, meaning any damage received is permanent. Run out of health and bam, you’re a ghost, and whoever dealt you the coup de grace gets to play hero next. Each level is a constant struggle between you and the ghosts to be the active hero so you can hit level 10 and try the boss. As a ghost, you’ll have to balance both dealing damage and watching the other ghosts. It doesn’t matter how much damage you deal to the hero, it’s only the final blow that counts for revival. Sometimes it’s better to berzerk rush a hero, other times it can be better to let the other do the work and then sneak in for the kill.
Just as heroes can gather gold and essence, ghosts collect ectoplasm and wrath. Ectoplasm is spawned via a destroyed object in the environment and lets you spawn little mook slimes that are better distractions than fighters. Wrath, however, is truly important. When a hero levels up, all the enemy ghosts earn Wrath. At the end of each stage, players that ended the stage as a ghost can then spend this wrath to level up the monsters they spawn at pentagrams. These level ups all change the stats and playstyle of each monster, and each has diverging level-up trees. That means you can play the same monsters each time, or go down a completely different path from match to match. It’s a great way to keep everything different.
The Final Showdown
Once you’ve hit level 10, if you’re lucky enough to stumble across a portal, you can enter into a different part of the dungeon, where the boss waits. These bosses are massive, hulking behemoths with tons of health that you’ll have to blast through in order to escape. They’re just as fun as the rest of the game, but definitely a bit more frustrating. These bosses aren’t exempt from possession either. Each has three parts to it that the ghosts possess, each with a different debilitating attack. If you beat the boss, you’re free! If you’re killed, however, you get flung back to the portal room as a hero. From there, you’ll have to find another portal if you want another shot. Chances are, though, someone will usurp the hero role quickly.
A Great Game for Group Gatherings
Crawl makes for a darn good party game. The excitement of you and three friends trying to out-kill and out-possess each other is a blast. The uncertainty that each next room could be a safe haven or chock full of pentagrams makes entering each door a palpably tense moment. But Crawl isn’t without its flaws.
While the variety of creatures and the level-up system is great, the one you spawn as is completely random. If you’ve dumped all your wrath into one enemy, you could end up never playing them and it ends up being a waste. In rooms with lots of objects and enemies, it can also become obscenely easy to lose yourself in the chaos of a battle. This means you can miss out on the kill as a monster, or get struck as a hero by something you didn’t see at all. These are all minor in the end though, and more often result in a laugh than they do in genuine anger.
But a Poor One for Lone Wolves
Crawl’s biggest problem, however, is when you play it solo. Without friends, it just becomes a game of watching the AI. When the AI is a hero, it will bumble around on set paths. This means getting stuck, running in circles, or going back and forth between rooms. It always breaks out of that loop eventually, but aimless wandering through already cleared rooms means a lot of waiting time for the lone player. One AI hero backtracked through a ton of rooms to collect one chest of coins. It was taking so long that I had time to respond to a text message before it returned.
When you do get to be the hero, the AI has laser precision when it comes to traps and enemies. You’ll find yourself stunned by one enemy while the other two beat on you relentlessly. AI Ghosts will duck into traps and throwable furniture and launch them at you as soon as you get in their range. And bosses? You’ll be lucky to get them down to half health at best. With friends, human error means that the
All in all, if you’ve got friends to play with regularly, and you’re all lovers of the genre, pick up Crawl and you won’t regret it. If you’re solo and thinking to pick it up just for yourself, it’s not really worth it. That’s basically what it all boils down to. If you’re sat down alone and just want to play some games, grab another title instead. But if you’ve got friends who regularly come by? It’s a blast every time.