Crawl is a multiplayer experience that feels entirely new thanks to its ambiguous genre designation. It plays like a brawler, but rewards like a fighting game, and constantly forces you to change your playstyle. The arcade multiplayer experience borrows its style from old-school arcade games (it even flashes ‘insert coin’ instead of ‘press start’), but the actual mechanics are difficult to quickly sell to interested participants. It doesn’t take long to start beating up monsters with a sword, but to understand why (and who) you’re beating up takes more time. The learning curve is a detriment to the experience when you’re trying to invite others to join on your adventure, but if you and your group have the patience, Crawl offers an innovative multiplayer experience.
You and up to three friends (or A.I. characters) make your way through a dungeon as you simultaneously compete for the role of living hero. Whoever kills the hero gets to be the new hero, and that hand-off repeats as you crawl deeper and deeper into the dungeon. If you’re dead, you control the dungeon’s monsters. If you’re alive you try to keep it that way long enough to take on the dungeon’s final boss. You level up and get new equipment along the way, constantly moving between the world of the living and the dead. The setup is novel and forces you to constantly re-examine your role in the combat. It is equal parts rewarding, like when you have a long stint as the hero, and heartbreaking, like when one of your monster brethren steal the killing blow from you after putting in all the work to whittle down the hero’s health.
The actual combat is simple. It uses only two buttons, and each monster plays a little differently. Some monsters move quickly and fire projectiles, others move slow and leak damaging pools of unspeakable liquids, while others are powerful brawlers with powerful special attacks on long cooldowns. The strategy lies in figuring out which weapons and monsters work best for you. The game moves fast though, so finding your strengths takes multiple playthroughs. Thankfully you can practice playing as the assorted unlocked monsters, but when you’re trying to teach new players, it’s a lot to take in. Each game is long, clocking in at about 30 minutes for each playthrough. That’s great for seasoned players, but a lot to ask from new players.
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There is no ultimate ending per se, as the joy you derive from the game comes from repeating the action and seeing who comes out on top. In this way, Crawl is more like a fighting game, even though it looks like a beat ‘em up. It’s not about getting to the credits so much as it is about seeing who can achieve the greatest mastery of mechanics and get to the end boss, and beat it, the most efficiently. You unlock additional monsters on each playthrough, but it’s a minor reward in the grand scheme.
The action can also get a little too chaotic when three players are controlling monsters of varying sizes and trying to kill a human all in one screen. As the hero moves screen to screen, the dead float around as ghosts, rushing between wooden crates and traps and launching them at the living player. Ghost also get to periodically summon monsters. Most attacks are color-coded, letting you know where you are in the fray, but that’s often not enough and you lose yourself in the chaos. To its credit, moving your hero or monster around is fast and responsive so your main enemy is paying attention, as opposed to difficult to control action.
Crawl is local multiplayer only, which is the best way to play. The game is particularly well-suited to Switch, too, as playing with a single Joy-Con doesn’t feel like a handicap thanks to its simple inputs. I don’t know if its inclusion would improve or hinder the game, but the lack of an online mode, in a game so focused on the multiplayer experience, is surprising. Using A.I. opponents thankfully still leads to a rewarding experience, and you can even set four A.I. players to play through a match to learn strategies and unlock new monsters, but you won’t find a campaign or other big incentives to play repeatedly as a single Crawler.
Crawl appeals especially to fans of local competitive arcade multiplayer experiences that aren’t fighting games. This group is a niche one with a lot of qualifiers, but developer Powerhoof knew exactly who they were going after with the game. Crawl isn’t hard to play, but it takes study to be successful at it. When you have a group that knows the game, however, it leads to close calls, upsets, and victories at a brisk and rewarding pace.