Alpha and Early Access reviews offer our preliminary verdicts on in-development games. We may follow up this unscored review with a final, scored review in the future. Read our full review policy for details.
Version reviewed: v0.01:01 “Giant Spider”
Multiplayer: Local 4-player
Link: Steam store page
Step into the next randomly generated room of the dungeon, hear the click as the doors lock, and see the traps and summoning circles that await and you'll know that death is haunting you. In Crawl, Powerhoof's 'co-opetition' game currently on Steam Early Access, death isn't just inevitable, it's required. But Powerhoof has managed to take the classic dungeon crawler formula and make dying fun as hell.
Crawl is a local multiplayer game for two to four players. A random player starts as the hero and begins to fight through the dungeon while up to three other players (or AI characters, which are impressively intelligent) float around as ghosts. The ghosts get to control all the monsters and traps in the dungeon, and whoever lands the killing blow on the hero takes his place. All the players try to level-up their hero to level 10 and then make their way to fight the final boss, which is currently the same every time. If you can kill the boss—which is also controlled by the ghost players—you are declared the victor, but the party only has three tries total. If you lose the third attempt, it's game over for everyone.
Crawl is a wonderful tribute to the arcade era. The splash screen asking you to 'Insert Coin,' the name entry being limited to three characters, the low-fidelity announcer voice, and the pixel graphics all pay homage to classic arcade beat-em ups like Double Dragon and The Simpsons . Much of that arcade inspiration adds to Crawl's charm, but its old-fashioned design choices do limit its appeal in places.
Crawl's controls, for instance, are simple and easy to pick up, consisting of only movement and two buttons for your basic and special attacks. It supports the use of a mouse, a gamepad, or a keyboard, but the keyboard option means you'll only be able to attack and shoot in straight or diagonal directions while everyone else, including the AI, gets a full 360 degrees. It feels like Crawl was made to be played with a classic, arcade cabinet Joystick, but this sort of control scheme, while nostalgic, can be very frustrating. Moving while trying to aim ranged attacks is limited and difficult, especially when compared to twin-stick control schemes used in games like The Binding of Isaac.
Another polarizing choice is the current lack of online play. Crawl is the most fun and crazy multiplayer experience I've had since Monaco, so it's unfortunate that local is the only way to play. The Steam store page has this to say: “What about Online Multiplayer? It's a possibility, but if you can't get around a PC with some friends we recommend waiting until we have more news.” The AI is smart and skilled enough to keep me amused when I want to play alone, but Crawl is really meant to be played with others and the lack of online play limits my ability to do that.
When I do have company, the blissfully frantic game sessions last around 30 minutes. The longer the hero takes, the more chances the ghosts have to mess them up, so my friends and I sprint through the halls. Playing Crawl two-player, however, is a whole different experience. At a much slower pace than the hectic three and four-player modes, a 1v1 game becomes a battle of skill and timing. If you rush toward the boss with little to no time spent as a ghost you won't have any gold to buy better items, so choosing the right moment to lose a fight is just as important as when to win them.
Crawl's catch-up mechanics are one of its best features. The visual language Powerhoof has created is intuitive enough that I could figure it out after my first playthrough with the AI, but when I started battling against real people I felt like I was somehow cheating by knowing so much. I might have had an insurmountable advantage, but Crawl balances this out by making life for the hero as hard as possible.
Every level-up you get as the hero gives the other players points to upgrade their monsters, meaning the longer you are the hero, the stronger your opponents get. Additionally, the vast majority of your gold will come from dealing damage to the hero, so staying alive forever will leave you with a poorly-equipped hero and underleveled monsters. Crawl also makes healing items as sparse as possible, so eventually you'll have to die. Sometimes you'll want to die. What results is a game where everyone usually gets to around level 10 with a remarkably consistent and satisfying game duration.
Crawl takes its inspiration from the arcade cabinets of old and plays exactly like a distilled, quarterless version of those experiences. Powerhoof has already proven that it's committed to updating the game, spending the time it was delayed by tax woes on additional content before release. The game currently has enough monsters, weapons, and unlockables to keep me playing for quite a while, and with the promise of more of everything, including new boss fights, Crawl can only get better with age.
If you can find friends to join you, Crawl is an incredibly fun and unique experience. If you mostly have internet gaming friends, however, you might want to hold off until Powerhoof comments further about online play.
Great. Crawl already feels like a big game and Powerhoof has promised to make it even bigger.