Release Date: 19/12/2017
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux
It’d be easy to look at Crawl and see it as yet another dungeon-crawling adventure where you face off against hordes of monsters and collect a ton of loot. I mean, yeah, you’ll actually be doing a lot of that, and for the first few minutes it’s all the game tasks you with.
However, there’s so much more to the experience that leaves Crawl feeling a bit special; whilst its execution of the dungeon-crawling mechanics might feel familiar to some, everything else about the game is wholly unique thanks to the three Phantoms that stalk the game’s hero (and how you’ll eventually end up becoming one…)
When you begin your adventure in Crawl you’re just a typical hero who’s simply trying to fight their way to freedom through a deadly dungeon. However, you’ll eventually come up against insurmountable odds when facing off against a small group of monsters, and quickly meet your demise. Fortunately, death isn’t the end in Crawl and you instead become a Phantom that haunts the next hero that tries to make their way through the dungeon. Defeat them and you get a second chance at life – but with Phantoms chasing you down, including the one you just killed. The cycle keeps on going until someone eventually succeeds at leaving the dungeon, with the Phantoms and the hero constantly shifting roles based upon who kills who. It’s a simple little system, but one that makes Crawl a hell of a lot of fun to play.
Phantoms can make life difficult for the hero through a multitude of ways, the most obvious ones being by possessing traps in the environment or by summoning a host of different monsters. Every room the hero player goes through has a variety of different instruments of death in it, so Phantoms are rarely short of options. It might be a case of summoning a nasty monster (which the Phantom then controls) and trying to overwhelm the hero, catching them in a vicious trap, or even just launching a chair their way… the choice is yours.
As you can imagine, with three Phantoms and the hero in each game it can become incredibly hectic, though in a good way. The screen can certainly get busy with all of the action that’s going on, but it actually compliments the game’s design and the sense of urgency for each player to vanquish their foe. The exciting and quick-packed nature of the game makes it enjoyable for everyone involved, though – it’s satisfying to be pursuing the hero with the odds in your favour when playing as a Phantom, whilst on the flip-side surviving against three other players at a time when playing as the hero can also feel incredibly rewarding.
Crawl is fine to play in single player, but it’s in multiplayer where it really shines. Up to four players can play at any time, with one player taking on the role of the hero and the other three the Phantoms. Of course, these roles are constantly shifting around so you’re never stuck doing one thing for too long. It’s a whole lot of fun though and certainly stands out as one of the more unique multiplayer experiences available on the Nintendo Switch; it manages to blend together co-operative and competitive play perfectly in a clever little way.
Of course, with three Phantom to be wary of the odds are firmly stacked against the hero, so it’d be easy to think that Crawl has some balance issues. Fortunately, there are a few factors to take into consideration that ensure life is never TOO tough for the hero. For example, only the hero can level up and unlock new equipment – as they defeat more and more enemies, they become stronger and better equipped to take on the trials that might be awaiting them. This level carries over too, so if a hero is killed and becomes a Phantom, they’ll have the same level and equipment if they manage to become a hero again.
At least the Phantoms earn ‘wrath’ though, which can be used to improve upon their little entourage of monsters. Crawl deserves some credit for the variety of foes the Phantoms can summon to take on the hero and how each one always feels different to use – you might have some which fire projectiles, some which fight up close, some which unleash magic on the hero, or some that simply overwhelm them with their pace alone. Each Phantom can improve upon their selection of monsters between each level of the dungeon in their own ways too, and with over sixty available in total each player’s run through the game can be carefully catered to suit their playstyle. If I’m being honest, I actually preferred playing as a Phantom because of this, though only the hero player can REALLY win in Crawl…
Once a hero reaches level ten, they’ll be able to face off against a boss enemy in a bid to finally escape from the dungeon and essentially ‘win’ the game. There’s a twist though; these bosses are huge and made up of different parts which each Phantom is able to control. This means there are three minds at work in one enemy, so the hero has got to keep a close eye on everything if they’re going to have any chance of surviving.
These boss encounters are a bit brilliant and were a particular highlight when I was playing Crawl with friends. They’re all creative in design and can really get the hero in a mess, which is always satisfying when ploughing through the dungeon as a Phantom. That being said, it’s possible for everyone to get killed off before attempting to face off against the boss thanks to the fact each player only has three lives – in that case, whoever has the most experience points wins, meaning you’ll want to remain as the hero player for as long as possible if you want to succeed.
Each game of Crawl lasts around thirty to forty minutes, so it’s an easy game to just pick up and play here and there. The fact that dungeons are randomly generated ensures it always feels different each time, whilst the unpredictability of the Phantom players and what monsters they send your way means each game feels unique from an enemy standpoint too.
I’ve put a ton of hours into the game with friends and we haven’t got bored yet, so with a good crowd together it’s easy to spend a long time with the game. Be warned though – whilst the balance issues between the Phantoms and the hero are typically on point, there were times during some of our games where some players seem to have a clear advantage over others. It’s one of those games where it’s easy to learn some clever tricks to beat down your foes, whilst the random nature of each dungeon can work into the favour of either the hero or the Phantoms. It makes the game more unpredictable, but it could prove frustrating at times too.
Unfortunately there’s no online play, which is a bit of a shame given how fun Crawl is as a multiplayer experience. At the same time though, a lot of the joy of the multiplayer aspects comes from laughing at it together in the same room as the other players, so it’s not too much of a deal breaker… well… as long as you have friends who are willing to play with you. At least you can play it on the go thanks to the Nintendo Switch, so you can always just ask some strangers on a train or something…
Crawl hooked me in from the get-go thanks to its unique take on dungeon-crawling, with the constant shift between playing the hero and the enemy proving incredibly entertaining – especially when playing with three other friends. It’s certainly a whole lot different to the norm as far as the genre is concerned and it makes for something that never seems to stop being fun to play.
The single player isn’t as fun as playing with friends and there could be a few balance issues here and there, but in all Crawl stands out as a must-own title for Nintendo Switch owners who love a unique take on competitive (and at times co-operative) local multiplayer action.