Crawl, by Powerhoof, is a straightforward, addictive, and flavorful party game that pits players against their friends as they hack and slash their way through a dungeon filled with Lovecraftian horrors and fantastical bosses pulled from myths and legends. The game is soaked in old-school sensibilities, and it elegantly weaves its strong sense of style with solid fundamentals.
Crawl started as a gamejam project crafted in just a few days, but Barney Cumming, who handled the art and animation, and David Lloyd, who took care of programming, quickly realized they had something special on their hands. The pair started indie game studio Powerhoof in 2013 to continue working on the game in earnest.
If you have watched the trailer for Crawl (which I recommend), you know as well as I do the game leans hard into what it is. A sinister, monster-filled, blood-soaked hack-and-slash narrated by a madman, which hurls a desperate protagonist into the depths of an ever-changing labyrinth, where friends or computer controlled ghosts will summon demons, monsters, and mythical creatures to lash out at them. The protagonist and his enemies will likely die and be reborn several times as they strive against each other to escape in each, roughly 30 minute, match.
Initially, the four players will fight each other in a “sudden death” scenario at the scene of a grisly ritual. The lone survivor then begins their run through the dungeon, while the murdered parties rise as ghosts to harry their steps.
The human player has one job; kill the final boss. In order to do that, however, they will have to navigate the randomly generated dungeon, gathering weapons and equipment, and kill enough monsters to reach Level 10, at which point they will be able to open the portal to the Final Boss, and attempt to defeat it.
Heroes do not have infinite attempts to escape, however. They only have three attempts to fight the boss. Part of the summoning portal is destroyed each time the portal is opened, so if the hero fails the third time, that’s it. The hero’s soul is consumed, the monster is released, and the hero’s ghostly rivals are trapped in the depths forever.
Players controlling ghosts have a very different responsibility; kill the human player, and take their place. To this end, they will possess traps of all kinds and summon monsters, working together with other ghosts to whittle down the hero’s health before striking the final blow, stealing his humanity for themselves as they begin their own journey to escape. When heroes fight the final boss, ghosts also possess each of the bosses limbs and control their attacks in a way that feels delightfully chaotic.
Monsters summoned by ghosts are determined by the elder god the player chose to worship before the game starts. Different monsters have different paths of evolution and increase in power from pesky annoyances to hulking powerhouses by the end of the game. Each player has three types of monsters that can be summoned, and picking which evolutionary path to follow for each of them adds quite a bit of flavor and replayability to the game.
The gameplay loop is satisfying and addictive; kill the hero, become the hero, buy upgrades, unlock new monsters, fight the eldritch horror waiting beyond the portal, over and over again. During our first day playing cooperatively my brother and I kept saying “one more game” for hours until it was well after midnight.
One potential issue I experienced during my time with the game is while playing with four players, ghosts can sometimes run out of things to do. If other players claim pentagrams or traps before you have a chance to, it is possible to be left floating around the room, but unable to meaningfully contribute to the hero’s death.
This means your ability to land a killing blow and thus spend time as the hero is diminished as well. In one particular play session, I lost the initial battle and spent almost the entirety of rest of the match as a ghost, only able to become human after every other player had already reached Level 10 or 11. The result was that I was immediately killed by the other players’ monsters due to my low health. This eventually evened out late in the match, as killing a single room of monsters (an uphill battle, to be sure) gave me several level-ups, so your mileage may vary.
I also found controlling traps to be far less fun than summoning and controlling monsters, so I would have liked the opportunity to do so more often. Some levels had frequent summoning signs, and I found those variants more engaging, although admittedly the tug-of-war from a design standpoint is balancing engagement for ghosts and not killing momentum for the human player by boxing him in every room with swarms of monsters.
Crawl is a fantastic game, and an absolute steal for $15 on the Nintendo eShop, especially if you and your friends or siblings like yelling at each other during particularly tense matches. I expect that it will join Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, The Jackbox Party Pack, and Towerfall: Ascension as a go-to game at parties. Get this game, invite some friends over, and revel in the chaos that is Crawl.
Brian Barnett has loved video games ever since his uncle Jimmy introduced him to them at the ripe old age of five. His wife, Audrey, was also introduced to video games by her uncle, lending credence to Brian’s theory that behind every gamer, there is a cool uncle.
Since playing Super Mario Bros. on the NES, Brian has had a passion for Nintendo games. The first thing he did when he started earning money was save up and buy himself a Game Boy, and they quickly became inseparable. Through the years, this led to his special love of portable game consoles, so the release of the Switch is the perfect storm of Nintendo action he has been waiting for.
In addition to his gaming obsession, Brian enjoys playing drums, writing and listening to music, and hosting a weekly video game and nerd culture podcast.
He is an extrovert, and loves talking about and playing games with others, so let him know if you want to team up and play together!
Plays: Switch, New 3DS, SNES, NES, GBA, PC, Xbox One, PS4, Vita