Crawling through dungeons with friends is a familiar concept. We’ve seen it before, and in many formats. It's a rare thing for such a traditional paradigm to be changed in any way. Crawl is different. Crawl from indie studio Powerhoof in Melbourne, asks the players themselves to take control of the monsters in a betrayal-filled, there-can-only-be-one Highlander-esque race to be the first human to reach level 10 and destroy the dungeon boss.
In Crawl, players compete to gain levels by killing monsters and collecting experience points – standard fare. The point of difference Crawl brings to the table is there is no party of heroes facing the dungeon’s inhabitants, there is only ever one. The other players are ghosts, doomed to haunt the forgotten halls of the dungeon for eternity, unless they can wrest humanity from the lone hero by landing a killing blow. You see, humanity is the ghosts’ key to freedom. Only a powerful-enough human is capable of opening a portal to the dungeon boss, whose death will spell an end to the ghost’s torment, and a second chance at life.
As the hero delves deeper into the dungeon, he is plagued by the ghosts’ presence as they desperately try to stop him at every turn. Traps burst into life, spewing spikes and flame and energy, and arcane symbols on the floor give birth to monstrous horrors as the ghosts pour themselves forth into the material plane for a chance to spill precious hero blood. For every drop of hero blood spilled the ghosts accrue vitae, which can be later spent to mutate and upgrade the types of monsters they can inhabit. These monsters range from merely annoying worms and gnomes, to creatures capable of dealing immense damage such as dragons, giants, and eye beasts.
When a hero is killed, blood spews from his body, and arcane energy arcs towards the ghost-inhabited monster or trap that struck him down. The magic clears to reveal a new hero, ready to earn his way to level 10, and ultimately to freedom. The hero must move from room to room, clearing monsters and collecting gold, which can be spent in stores to purchase items, spells, and new weapons. The gold found lying about the dungeon is limited, and can only be bolstered through the discovery of statues erected in worship of their dark gods. The reward for praying at one of these statues is gold, apportioned according to the amount of hero blood spilled when in ghost-form.
The result of all of the mechanics described above is a competitive local multiplayer game that is designed from the ground up to be an artfully appointed toybox for the players. “The game doesn’t do anything at all, and you’ve given [the players] a little toy of a monster and a little toy of a hero, and the people have to make it happen,” says Barney Cummings, artist and co-designer on Crawl, “we give them a toy dungeon and they have to play with it themselves.” The beauty of this concept is that as a small indie developer, Powerhoof isn’t required to carefully craft game sequences or AI in order for the players to enjoy themselves, the fun comes from what the group brings to the game.
Crawl was born during a game jam, under very strict time constraints. Those constraints were the catalyst for the core concept of Crawl.
“The constraint we came up with was for it to be local multiplayer, and everything is controlled by the players,” said co-designer David Lloyd, “that means that if you want something with monsters in it the monsters would all have to be controlled by the players.”
Crawl isn’t done yet. Powerhoof plans to see the game released via Steam Early Access at some point “within the next couple of months,” though Lloyd and Cummings admit that they’ve been saying that for a number of months now. The trouble is that due to Crawl’s never-ending and replayable nature, there isn’t an end to the potential content they could produce for it. More tilesets, monsters, bosses, and weapons were mentioned during our interview, which is to say that they’re hoping to expand on everything. One of the most prominent points of feedback they’ve received so far is that there isn’t enough for players to do when in ghost-form. After one of their monsters are dispatched, the players are returned to their ghostly haunting, with nothing to do but to passively watch the rest of the encounter play out.
Players in ghost-form now will be able to explore the void around the outside of rooms in search of what the team refers to as “ectoplasmic blobs.” These blobs can be spent to cause autonomous “blobs” or “slimes” to spawn and harass the hero, and could even be saved up to be spent all at once for some sort of larger interaction that has yet to be decided upon. Combat encounters have also been retooled to deal with their very linear intensity curve. Now, once the monster-spawning arcane symbols have been all used up, a series of traps will be activated, allowing dispatched ghosts to inhabit them and keep the intensity of the encounter from dipping below the fun threshold.
In this writer’s opinion, Powerhoof has a very special game on its hands. David and Barney might not have a huge amount of confidence in their ability to run a business and deal with all that the business side of things will bring, but they sure do know how to make a great videogame. Even in its very early, unfinished state, Crawl gave my friends and I a good number of hours worth of enjoyment, and in “a couple of months,” a much more polished version will hit Steam Early Access for PC, Mac, and Linux. While Powerhoof have been in conversations with both Microsoft and Sony about the potential for Crawl to come to their console platforms, they haven’t made any firm commitments at this stage. Either way, keep three of your friends on standby for the chance to delve into a dungeon’s worth of hilarious betrayal and teeth-gnashingly frustrating good times.