Some games are just a perfect match for Switch. Whether they’re designed with its portability and local multiplayer support in mind, or simply ported so well you’d think Switch was always part of the developers plan all along. Couchplay-orientated hack ‘n’ slasher Crawl comfortably fits into the latter category, bringing with it a blood-drenched formula that’s right at home with a Joy-Con in hand.
Part homage to the monster mayhem of classic horror films, part tribute to the good old days of four-player arcade titles, Crawl embraces its asymmetrical multiplayer concept right from the first swing of your blade. You play a hero exploring a dungeon filled with monsters, ghouls and other unsavoury beasts. On the surface it seems like a run of the mill dungeon crawling romp, albeit with gorgeous pixel art graphics and a chiptune soundtrack that drips with atmosphere and electro beats.
Then Crawl pulls out its grisly trump card: should you perish in your battle with the demonic foes, you’ll be raised from the dead as a phantom. As a spectral being you can’t touch the living, but you can possess traps, objects and monsters - so when another hero conveniently enters the dungeon you can fully embrace your dark side as you burn, bite and eviscerate your victim into a similar grave. Should you hit the killing blow you’ll find your humanity restored and the cycle starts all over again.
It’s a glorious feedback loop that informs the local multiplayer concept at its heart, one that escalates in intensity and difficulty the longer you devote to it. You can play on your own, with the other three phantoms controlled by AI, but nothing compares to breaking out an extra pair of Joy-Cons and gathering around your TV, or the Switch itself. There’s a constant sense of palpable fear diluted with excitement as you enter each new chamber while three other pallet-swapped ghosts scout the room for dangers to possess.
Each room in the dungeons is full of things to do, regardless of which role you’re in. As the hero, you can buy spells to improve your rechargeable special ability, but you’ll need to earn that gold by doing damage to another hero when in phantom mode. Playing as a monster also earns you wrath, which can then be used to upgrade your monsters after each round. It’s a set of systems that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played an RPG of any kind, but that doesn’t stop them feeding back into the consistently rewarding cycle that never leaves you feeling left out of the action.
There’s a devilish endgame in place, too. When one player reaches level 10 a portal will activate, enabling you to escape that infernal dungeon. Unfortunately, a boss fight with the tentacled horror of The Beast awaits you first. Oh, and did we mention that the other three players/AI get to control different parts of the monster? It’s the handicap match to end all handicap matches and it’s just as involving and laugh-out-loud as every moment you’ll spend in Crawl.
Having spent three years on PC, two-man developer Powerhoof has brought the most up-to-date and streamlined version to Switch, ironing out most of the kinks that had previously cracked the game’s veneer. There’s still a slight issue with players who gain an early advantage becoming too OP as a result, but it’s mostly muted by a more fair approach to wrath distribution. So if you’re struggling and floundering at a lower level, you’ll have access to more powerful monsters when in phantom mode.
Add in narrator whose hammy, scenery-chewing delivery sounds like the best tribute to Vincent Price, a brilliant soundtrack that keeps the blood pumping while it sprays all over the walls and a genuinely unique approach to monster design, and Crawl is quite a package. Whether it's sentient blobs, spell-throwing necromancers or winged eyeballs, there’s seemingly a beast for any nightmarish occasion trapped within this game.
While some kind of online play would have been welcome, Crawl isn't really geared up for playing with people who aren't in the same room. Part of the game's appeal stems from the fact that you're always within punching distance of your fellow players, and an online mode would lack that all-important social element.
As you might have guessed, we really like Crawl, and we’d bet our collected stash of gold and wrath you will, too. It’s great fun in single-player thanks to some aggressive AI that will hound you at every moment, but that consistent danger takes on a new lease of enjoyment when you and three of your friends are jostling for XP and that all important killing blow. Couchplay doesn’t get much better than this on Switch.