The one-man indie development team of Nerdook first grabbed my attention with the immensely addictive rogue-like card-battler, Monster Slayers, which far exceeded expectations when it launched in 2018. Now it’s time for a brand new adventure; one that’s embracing the age-old tactical turn-based strategy genre and the art of dungeon crawling. But what can Reverse Crawl on Xbox One deliver that hasn’t been seen many times over in games of this ilk?
Well fortunately, Nerdook has managed to breathe fresh life into the concept, not least by turning the strategic, dungeon crawling RPG experience on its head and enabling the player to play as the monsters, the undead, impish creatures and more.
When you begin Reverse Crawl as a mighty King – spoiler alert – you’re dead. Not the best way to start off an adventure, with the Red Queen slaying the King immediately, leaving you to take an eternal slumber. It’s you’re lucky day though as the King’s daughter often dabbles in necromancy and so she’s brought him back from the dead to gain retribution. The aim is to track down the Red Queen and decimate both her and the heroes under her guise – yes, I said heroes, so technically I guess that makes you the ‘bad guy’. The Revenant King must reclaim the throne, but he’ll need some pesky minions to aid in this epic quest!
Whilst the narrative doesn’t possess a whole load of depth, there’s enough here to tell a story and it does at least do a rather decent job of offering a bit of humorous dialogue through the text-based conversations. The Revenant King is very much a joker at heart, and acts quite silly throughout to ensure it’s not all doom and gloom in the after-life, whilst the Princess is often the serious one, making it easy for them to bounce off of each other during interactions.
The Campaign mode is all that’s available initially for Reverse Crawl, which sees you choosing the nature of the conflict for each chapter on the route to defeating the Red Queen. This allows you to select the purpose of the battles and it could mean you’ll be reaping rewards that are more beneficial to your style of play. As an example, one option could be to convince a Goblin – and his minions – to join the adventure, whilst another may have you taking down heroes to acquire new upgrades and such. Having such freedom really helps in the replayability factor, especially when certain choices within the campaign can lead to different endings.
It all means very little without solid gameplay though. Here, you’ll be tasked with deciding upon the best group of minions for the job at hand, weighing up the heroic party’s team and attempting to exploit their weaknesses in the upcoming encounter. Once the action begins, the turn-based combat is easy enough to grasp a basic understanding of; playing out across a relatively small battlefield made up of hexagonal tiles to move around on, with movements, attacks, special abilities and powers to choose from.
Certain characters can naturally traverse more tiles per turn and some of them are adept at ranged attacks, while others are partial to performing melees and dodging. The special abilities range from enabling them to fire a raft of arrows, heal allies and use magic protection, to spawning extra zombies and strange creatures. It’s the ‘threats’ that are the real game-changers, with a higher threat-level earned mainly through defeating enemies, which leads to being able to cast powers like firing a missile at an unsuspecting foe, place traps, and even spawn additional allies – including a beasty dragon if you play your cards right!
Each participant in the fight only has a limited number of minion groups to send out, with victory obtained by being the last group standing. At first you can practically throw anyone out there as you come to terms with the nuances of the gameplay. The tactical nature of Reverse Crawl can take you pretty deep into the mechanics if you allow it to though, and slowly but surely it will ramp up the difficulty to the point where you’ll be studying the opponent’s setup of characters more closely, working out if it’s best to overwhelm them with a number of rats or throw out an Ogre to do some real damage.
The sheer variety in the heroes and monsters to face off against is impressive, with many of the latter often convinced to join the fight to dethrone the Red Queen. There are sirens, ghouls, imps, skeleton archers, goblins, vampire bats and so many more that can be extremely useful. To make things trickier, the minions have a random positive or negative effect added to their group in each battle that could ensure they’re stronger, luckier or indeed weaker. You can re-roll the minion choices a couple of times to try and get bonuses and groups that are befitting of the threat you’re facing.
Should the Revenant King and his minions meet an untimely demise, you’ll get to give that chapter another go as well as retain any XP earned from that encounter. And that’s helpful because levelling up rewards upgrade points to spend on boosting your undead folk, sabotaging heroes, improving ranged attacks etc. Then, when you do win the battles, there are even more sweet bonuses to be acquired, so there are plenty of ways to enhance your chances of success.
Upon completion of the main Campaign, the Endless mode opens up to test your might against wave after wave of foes. For those that like to prove how good they are, it’s great, but anyone who likes a bit of purpose to proceedings, the New Game+ option is a welcome one. Not only can you take a few rewards with you to make life a little easier, you’ll also be able to make different choices from the dynamic chapter offerings. This ensures that none of the enjoyment factor is lost when replaying the Campaign, remaining fresh and in some ways, it’s better due to making smarter, more informed decisions.
Sometimes the luck of the draw in regards the minions can be a tad frustrating, even at a re-roll, so you just know that you’re fighting a losing battle from the get-go. Other than that, the only real annoyance is navigating the cursor during the action; it’s just a pain trying to select a specific hexagon or access the Powers swiftly. In truth, the whole UI is very basic, but it’s something that can be overlooked.
Moving onto the visuals, and the cartoony presentation for the characters works great; with the artwork generally coming across similar to that seen in Monster Slayers. It would’ve been nice to see more diversity in the environments and backgrounds, however as it is, it doesn’t detract from the experience really. The same could be said for the audio, which although gives a sense of adventure, it fails to leave a lasting impression – for better or worse.
Overall, Reverse Crawl is a turn-based game that’s relatively easy to grasp, offering a role-reversal that allows the chance to enjoy a story from the ‘bad’ side’s point-of-view. Over time, the depth of the gameplay shows itself and after a little while you’ll be able to appreciate it more. It’s great to see a wide variety of monsters to command and plenty of upgrades of all kinds on hand to improve the army you’re building, as you venture through a campaign that’s full of choices. Sure, it feels a bit clunky and the general UI isn’t the best, but there’s a tactical, yet fun, adventure here that’s worth checking out.
Join me in turning the tables on those dastardly heroes and give Reverse Crawl a go!