Have you ever been playing Diablo 3, and thought to yourself “What this game needs is some ancient 8-bit visuals, slightly dodgy hit detection and a bit of Gauntlet mixed in”? Well, if so, I have great news for you, as coming from Ugly Beard Games, Crawlers and Brawlers is pretty much Diablo 3 run through an 8-bit photocopier. So, does lack of originality mean that you should skip it, or does it bring something new to the table? Come with me to a strangely flat 8-bit land.
First released on Xbox Live way back in 2016, this is a re-release for the Xbox One. Straight away, the game sets its stall out as being an amusing diversion with humorous dialogue – NPCs being a highlight. When the game starts, you have to choose which of the disciplines you want to play as and there are four to choose from: Story, which surprisingly takes you through the story of the game, Crawl, which is basically a free-form exploration of the world, letting you go where you will, Arena, that works just like a horde mode, and Brawl, a PvP game mode where you have to kill other players. For the sake of complete transparency, I have been playing Crawlers and Brawlers before the release date, so have been limited to local testing of the multiplayer side of the game, be it the cooperative or competitive limits, as the online world was obviously a barren wasteland. So, with that confession out of the way, how does the game play?
Well, the answer is very well indeed.
The basic premise of the game is that we have to delve into dungeons and fight and kill the various nemeses that infest the places. Whether that be running up and smacking them with a sword as a Warrior, or shooting from range with the Mage, defeating enemies causes them to drop loot and gold. Equipping better items causes your guy to have increased attack or defence, and other parameters can be boosted as well, such as luck and endurance. A pro tip here: increasing the Endurance stat gives your character more HP, making them able to survive for longer and get more loot, which feeds back into the gameplay loop.
Selling unwanted items to the shops in town allows you to either buy new gear or a variety of helpful potions to help you heal, or even get more experience for a short period of time. It’s basically Diablo in an 8-bit suit. If you do die, and believe me you will, you respawn at the start of the dungeon, minus some gold and pride, but wiser as to what’s waiting for you. Enemies you have killed stay dead, which is nice, and you can usually tell which way you have been by the pixelated green blood on the floor. Of course, no self-respecting dungeon isn’t complete without a boss encounter, and it’s here that the difficulty ramps up, as the bosses have some very devious attack patterns you’ll need to suss out and overcome.
But what about game modes?
Upon starting a game, you are tasked with choosing your class to play as. There is a Warrior class, which is a tank whose attacks all involve being up close and personal, the Mage, whose attacks are mostly ranged but makes up for this by being squishy if any enemies do manage to close the distance, and the Cleric, a support-style character whose gifts largely revolve around healing. Obviously, being a big, burly kind of bloke, the Warrior was my first port of call as I dived headlong into the story.
You are a fledgling adventurer, trying to get a start in the adventuring business, but it’s hard going. You see, Archduke Wellington seems to have all the town’s adventuring needs covered, and we are going to find it hard to get a start. Even when we do find baddies and clear them out, the people in the town don’t believe us, and still rely on Wellington. As you progress through the game you’ll find out that all is not as it seems and maybe this so-called hero has feet of clay. That’s as far as I’m going into spoiler territory though. The story mode is classic “go here, clear this dungeon, best the boss, get to the next location” styled gameplay, and is perfectly playable either alone or in co-op with a friend.
Crawl mode is set in the same locations as the story, so if you’ve been to a specific place and want to visit it again in Crawl mode, you can. However, as the game is procedurally generated, the dungeon layouts are different each time you try to enter them. A perfect example of this is the Museum dungeon – a very hard location split over many different islands. There are multiple entrances, only one of which leads to the boss encounter, but each time a game is started the correct entrance moves. Gameplay-wise, this Crawl mode works exactly the same as that of the Story, but without the narrative. As the game revolves around loot, finding and equipping better gear makes you better able to survive as you carry on. Nicely, the loot you gather is carried over from Story to Crawl and vice versa.
Arena mode is pretty much just a horde mode, with waves of enemies coming to ruin your day. You have a set time to kill the enemies in each wave, and if you die you have to restart at the current wave, as the only way to move on is to kill anything that moves. Between each wave, you can buy new items from a vendor, opening chests that may have helpful or useful items inside. It’s all well and good too, with multiple waves dispatched with ease – until you get to something around wave 25 when the difficulty ramps up massively. It is however excellent fun and can help with loot acquisition, but as there is no healing in the waves, you should be warned and be ready to move at every given opportunity.
All is good in the world of crawling and brawling and then we get to the Brawl mode, the token PvP mode that is included for completeness. Diablo 3 had a PvP mode that I never touched, and I guess that what is found here in Crawlers and Brawlers is just about okay. I’m very much of the opinion that cooperative gaming is valued over PvP these days, being an old hippy at heart, and mostly for this reason I haven’t found a click with the Brawl mode included here. With a group of friends it can still be fun, but I honestly think crawling through a dungeon and killing enemies together as one is a lot more fun. Still, it works well across both the locally sourced and online worlds, and so if this is your bag then once more Crawlers and Brawlers suffices.
I have to however give a mention to the way the co-op works here. If you are playing online, each person’s loot is unique and only appears on their screen, which is the perfect way to deal with the very thorny issue of loot thievery. However, if you are playing via couch co-op, the loot is common, leading to arguments over who gets which bit of kit that drops. However, with this one very minor niggle aside, the rest of the game works very well. The graphics are cute, charming, and flat, and luckily you can customise your character as you create them, as it would otherwise be pretty tricky to keep track of who is who in a multiplayer game. The game moves at a fair old pace as well, and even though it’s not the most graphically demanding game in the world, it still is nice to see something running smoothly and responsively, even over the online services.
All in all then and Crawlers and Brawlers on Xbox One is an interesting proposition. With randomly generated dungeons, you’ll never play the same game twice, which adds greatly to the longevity. The game is fast, fun and, above all else, enjoyable, whether you are following the story, crawling for loot, or battling a horde in the Arena. I’m less sure about the Brawl mode, but feel sure that some will enjoy it, but as an overall experience it’s easy to recommend this game to both fans of Diablo and those looking for something a little bit retro to scratch that 8-bit itch.