I mentally steeled myself for The Excrawlers. A roguelike dungeon-crawler (yawn), with a pixel-art style (yaaaawn) and dished up for only £4.19 (eep). I was emotionally prepped for boredom, frustration and a couple of hours that I was never going to get back. At least I would have 1000G for my troubles.
I was right on only one count: The Excrawlers does hand out 1000G like they are cursed cookies. But in every other aspect, I was proven wrong. I had judged this budget book by its cover. In all honesty, The Excrawlers is the kind of game that renews my love for games, because it shows that assumptions can be overturned. Whenever you boot up a game on the Xbox, there is the chance that you will be delighted and surprised.
We sneered at the pixel art, for example, but The Excrawlers is actually rather exquisitely done. There are five worlds to explore here, and each has its own palette and murky threat. A laboratory is alive with working pistons and bursting pipes; a dungeon has a blood-soaked floor, dark corners, and pustules full of spiders. The Excrawlers never lets up in delivering oppressive, but always colourful, environments.
The enemies are fantastically wrought too. A couple have overlaps – we fought a latter-game spirit that effectively copied one in the first world – but generally these enemies are as varied as they come. Hulking trolls, walking chemistry vials and beholder-like creatures show the breadth of the character art, and they all act in ways that force you to change your behaviour. Some skitter out of the way to throw projectiles at range. Others come closer, hoping that you will die in their death-rattle. Managing the enemies around you – which you kill first and which you keep at arm’s length – is great fun, and almost teeters on Diablo levels of action-RPG combat.
Each world is slimline, coming with only two levels and a boss. It’s perfectly possible to chew through a world in fifteen minutes, moving onto the next and the next. But we saw it as a positive: The Excrawlers doesn’t stretch out its levels and enemies with grind and a multi-hour playtime. It wants every single moment to be punchy. So, we felt like we were berserkers, frothing at the mouth, cutting through hordes of enemies.
This impatient approach stretches to the RPG stuff. We suspect that there’s an early version of The Excrawlers on a hard drive somewhere, where the player levels up slowly and incrementally. The Excrawlers is Hades but on fast forward: we leveled up from level ten to level twenty-odd in the space of one boss. We’ve not quite experienced something like it before: we’d be choosing new upgrades on two different skill trees almost every minute, and it was less high maintenance than it sounds. We were so overpowered that we could stick a pin in managing the whole upgrading thing, and wait to do it when things were quieter.
It’s the biggest criticism that we have of The Excrawlers: it’s not particularly challenging. At least, not until a skyscraper-tall spike at the end of the game, when the final boss arrives. Once you get over a small hump at the start, when an enemy will chew off half of your health with a single hit, the rest of the game is an absolute breeze. We reached a final form where we could decide whether or not we could be bothered to roll out of the way of attacks. We had so many vampiric upgrades that we could regen any health we lost.
But as long as you are prepared for that soft difficulty curve, there’s so much hack-and-slashery to enjoy. There are only a few moves to pull off – a dodge, a melee attack and a ranged arrow attack are about the limits of it – but they all have zero latency and flow from each other perfectly. Combat gets rhythmic, as you respond to the clearly telegraphed enemy attacks and roll about the arena for the next priority target.
But our favourite moments come with the challenge rooms, little optional moments in the dungeon where you thwack a crystal and start a couple of waves of attacks. Survive these, and you get a choice of upgrades, from a doppelganger who will attack with you, to Master Sword-style bolts from your sword. They mostly fall into the categories of ‘helps at range’ and ‘helps at close quarters’, and we doubled down on our choice of the two. They’re also utterly game-changing and blistering fun, turning us into a Super Saiyan version of ourselves, leaving enemies in our wake. Again, it makes The Excrawlers too easy, but when things are this much fun, you tend to forget.
The story is too illusive and mistranslated to fully understand. There’s some good stuff there, as memory-less, mumbling people turn up in your hub room after you save them in the dungeons. These husks can be talked to for quests, and their mini-stories – as well as the game’s macro one – develops, but we couldn’t quite grasp it. We got a sense of a purgatory-like place and an untrustworthy lich called Madok presiding over it, but didn’t get much more than that.
But while there isn’t much in The Excrawlers difficulty or story to really get your teeth into, there’s plenty on the bone elsewhere. It took us aback, if we’re being honest: we didn’t expect this little roguelike to be so tasty. For £4.19, we’d recommend that this little-RPG-that-could jumps high up your wishlist.