Monday, 29 October 2012


All right.  Let's do this.

Way, way back in March, I talked about Roguelikes in general, and gave my opinion of one of the main examples of that genre of game, Angband.  I followed this up with a review of probably the most famous example, NetHack, in April.  I originally intended to these reviews a regular series, and planned to review another major variant, Crawl, a week or two later.

Well, only six months late.

Part of the reason for the delay was that I was struggling to make progress with the game.  I wanted my review to be based on more than the first couple of levels, and on some experience with all the different classes offered.  So I waited to focus on the game a bit more.  Throw in the times when I wasn't blogging, and here we are.

Like NetHack, Crawl is a Hack-like, a spiritual successor to Hack.  It has a similar structure and goal: you start at the top of the game's single dungeon, and must descend to the bottom, find a unique item, and then return to the top.  The MacGuffin is the Orb of Zot rather than the Amulet of Yendor, but this is only of marginal importance.  Almost everything you meet is hostile, to be avoided or killed.  Crawl also uses a Hacklike inventory system, a single menu of 52 items containing both items you carry and items you wear.  The flexibility of that system is also retained, with wielding stones or pieces of flesh as weapons possible and sometimes useful.

I tend to think of Crawl as NetHack done right.

This ultimately stems from Crawl remaining in current development.  Indeed, I'm playing 0.9.2, while the most recent version is already 0.11.1  Crawl can thus benefit from an extra decade's worth of both game development theory and typical processing power as compared to NetHack; and this in turn has lead to a number of improvements in the interface and gameplay.

Let's start with the interface.  At the most basic, the manual for Crawl is accessible in-game; a minor thing, but a definite irritation in NetHack.  There are a substantial number of help menus in Crawl, and they generally provide the information you's expect in an easily accessible manner, while not giving you as much of the game mechanics as does Angband.  The biggest complaint I have here is that the game does not provide information on even basic, non-magical weapons and armour, forcing you to either look up spoilers online or keep notes.  The former kind of misses the point, while the latter is just busy work.

The second biggest interface complaint has to do with the colouring scheme used in the inventory, as shown in part above.  The different colours (which include blue, dark green and red) that are used are not explained in the game, and while it's not too hard to figure out, it seems that an explicit explanation should be there.

The manual and help files are a big help for a beginner.  Even more so, though, Crawl comes with a detailed and very useful tutorial.  At first, I ignored this, thinking my prior Roguelike experience would be sufficient.  This was a mistake, however, as the tutorial explained a number of elements I'd missed, let me understand the magic and religion systems much better and also lets you use characters somewhat more powerful than the usual level 1!  Tutorials are pretty standard in modern professional games.  I'd argue that they are even more necessary for Roguelikes, due to their complex gameplay, powerful commands and simplistic, non-intuitive graphics.  Crawl is not the only Roguelike to have a tutorial mode, simply the first I've covered, but it is one area Crawl scores over Angband too.

Another thing I like about Crawl is the level design.  It is clear that a lot of effort has been made to provide a range of different layouts.  Even within the main dungeon itself, we have levels with the rooms in a regular pattern:

levels with irregular rooms:

odd wall materials:

among many, many others.  That's not even counting branches of the dungeon, which tend to have their own feel, such as the erratic and ever-changing Abyss:
Contrast this to the every-level-looks-the-same feel of Angband or NetHack, and it can be quite refreshing.  It can also be somewhat jarring, as some of the different levels are quite different and the lack of continuity is sometimes a bad thing, but mostly not.

One of the best elements of Crawl is the auto-explore command.  This started as a add-on for NetHack, but seems to have always been a part of Crawl.  Essentially, pressing 'o' will have the computer automatically move your character around the dungeon, picking up certain items (scrolls, potions, wands etc.).  This continues till you either see something interesting, such as a monster; or you press a key; or you have explored everything your can.  This removes a lot of tedium, and is hugely beneficial.2  It does have a couple of drawbacks; for example, it will often miss one or two squares in the corner of a room, and then come back from the far end of the dungeon to look at them if you aren't careful.  But even these can be avoided with appropriate use of exclusions.

Crawl offers a huge number of races and classes; 24 in 0.9, 25 in 0.10:
plus 27 classes (28 in 0.10):
However, classes in Crawl are only starting choices.  The development of each character once you start the game is almost entirely based on your race and your actions.  Specifically, Crawl uses a skill system where your class determines which skills you start with, while your race determines how quickly you can learn each one.
Earlier versions used a slightly awkward system that lead to the infamous victory dance.  The idea was that killing a monster would give you an experience reserve, that would then be allocated to skills based on what you did next.  So players would kill a monster, then cast the spells they wanted to develop; the victory dance.  By 0.9 this had been replaced by the current system, which is superior in my opinion.  Now experience is allocated as it is earned, in amounts proportional to how much you have used each skill recently.  However, you can turn off learning a skill, making it possible to focus on the most relevant subset.

While the skill system is elegant, realistic and flexible, I do have one complaint.  I find that all the different character classes end up playing very similarly.  Now, an advocate of the game would likely point to this as a feature rather than a bug, and I do see where they are coming from, but dammit, I need some negatives to add to this review!

The spell system is interesting, with a number of different spell schools and a nice variety of spells to learn.  A nice benefit compared to Angband is that once you've memorised a spell,
you don't need the spell book to keep using it.  Also, any character can potentially learn magic, which fits in to that whole flexible-development thing I mentioned above.  Unfortunately, access to spells is somewhat erratic and unreliable, so unless you start with a spell book you might have to wait.

The other common type of magic in fantasy is that granted by the gods.  Again, Crawl offers a lot of flexibility; while only a few classes start out worshipping a god, all3 can eventually choose to devote themselves to a religious path.  Helping this, there's the Temple, a short branch early in the game that contains multiple altars where you can pledge yourself to a deity.
I also like the selection of religions available; from Ashnzari, the Cursed God, to Cheibriados, the God of Time (and doing things slowly), there are some interesting options to choose from.  Or you could go for something simple, like Sif Muna the God of Magic for a primary spell-caster.

Another minor problem with the game has to do with the setting.  It does feel a bit bland at times, especially when it comes to unique monsters.  There's something unsatisfying about fighting enemies named Sigmund4, Jessica and Terence.  At least give them surnames or titles, Jessica Greyheart or Sigmund the Grizzled, for example.

On the subject of uniques, the game does seem more fond of the early game levels of death than some others.  I've had more than a few promising characters run into three or four uniques on the second or third level, at which point the only hope is to run away deeper into the dungeon.  This is related to the lack of escapes in the game; often, when you encounter a dangerous enemy, your only hope is to run for it and hope they aren't faster than you.  And sometimes you aren't, or you get confused or poisoned or swarmed.

Overall, I like Crawl a lot.  I probably like Angband more, but at least some of that is because Angband was my first Roguelike.  Crawl's biggest strength is its interface, especially the movement commands; its biggest weakness the flavour, which is sometimes bland and sometimes erratic.  The tutorial makes it a good choice for beginners (I literally learned more about NetHack from playing Crawl than from NetHack itself) while the difficulty remains challenging even for more experienced players.  People like numbers; so on a scale of 1 to ten, where Angband is a 9 and NetHack a 4, Crawl gets an 8: definitely recommended.

1. The version numbers are slightly anachronistic; the game is as stable and complete as any Roguelike.
2. It would not work quite as well in Angband and its variants, as they tend to have more monsters on each level.
3. Except for demigods, one of the races.
4. One of the most deadly enemies in the early game, incidentally.

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