Krater: Shadows Over Solside is the newest game from Fatshark, an independent and capable Swedish developer. Fatshark first appeared in 2010 with Lead and Gold, a class-based shooter in the vein of Team Fortress 2. Afterwards, they went on to make Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 and Hamilton's Great Adventure, platform and puzzle titles respectively that were generally well received by the gaming community. It's a diverse history, to be sure. Having had a little experience with their prior titles, I expected a professional and polished game, despite Krater being Fatshark's first action-RPG to date.
Unfortunately, Krater represents Fatshark's first major misstep. It's a great-looking title with a fantastic soundtrack, and offers tons of content at its $15 USD price point, that much can't be debated. However, Fatshark's lack of RPG development experience really shows, with extremely limited character progression, uninteresting loot and crafting mechanics, and a near-inconsequential storyline padded out by literally hundreds of fetch quests. While it manages to get a few of the basics right and has its heart in the right place with some great ideas, ultimately Krater is a game that doesn't so much lack polish or playability, as it does a coherent understanding of what makes an RPG enjoyable in the first place.
Life in the Krater
Krater's world is interesting, if underdeveloped. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic Sweden, bombs and radiation haven't damaged the world nearly as much as what's seen in games like Fallout or Borderlands. This leads to an aesthetically interesting game world that's rich with vegetation and wildlife, running water, and vibrant settlements - punctuated by a massive crater in the earth that civilization has grown around. As the game opts for a slightly absurdist style of humor, this original visual direction works out great and really helps Krater stand out from other games.
However, the actual story (and backstory, for that matter) of Krater is sparse to say the least - there's a bit of a story concerning a bandit leader called Bloodclot, but it's not exactly heady stuff, and most of the game content is completely irrelevant to the main plot. Moreover, for every interesting quest (like raiding a den of giant moose to steal their eggs), there's another dozen boring Fed-Ex quests (in one case midway through the game I had to go between the same three NPCs several times over, back and forth, presumably just to waste 15 minutes of my time). The lack of compelling story isn't a huge problem for action-RPGs, of course, where the focus is usually on killing and looting, but Krater has a lack of variety in its objectives that even the silliest quest premises can't make up for.
This also isn't really helped by the fact that you don't have any sort of consistent characters to play as to add some more personality to the mix. Krater revolves around a party of three mercenaries you can hire on, and they have no personality or involvement in the story whatsoever, and in fact, can be swapped out at just about any time. The NPCs aren't really any better, however, as while there's some morbid, Scandinavian-style humor in the game, it's nothing that will leave a lasting impression. As banal as they can be, other hack-and-slash games like Diablo III and Torchlight at least are about something.
Hack, Slash, Loot... With a Few Twists
Krater plays out as a standard top-down perspective action-RPG in the Diablo mold, with one key difference - instead of controlling one character, you control up to three. As a result, Krater can actually play a bit more like a strategy game - the closest analogue I can think of is Dawn of War II, but there's a strong resemblance to some of Warcraft III's single-player levels. The key difference is that Krater ditches a mission-based design in favor of a generally open-ended world with lots of side quests and locations to discover.
Though Krater does feature towns and NPCs to talk to, most of it is flavor, made-up quest hubs that offer little but necessary shops and other services. Almost nobody but quest givers actually have anything important to say, but that's par for the course for this style of game. Dialogue is voiced sporadically, with some characters having significant amounts of voice-acting, and others with none, or small nonsensical quips - and all the voices are pretty goofy, adding to the general silliness of the game.
When you get out into the world, you'll find that Krater actually sports a full world map to be explored, complete with random encounters. This is a nice departure for the hack and slash genre, and while the random encounters do get a bit annoying after a few hours, exploring the world is entertaining, and it's made even more entertaining by a lack of level scaling. Sometimes it's easy to go off track in the story, but usually getting your party demolished by higher-level enemies will get you back on the right path. At the very least, it's nice to see a game that has these "old school" qualities still intact.