Krater: Shadows Over Solside Review

29 Jun 2012

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Fatshark
Release Date:2012-06-12
Genre:
  • Role-Playing,Action
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Top-Down
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
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.
RPGs for Dummies

All of this sounds great so far, and I'll admit, Krater makes a strong first impression. The problems begin to crop up when it comes to actually playing the game. For starters, combat is generally very uninteresting. There is very little enemy variety, and their tactics are almost always identical - bum-rush your party, or stand still and shoot from afar. A few have access to special abilities like stuns and knockbacks, or can heal friendly units, but ultimately fighting just isn't that much fun. The same goes for your own party - mashing hotkeys on cooldown and choosing when to heal is basically all there is to it. Whereas titles like Diablo III offer up enemies that have different behaviors and require different abilities to deal with effectively, with Krater you've seen all the combat has to offer after about an hour, or even less. The same goes for level design - Krater has a handful of tilesets (caves, old factories/powerplants) and reuses them constantly with almost no distinctive features, landmarks, etc.

Then there's the character system, which sounds good on paper, but leaves a lot to be desired. The game has four attributes - Strength, Stamina, Intelligence and Focus - and these feed into the four classes, namely, Bruiser, Slayer, Regulator, and Medikus. Despite the names, these are basically tank, DPS, support and healer archetypes, the former two melee and the latter two ranged. The classes aren't anything special and, despite there being tons of randomly-generated mercs available for hire, they're all basically identical in everything but appearance.

This is largely because leveling in Krater is completely uninteresting, due to a lack of diversity or progression in skills - of any sort. While party members can be customized a little by installing attribute-boosting implants (you unlock more slots as the game goes on), the core abilities you have available will never, ever change over the course of the game. Some of the heroes available for hire do have different abilities (some healers have an area-of-effect heal, for instance, while others have a continuous heal beam), but these differences are cosmetic at best. Character progression is the bread and butter of any RPG, and yet leveling in Krater is unfulfilling in the extreme. While putting the emphasis on implants is in theory a good way to allow for respecs and more flexibility, it'd only really matter if the implants provided anything more than linear attribute boosts.

Then there's the issue of how experience is handled. Because all party members are basically interchangeable, and all bonuses come from implants, the actual leveling itself goes by very quickly. However, all party members are ranked from I to III, and are capped at levels 5, 10 and 15 respectively. This means you'll either have to pay for expensive training to upgrade a party member to the next tier, or hire a new one. This isn't a huge issue as I never got emotionally attached to any characters I made, but it further damages the feeling of progression.  I can understand and appreciate the desire to have X-COM or Jagged Alliance-style disposable troops, but mercs aren't valuable enough for this system to actually work.  Strategy and tactics games need to have a bigger picture that those smaller units tie into to make you care about them, and Krater doesn't have any such thing - someone dies for good?  All it means is you'll be spending another hour or two grinding a new mercenary up to max level again.

Finally, there's loot. There's been a disturbing trend in action-RPGs lately, spearheaded by Diablo III in particular, of reducing all equipment to static DPS and armor values. I'm against this system largely because it destroys any of the distinctiveness between weapons - it doesn't matter if you use a sword, axe, or chainsaw, all of them are effectively identical because DPS takes priority over everything. Krater does avoid falling into the trap of DPS being the be-all, end-all decider (the discrepancy between item DPS isn't that big, making secondary modifiers more interesting), but as the only equipment available are weapons and secondary items (i.e. health kits, grenades, etc.) there's really no interesting choices to make at all in Krater when it comes to outfitting your party.

All of this adds up to an RPG that's, at its best, extremely shallow. Leveling mechanics are interesting not because players like to see shiny numbers go up (though that helps), but because leveling gives players new opportunities, skills, abilities and so on. Krater has the basics of a decent RPG system in place but the developers didn't seem to understand why all those stats, experience points and skills are interesting in the first place. In the end it feels a bit like a game made by someone who read what features an RPG is supposed to include in a book somewhere, but had never actually played one before.
Post-Apocalyptic Bliss

At least Krater looks and sounds great. As mentioned earlier, the game sports a vibrant visual style that's different from other post-apocalyptic games, and it runs on a very competent DirectX 10/11 engine (making the game only compatible with Windows Vista/7). There are a lot of nice effects, like running water, real-time dynamic shadows, and depth-of-field that blurs the treetops and other structures close to the game's camera. I did run into some odd performance issues from time to time (occasionally load times were very long, and I encountered a few areas where framerate plummeted) but for the most part the game runs well on my 2-odd-year-old gaming system. Visually speaking, I have no complaints - Krater really does look excellent most of the time, and in a very distinct way. For a game from a small development studio, it's a big accomplishment.

Interface-wise, Krater also works very well. It uses a set of controls that should come as second nature to anyone who's played a real-time strategy game in the last 10 years, with the 1-9 number keys used for triggering special abilities, left-clicks to select your heroes, and right-clicks to move and attack. A number of other RTS-style conventions are also present, like attack-moving to specific spots or queuing up waypoints. The result is a game that plays fast and smoothly, and only makes me wish that the core gameplay was good enough to make it worthwhile.

The real stand-out presentation-wise with Krater is the soundtrack, which covers an unconventional electronic spectrum. Most games in the hack-and-slash genre go for dramatic, orchestrated music, or dark ambiance, but Krater's tunes are upbeat and dynamic - I'm no electronic music buff so I couldn't pinpoint what genre it falls into, but suffice it to say it's all well-composed and distinctive, without being too flashy or distracting, and matches the visual style quite well. Fatshark are offering the soundtrack as a download with the game's collector's edition, and it's one of those cases where I'd say the extra few dollars might well be worth paying.

As a side note, the game is only available digitally via Steam, and as such features standard Steam features like achievements and Steam Cloud save backup. I had no Steam-related issues while playing, but as usual, I think it's worth clarifying what DRM a game uses, if any, and whether it impacts the gameplay experience.

Conclusion

It's a real shame that Krater has ended up in such a poor state. When news of it first appeared a few months ago, I was intrigued by its visual style and theme, but ultimately all those good ideas were just that - ideas. Krater fails to execute on any of its gameplay concepts and the end result is woefully uninteresting, often outright boring and tedious. This is one of those rare games where all the technical pieces fit perfectly and interacting with the game is enjoyable, but the mechanics themselves just don't work. What's worse is that those bad mechanics are only supported by the thinnest and most uninteresting of stories, and the worst of lazy RPG quest design.

Fatshark have been hard at work keeping Krater updated, as they plan multiple expansion packs and have already released patches that improve upon the game (for example, the release version didn't let you upgrade your existing party to higher tiers). Online multiplayer is conspicuously missing, but Fatshark also promise to include it in a future update. All of this support is great and leaves me some hope that the game will eventually be salvaged, but it's the core design that's the issue, not the amount of content, or features, or technical problems. These are problems that aren't so easily patched away or fixed with a tweak here and there.

For now, I simply cannot recommend Krater. Even at low price points, there are much better games out there. It's got good ideas, certainly, and as I've stressed it looks and sounds the part, but good ideas and sharp presentation don't make a good game.