Posted by Eric Schwarz at 9:33 am on 06.29.2012 (12 months ago)
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.