Krater may be another top-down post apocalyptic action RPG, but it has a refreshing new way of doing business. Seeing similar games rely on horrendously dull visuals and grindingly miserable themes, indie developer Fatshark opted to create a vibrant and colourful take on the end of days, leading us through colourful and lush environments within an enormous bomb crater carved into a mythical realm once known as Sweden. Throughout this truly enormous and varied setting, complete with a real-time overworld boasting procedurally-generated random encounters, players lead a three-man team of bickering mercenaries to glory and riches. In terms of presentation, Krater is a breath of fresh air, and one that oozes personality and humour from underneath its mandatory gas mask.
Your units quote pop culture references at every opportunity. You'll work for a furniture company, IDEA, which mercilessly lampoons the Swedish flat-pack giant with hilarious results. NPCs banter and joke rather than cough up po-faced busywork. You'll explore verdant forests, neon towns and crystalline mines, all of which are packed with opportunities for advancement and wealth beyond imagining. Just to finish off what proved to be an exceptional pitch, Krater promised to play much like a cross between Diablo and Baldur's Gate, mixing real-time combat with detailed character development and squad mechanics.
Krater almost sounds too good to be true. And it nearly is, though without hesitation, I can tell you that Fatshark's new title is definitely good.
Once the setting and storyline are explained via a quick and painless tutorial, Krater throws players into the real-time action, putting us in control of three units that can be mixed and matched from a quartet of distinct classes (that focus on traditional Tank, Healer and DPS roles). When in town or an exploration area, each soldier can be moved independently or as a trio, with the click-heavy gameplay resembling a blend of Diablo's immediate gratification and Baldur's Gate's squad tactics. Towns act as a safe haven for undertaking missions (both essential and optional), recruiting new team members, buying weapons, crafting gear and interacting with the varied, occasionally insane inhabitants. We've already covered this, but once again, it's worth pointing out that the irreverent dialogue, humorous banter and Deus Ex/Blade Runner-esque music really does set Krater apart from practically everything else in the genre, giving it a personality all of its own. Krater is also really rather pretty, though most of the visual impact stems from the art design rather than the slightly utilitarian graphics.
Battles play out in real time, with each squad member responding to some basic click commands for movement and engagement. Each character boasts a couple of preset skills (such as an aggro-generating smash for melee-centric Bruisers or a sustained healing blast courtesy of the slightly unhinged Medikus) that can be triggered and directed on-the-fly, with simple point, click, and forget controls for selecting melee or ranged targets. It's a fun and streamlined system that works well, requiring a bit of strategy and timing but otherwise not challenging players too harshly or bogging down the action with unnecessary depth. The camera, though a little sticky, can be rotated and zoomed for a good view of the action, showing off the visuals to advantage.
When exploring outside of mission areas, you'll enter a gargantuan overworld than can be explored in real time, moving between the dozens of quest zones and a liberal handful of major townships. Every once in a while, you'll be pulled into a random battle set in a procedurally-generated environment, populated by an assortment of foes and some treasure for your trouble. Coupled with a constant stream of randomly-generated weapons and loot, not to mention respawning enemies in quest locations, you'll get a huge amount of replayable content for a pleasingly negligible price tag. Krater is as enormous as it is refreshing, and doubly impressive for £11.99.
While great fun, the squad mechanics do run into a couple of major hurdles. Ranged characters don't have much in the way of range, meaning that combat usually descends into a frantic and confusing dog pile once enemies engage. When this happens, it's nigh-on impossible to quickly leap between characters and plan formations or strategies; an active pause system and some formation hotkeys wouldn't have gone amiss. When out of combat, it's also impossible to select all units with a single click (you'll have to draw a box around them RTS-style), which isn't ideal. Thankfully, a generous attitude to regenerating health, wounds and perma-death helps take the sting out of some of the more frantic bundles.
Despite Krater's undeniable good value, enemy types, class skills and quest objectives soon become incredibly repetitive, leading to a fair bit of grind for grinding's sake. Considering the genre, however, this is fine in my book. Grinding is kind of the point.
Krater deals with character-building in an interesting way. Units earn experience through quests and combat, but instead of letting players assign skills and attributes in the familiar fashion, gaining levels unlocks upgrade hardpoints to fill with boosters and implants. These modules can be found in the field or crafted with raw materials, and can be used to either supplement soldiers with buffs or dramatically alter their two fixed skills. New units can be hired from a recruitment agency, all of whom have a randomly-generated name and appearance. It frequently feels like you're marshalling a squad of post-apocalyptic troubleshooters rather than playing a game, and it's a neat idea. In theory.
In practice, this setup is rife with problems. First and foremost, basing all character progression around randomised loot drops is a gob-smackingly dumb idea, for reasons so obvious that I won't insult you with a follow-up. More worrying, though, is the fact that each unit has an staggeringly low level cap. Starting troopers max out at Level 5, and you'll therefore buy new soldiers based on their own level caps rather than their unique skills. Your roster will quickly swell into a useless army of the damned, glutted with obsolete, pointless retirees who are no longer fit for task, and ignored for the majority of the game once you've hired someone with a higher level cap. It's clear that Fatshark wanted to encourage players to buy and experiment with multiple units over the course of the campaign, but rather than offering us the carrot of diverse, exciting and numerous classes, they've opted for the stick of forced redundancy.
Fatshark has promised to address this problem with a new 'boot camp,' and to their credit, they've been patching Krater like crazy ever since launch. But this frenzy of fixing, while laudable, starkly demonstrates that Krater was simply not ready to release. Early adopters encountered outdated redistributables, graphical issues, incompatibility issues, performance issues, audio issues, keybinding issues... in fact, every issue imaginable. Krater joined the worryingly large number of Steam games that released far too early and turned their first-day buyers into unwilling beta testers, which is never a great start for an indie title without much in the way of publicity.
As a rabid exponent of the Indie scene, I always feel guilty when writing this sort of thing. But write I must, because developers, you need to wise up. Boutique games are made or broken, not by critical reviews like this, but by early reactions and player reviews on the Steam forums. If your game isn't fit to capitalise on this goodwill and the first three weeks of sales, it will be subsumed by the huge amount of new titles hitting the crowded marketplace, bringing your sales down to a dribble and forcing you to rely on - you guessed it - Steam discounts and promotions down the line. Without shareholders to appease and analysts to impress, a fortnight's delay can actually be an advantage.
- Solid and satisfying action-RPG gameplay
- Colourful setting and irrepressible personality
- Great value
- Weird lack of squad selection and formation commands
- Combat can become repetitive and confusing
- Unsatisfying and restrictive character development
- Horrible launch, missing co-op, some persistent graphics and gameplay issues
The Short Version: Krater is an engrossing, colourful and action-packed RPG that revels in its own unique personality. It's big on value and style. It's great fun when it works. It's a perfect summer time sink.
It's also a work in progress.
What's here is competent enough to satisfy, but sadly Krater's missteps and shockingly incomplete launch means that many players will want to wait a few weeks for a vastly superior build.