Krater! Post-apocalyptic squad tactics sci-fi action RPG! I picked this one up as soon as I saw it on Steam. Going in I had been expecting/hoping for something like an updated Fallout Tactics, but it’s actually much more like a Swedish Diablo 3 set in the future. Not that this is bad, but it was surprising.
Gameplay takes place in real time, with the player in command of three mercenaries (or “adventurers”, depending on how you like to look at things). Players can build a three man team from the game’s four available classes, and there’s no limit on how many of each class can be on the team either, which I found interesting. Characters gain levels through combat, which improves their stats and unlocks more implant and booster slots. However, there are also tiers of characters. (I spent quite a while trying to figure out why they wouldn’t level up more before finally searching online.) The starting characters can only reach level 5, and to be able to progress in the game, you need to buy better soldiers from the recruiting agent in town. These next troops can level up to 10, and are thus more awesome. Further into the game, you can recruit variations on the 4 classes which have improved versions of the abilities as well. For instance, instead of a ranged single target stun, it becomes a burst centered on the character instead. This unfortunately means that you will be carrying level 0 characters through high-level areas, or walking all the way back to the starter areas.
Many gameplay elements brought Diablo 3 to mind: coloured item quality levels, the ability to modify your character’s combat abilities to suit your playstyle, and most importantly, the abilities hotbar with timed cooldowns. Admittedly, I only made this connection when I started to think about the gameplay for this review and not while playing, so despite the similarities, they do feel quite different.
I’m disappointed that there’s no option to pause combat, as this makes it much more difficult command your squad tactically. Between the somewhat buggy unit AI and the less-than-accurate click detection, combat can often feel like a crap shoot. On the launch screen, there’s an (unavailable) option for online play, so I suspect this decision was made for that reason, but regardless, I feel gameplay suffers as a result. My other big complaint is a lack of depth to the character screens. I’ve upgraded my tank’s health like crazy, but I can’t find for the life of me how many hitpoints he has. My DPS character has insane strength, but nowhere does it say by how much this is affecting his weapon damage. Is lots of strength good? Should I be using more defense implants instead? Are the damage boosters helping much? Who knows? Not the player, unfortunately. These are two elements which would change the game drastically, allowing much more thoughtful and deliberate gameplay.
Krater‘s visuals and style are a coup for an independent developer like Fatshark, and play a huge part in creating an interesting, unique and immersive setting. It’s surprisingly bright and cheerful for a game set after the world has ended, and is rife with tongue-in-cheek Swedish parody. (You help the IDEA corporation, and many characters talk with that extreme lilt most associated with the Swedish Chef from the Muppets to name a just a few.) The visuals match this tone, and are slightly cartoonish and quite colourful, especially compared to something like Fallout. It works well, though admittedly it feels a bit strange to be in a world where people are trying to get on with their lives, rather than sulking in burnt-out ruins of the past. And while missions tend to be fetch quests or the “kill 5 rats” format, it’s the story behind them that make them interesting and original. One that stands out for me was a little girl (in a gas mask and a pink shirt with a snarling bear on it) who wanted jars of wolf slime for a science project. You find out when you bring her the goods that her whole plan is to just throw it all over her classmates. She pays you with “all the money in my mother’s purse”. I do wish that there was some element of the game that let you delve deeper into the story and world of Krater. It feels like there’s a depth and complexity present that you aren’t able to access, which seems like a shame.
However, as charming and interesting as the missions are, there’s really no protagonist, little to make the player care about the antagonist, and no unifying drive to the game. You start out with 3 characters looking for fortune in a small town, and start working for a woman who runs a mercenary outfit. But these guys are soon replaced by bigger, stabbier characters who can level up more. This leaves the player as the ethereal commander of a band of random and ever-changing mercenaries who undertake odd jobs for personal profit. With no goal to work towards (other than the ability to take on more challenging odd jobs), it quickly starts to feel like leveling for the sake of leveling. Some kind of mechanic where you could garrison your older team members to defend locations, or push back the bandit threat, or contain the zombie apocalypse would give meaning to the roster full of random soldiers you don’t use anymore. As it is, there’s no sense of urgency, no constant element for the player to relate to, and no unifying direction.
As I started playing the game, I was worried that it would be far too easy as I casually blew through all the enemies in the starting areas. This was definitely not the case, and the game quickly becomes more challenging. I found that the difficulty of the is pretty fluid; it’s possible to wander into areas that are far out of your depth, but at the same time it’s as easy to return to them to level your characters. The recruitment system means that if some of your characters manage to get permanent injuries (this is rare) or even die (I have not had this happen, but it’s apparently possible), you can make more, having learned valuable lessons. Implants and boosters make all the difference too. A level 5 character won’t survive much better than a level 0 character without them, which was something that I realized only after much frustration.
Krater is a game still very much in development, and Fatshark has promised co-op missions, PVP, and “other features”. They call it a living game, which brings to mind Minecraft. I really hope that they are as ambitious in expanding the scope of their game as Mojang as been. Know also that in its current state, Krater is rough around the edges, but all the bugs I have run into so far have been pretty minor. For $15 on Steam, you get tons of content and gameplay. I’m very curious to see what this game will become. Despite all my criticisms, (it’s a review after all), Krater has been a blast. (Ha!)