Wot I Think: Krater
Krater, Fatshark's colourful take on dungeon crawling, is a feature-laden, post-apocalyptic taste of party-driven RPGing tactics. It's got a sense of humour and a sense of taste, but does it make any sense? Here's wot I think.
I have a lot of sympathy with what Fatshark are trying to do. They claim that Krater aims to mix “the combat mechanics of action-rpgs with the top-down tactics of the classic old-school games such as Syndicate and X-Com.” And it sort of does that. Possibly the most immediately cheering aspect of their attempt to achieve this synthesis is the way that you play along to a familiar ARPG beat, but with three characters at once. Each of these characters can be independently controlled, or commanded as a group in an RTS drag-box fashion. Their special powers can be instantly deployed from six hotkeys. These ideals set Krater up as something interesting, and it back that up with the world it's set in, which sits quite far from the standard fantasy ARPG template with its post-apocalyptic Sweden. This all makes for a robust foundation.
Much of Krater, however, is baffling. And not because so much of it is left unexplained. The lack of a tutorial in a game like this is little more than a speed bump. I honestly don't care if I have to read roll-over tool-tips and stats for things to figure it all out. I've been doing that for years. The deeper issue is that some of the features that lie at the heart of this game do not create a logical structure, and because they defy intuition and create incoherence, they cause frustration. The fundamental structure of the game places a question mark of confusion over itself, and results in an uneasy and awkward experience for what could and should have been a great game.
You must understand that I went in pretty keen. Why wouldn't I want to play something of a rare strain of ARPG that blends standard mob-thumping with slightly older, more traditional party-based games? The art-style – cartoon gask-mask folk whose aesthetic sits somewhere between Borderlands and a Team Fortress 2 Pyro cosplay session – is a consistent delight. My first impressions were bright: lovely post apocalyptic towns with quirky roof-gardens and leafy backdrops, characters that were reasonably well-written and entertaining, despite their facelessness. This really is a world I want to play in: a ramshackle, colourful frontier of the unfortunate future, centered around that mysterious, titular crater.
The world map, designed to illustrated this and also to navigate and explore your way the world's many locations, is gorgeous and evocative – if lacking in quite enough information – giving the entire game a feeling of being part of a larger canvas. An early random encounter drops some silly sinisterness into the game, and at that stage, before you've really worked out the rules of the thing, it's all looking rather promising. The game is pretty funny. There are even cracks about Sweden and RPGs – pickled fish, rats in the basement, and a post-apocalyptic furniture company called IDEA – giving Krater atypical sprinkle of awareness.
I love the free camera (with an analogue zoom) as well as the control of the three characters. Each one of these comes with, potentially, its own archetype, allowing you to set up some rudimentary tactical structures: slow and stun with that guy, heal with this guy, and lay down the damage with the big guy. That part makes sense a lot of sense.
However, as I played the oddities began to pile up. The sense that despite the good stuff, it didn't get the basics right. The combat never really gets interesting. Things don't escalate in a pleasing fashion. The baddies don't really come with much variety, and don't exactly work together. They're ranged, or they're not, they're the standard version, or the tougher boss version. You're expecting click climaxes to arrive, but they never do. Krater never climbs up beyond some quite basic button-mashing. There's not much else going on with combat, which is disheartening when it's the largest part of what there is to do.
Then you notice that the mini-map fog is being redrawn as you trapse around dungeons. Defying a convention that allows you to tell where you've been. It's baffling.
As you fight your way through various missions you begin to encounter the injury and death mechanisms. If a character gets knocked down too many times they can die permanently. You have to visit the hospital to get minor injuries seen to, but permanent injuries stack up. Their negative stat modifiers might not matter too much, but they do require you to be levelling up other characters in case you lose the guys you are currently working with. That means grinding up a lot more money and equipment, which always seems slightly under-supplied, with far too much junk and far too little useful equipment. This might not have been so irritating if death in the game wasn't so arbitrary. Quite often it was just a case of running, unexpectedly, into a mob several levels higher, and dying. Nothing I could have done. No way to back off. No way to gauge the challenge.
The injury and death system is ultimately more about increasing workload, rather than providing excitement through threat. This is an important point, and at the heart of my confusion with Krater. The reason permanent death in games is thrilling is because of connection to and investment in a character, which is not found here. You either have stuff you need and care about because you don't want to lose it (Day Z) or you've put time and money into fitting out something expensive (Eve). But in Krater I found it hard to care about what I was putting together. Partly that's because of a lack of player's own investment – there's no process of character creation or customisation beyond the uninteresting weapons they are carrying (you do not even name them) – but also because however well you might intend to play Krater, you are forced to train up new characters to continue the game, no matter your skill with the characters you began with. Yes, the characters you start with reach a level cap and must be discarded. Not that the game bothers to explain that, they just stop getting XP and you have to notice that it says “level 5/5” in the character screen. That means hiring someone who can take you from 0-10, and later up to 15.
That's right: characters run out of the ability to progress. There seems to be no reason for this, other than to increasing the amount of time spent grinding for cash and equipment with replacement characters.
A bizarre side effect of this character-trashing disconnectedness is that story continuity exists, but there's no character continuity. Characters that you've just hired will experience the storyline, and respond to NPCs, as if they were the same original band of characters, even though they are not, and had nothing to do with previous events. It all makes a mild farce of the notion of this being a party-based ARPG.
Perhaps if the Krater's character upgrading had been slicker and more intuitive, and the seemingly random difficulty spikes had been more comprehensible to me as I played, I would not have struggled so much to like this game. But to have to go back and grind up characters because of the arbitrary caps.... it's baffling.
As I said at the beginning, I am not unsympathetic to what Fatshark are doing here. They are trying to make an ARPG that both hits the critical beat of dungeon-crawling and loot churning, with some deep and valuable crafting, but at the same time delivers a different kind of world, and a different kind of character management micro-game. I get all that, but I can't say that it works or, consequently, really recommend it.
Finally, I should make this last point: I've avoided comparing this game to Diablo III, because I don't really think the game is comparable. They are from a similar region of the genre map, but they are cousins from quite different backgrounds, and with utterly different goals. That said, the intensity of the combat experience in Diablo III is what makes it sing. It's what makes any game like this memorable and fun. The fireworks, and the variety of things you hit, it adds up to a symphony of loot-hoovering bludgeoneering. Krater, by contrast, feels quite downbeat. A well-meaning garage band playing in the music hall intended for a full-scale orchestra. And the dissonance is notable.