If there is one word that describes recent PC release Krater absolutely perfectly, it’s “inconsistent”. At times it feels like a real gem tarnished by a few gameplay issues, while at others it seems like a pile of junk that could look quite fetching and shiny in the right sunlight. When the game gets into a rhythm, it purrs. But if anything throws off the delicate balance, it can become an incredibly frustrating experience.
Krater is an action RPG that bears more than a passing resemblance to big titles like Diablo but with quite a different setting. The Krater is a radioactive remnant of some kind of global war smack dab in the middle of Sweden. Despite the dangers, it attracts a very particular breed of settlers who illegally scour the Underside for treasure, loot, riches – the usual. Of course, the Underside is home to lots of dangerous and mysterious terrors as well. It’s not exactly a great line of work, but post-apocalyptic beggers can’t be choosers. It’s not the most innovative action RPG premise ever, but the Scandinavian setting is pretty unique and leads to lots of fun Swedish jokes about IKEA, Minecraft, moose and more.
Let’s be clear: Krater has some rather excellent redeeming qualities. Foremost among these good points are the visuals and audio. The world of Krater looks simply stunning. It’s post-apocalyptic, sure, but it’s also vibrant and verdant. Everything is bright, cheerful and unique. Even the cel-shaded Borderlands couldn’t escape the repetitive shades of brown everyone seems to be so fond of these days, so seeing the neon-tinted Krater in action is a nice change of pace. The environments are similarly varied, and while the fact that they all play and feel the same is a problem, there are no low-budget issues such as repetition or overly abused recycling. Sure, you might find a particularly familiar cave, but it’s not nearly as rampant as in most action RPGS.
The soundtrack is similarly fantastic, consisting of a terrific synth-based, 80s-influenced score. In a video interview, the composer stated he designed the score for an unproduced film’s concept sketch that he found, before teaming up with Fatshark to reintergrate the style into their RPG project. Even without this bit of background knowledge, the soundtrack does have a truly cinematic edge with a lot of dynamics. The score can feature light and upbeat synth beats before segueing perfectly into a more dramatic and techno-based action sequence whenever combat begins. As far as action RPG soundtracks go, this ranks among the best.
Things become troublesome when you turn your eye to the gameplay. Anyone who’s played an MMO like World of Warcraft will probably catch on to the combat right away, but the gimmick in Krater is that instead of controlling a single character, you must manage the entire traditional MMO trinity. That means you have to keep enemies attacking your tank character, keep your tank alive with your healer, and either manage any strays with a crowd control or take down enemies quickly with a DPS. Managing your three characters can be a bit tricky, but fortunately there are many keyboard short-cuts to make things a bit easier. Each character only has two abilities and one gadget, so in total you only have six skills to manage and a few emergency cooldowns to pop. It’s a lot of fun, and the sheer level of customization concerning your abilities is great. Maybe you want your tank’s AOE stomp move to do more damage? You can do that, but you could also make it buff his strength or even heal the party. The one big issue with the combat is that even with the customization, the gameplay never really changes. Essentially, the numbers just get bigger. The so-so AI also rears its ugly head, which often complicates the already poorly balanced boss battles.
This is made worse by some poor game design decisions. Dying throws you back to the beginning of the dungeon but also erases your mini-map, which means unless you’ve memorized the layout of the last eight dungeon levels you’ll be wandering around, blindly trying to find the stairs. Another curious decision is the disposable nature of the characters. Your little soldiers can die permanently if they drop enough times without visiting a doctor, but the game is designed with this in mind. Your initial characters can only go up to level five and can never change what moves they have, so buying new characters becomes just another way of upgrading equipment. Technically you can upgrade the level cap of a character with a very expensive purchase, but there’s little point in doing so as buying new characters gives you a much needed stat boost and breaks the tedium of combat with new abilities. It’s a weird system, but it works fairly well once you get the hang of things.
The real issue is the number of rampant bugs and oversights. Occasionally, a rogue polygon would completely glitch out and coat the screen in a neon blob, or characters would get caught behind walls. One dungeon late in the game became particularly infuriating when we found out the developers forgot to put a doctor NPC in the nearby town, which meant that in order to avoid permadeath, we had to slog halfway across the world map, complete with tedious random encounters. One boss was completely impossible, so we had to beat him by simply running past him, grabbing the quest item and then teleporting out of the dungeon. Then there are the fetch quests, which love to send you romping back and forth across the world map for no real reason. It’s little things like this that keep picking away at the overall experience of Krater, which is a shame.
Fortunately, the developers are constantly working on ironing out the kinks. Since we began playing Krater for this review, Fatshark has fixed a ton of incredibly annoying bugs, such as a medic ability that wouldn’t work; a way to upgrade low-level characters if you really don’t want new ones; and a reversal of the game’s tendency to teleport you to a friendly village after a wipe, respawning every monster in the dungeon and basically ruining an hour or more of gameplay. There’s also a co-op mode scheduled to launch sometime in August, and a plan for many free updates to come. Right now it’s hard to recommend Krater to anyone but the most diehard of action RPG fans, but maybe in a few months it could be polished into something special. For now, wait for a sale or some more updates.
Final Verdict: Krater is a beautiful and unique action RPG with great graphics and a terrific soundtrack, but the longer you play it, the more the cracks begin to show. The diligent developers are working to fix things, but right now there’s a ton of small yet serious issues adding up to create a frustrating experience. At fifteen dollars it could be a budget alternative to bigger games like Diablo 3, but even then there are better options out there.
This review is based on a review copy of the Steam version of Krater provided by Fatshark.