Krater is like quirky, isometric treacle; not the tasty and sweet treacle though. More like the “I could be walking through air but instead I’m wading through treacle” sort of treacle. The kind of treacle that slows your progress through life and makes you spend many hours grinding characters that could perma-die on you, leaving you to start over from level 0. It’s okay, though: you weren’t going to have those characters for long. You needed to swap them for level 0 characters when you got to level 5 anyway. I’m being overly hard on Krater though. Time for an overview I think.
Krater is a brilliant combination of the setting and humour of Borderlands melded with the top-down perspective of Diablo, and has the loot from both. It mixes this up by letting you control three characters at the same time, and then throws in some Swedish idiosyncrasies for good measure. Sounds like a good formula, doesn’t it?
The aesthetic certainly works. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world in the same vein as Borderlands or Fallout, but freshens up tired ideas by presenting us with a post-apocalyptic Sweden, with all the jokes and quirks that follow from such a background. There’s everything from a storyline involving “IDEA” (a furniture company that makes artsy furniture out of junk) and a boy that proudly declares “I like turtles!”. Surprisingly, beyond the humour you’ll find carefully crafted visuals, with lush scenery and a very specifically designed style. The characters have a truly unique feel to them, which is exciting considering where the game could have gone in the looks department. It manages to stand out from the likes of Fallout and Borderlands and similar post-apocalyptic games by clearly defining how it wants to be perceived. Fatshark, I take my hat off to you.
The sounds of Krater are similarly special. The music really resonates within you as you wander the verdant wasteland, and the environment sounds just as it should. The explosion of the Bruiser’s Stomp skill and the audible buzz of the Regulator’s Cast Area Slow are particularly satisfying to hear, and this is a common theme with the audio of Krater. The voice-overs also echo this amusing content with a muffled sound coming from behind each person’s gas mask, with everyone sounding like they’ve got their head in a jar.
I mentioned that you can control three characters at a time, and this is one of the best ideas found in Krater. In a weird way, it plays similarly to some of the Warhammer tabletop spin-off games like Gorkamorka and Mordheim in that you build up a small warband, kitted out with the best gear in the form of Implants and Boosts, and then work your way through a world recruiting new members to replace those that have died. Permanent death comes from eating dust (in a metaphorical sense) thrice without visiting a doctor to heal accumulated injuries. Some injuries remain permanently, limiting the number of times a single character can go down before sleeping with the worms, and this can really keep you on your toes. You can avoid perma-death by dropping the difficulty to “Casual”, but speaking honestly, there’s a lot of fun to be had from the idea that any one of your guys might be gone for good.
Prepare Those Waders
Sadly (and I really do mean sadly) all of these fresh ideas don’t carry over to the story, which gives us a generic plotline and lots of “kill X” and “fetch Y” quests. They are almost masked by the spooky underground dungeons and beautiful woodlands of the world, but unfortunately “almost” doesn’t really cut it in a world where quests are evolving to pull players deeper into the experience. I would have settled for the standard lines of text detailing what’s going on if they contained information worth reading, but I found I just skipped them over. That’s where Krater begins to fall flat. The treacle is incoming.
I was impressed by perma-death, and that made me feel connected to my squad members, but at level 5 they stopped gaining experience. That’s when I realised that the game was forcing me to swap out my carefully and meticulously upgraded party for a fresh bunch of level 0s with a higher level cap (capped at 10, incidentally). It hadn’t explained that this was going to happen, nor did it tell me that it was happening; I only realised when my quirky gas-masked pals stopping ranking up, much to my dismay. So I had to ditch my upgrades (you can’t remove them once applied) and begin anew. But it wasn’t just losing characters I had become attached to: I was forced to go back and re-level these new characters from scratch, since the areas I had come to were level 5 and up. Backtracking is not fun at the best of times, but it’s especially miserable when you are forced to do it for no readily apparent reason. The mechanic heavily punishes players simply to be sadistic, and it immediately strips the fun from the game.
This isn’t just me whining, by the way; you’ll see what I mean. If the developer had explained that this would happen, or given a reason for it, I feel it might have been justifiable, but it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose other than to detach you from the fantastic setting. Why are you making me put my hat back on, Fatshark? You were doing so well. You’re punishing me for grinding too fast, and then you’re making me have to grind to get back to where I was. How mean and pointless of you.
Palette-Swapping Sums It Up
That’s just the beginning of the wading. From here, the game starts to become repetitive. Whilst the scenery remains just as great as it began, the fact that there is little to no variation in the enemies, with frequent palette-swapping and no awesome bosses or insurmountable hordes, means it starts to get a bit dull. There are masses of loot, and it’s all great, but you don’t get the chance to don cool armour or make any sort of visual customisation since all of the Implants and Boosts are invisible upgrades, and that feels like a huge let-down after the big build-up of the aesthetic individuality. I was honestly craving some hefty crafting of armour and some colour changing and whatnot, and I was sorely disappointed at the lack of such options. Crafting, especially, seems tacked on and a little bit haphazard. I’d rather have had tonnes of weapon drops and upgrades and armour drops so that I’d have more to choose from, rather than discovering materials and arbitrary blueprints that feel like they don’t really add anything I could use.
There are no real tooltips that guide you through the game either, and very little is explained, meaning you’re left a little on your own when it comes to pretty much everything to do with the game. I spent a lot of time trying to work out how to choose the new skills that I must have gained through levelling up before I realised that each class only actually gets the two skills they began with and nothing else. There’s plenty of fine-tuning that can be done with the numerous upgrades, but that’s all it is: fine-tuning.
For all the apparent depth Krater offers, Fatshark has done everything it can to keep it at apparent depth. There is so very much they could have done by borrowing more closely from Diablo or Baldur’s Gate or any one of many other classic top-down RPG dungeon crawlers. Even in Diablo III, we had a limited set of skills to choose from, but there was so much that could be done with them that you never felt truly limited. In Krater, it seems there’s nothing but limits. You get loads of loot and upgrades, but only 2 skills. You get a crafting mechanic that does very little. You get stunning and totally unique visuals that are populated by palette-swaps and practically no variation in enemies. Even the bosses are just big versions of the mobs (formula: little rat + boss = big rat).
The Final Verdict
So how can I recommend Krater to you? Well, I’m going to, but I’m not going to give it our badge. Krater is definitely a game that can be enjoyed, but it could be the stuff of legends if Fatshark seriously pulls its finger out and removes the many limitations. Krater is one part of a three-part trilogy that is going to arrive in some sort of DLC form, but it needs more than that to save it. The game gives you the perfect visuals, gorgeous sounds, and an awesome mechanic, but very little actual game to take advantage of those huge benefits, and if the next part of the trilogy can come and totally uproot the mistakes the developer has made
then I will be ecstatic. Please do this, Fatshark. I really want you to make me ecstatic. Krater gets a sheepish recommendation that comes with caveats. Without those caveats, it would have earned a Mark of Excellence.