"'Great,' I think, 'my healer is now standing right next to a bear! I'm sure that's going to work out well.'"
As a reviewer, I find that some games are fun to play and some games are fun to review. Some are both... and some are neither. Sadly, Krater falls into that last category. I can tell that the developers put a lot of heart into this game, but the results just aren't good. Even worse, one of the post-release patches makes the game crash every time I enter combat, which is why this review includes this little preamble – I need you to know that I'm breaking RPGFan's normal policy and reviewing a game that I didn't finish.
Krater is set in a world trying to recover from the effects of a war several hundred years in its past. Nuclear bombs, bio-weapons, nanotech... this world really took a beating. Humanity was nearly wiped out, but they eventually found their salvation in a mysteriously intact and fertile crater in the middle of the desert. In the center of the crater, a deep hole leads to a pre-war underground complex filled with high-tech equipment just waiting to be collected by anyone brave (or crazy) enough.
Of course, as any gamer worth their salt can guess, that includes you. You play as a group of three characters out to make their fortune and probably learn something about the crater along the way. That's about all I can tell you about Krater's story, and I got most of it from the game's website. The in-game writing shows a lot of humor, and the grammar is wrong in just the right way to provide the game with its own peculiar, unique dialect of English. I'd like to think that the story turns out okay because I like the setting and its twist on the standard post-apocalyptic tale, but I just can't tell with the progress I made.
In Krater, you progress around a world map in a style similar to the original Fallout. There are preset towns and dungeons, and as you walk around the world map, you're occasionally drawn into random encounters. These encounters are generally with hostiles, but you also run into NPCs like traveling vendors. In all cases, the encounters take place in one of several small outdoor sets. Reach the exit and you can leave, whether you've killed everything or not.
The combat is squad-based and action-oriented, and your team of three automatically attacks the target of their choice when enemies approach, unless you direct them to use special skills or attack someone specific. Each enemy encounter lasts just a few seconds, and the combat isn't very deep. Each character has exactly two special skills and can be equipped with a gadget that functions as a third special skill with a long cooldown timer. Having only a few skills doesn't make combat dull – the fights can actually be quite hectic. The problem is that those few skills limit you to one or two strategies that you must use against every enemy.
There are only four character classes, and you start out with squad members from three of those classes: a tank, a healer, and a ranged character who can stun or slow enemies. The fourth class is a sort of berserker. As the game progresses, you can hire other people to use in place of those original three. Some of them have different special skills, but I didn't like them as well as the skills that my original three had.
With each kill, all of your characters earn experience toward leveling up, but there's an odd level cap at work in Krater. The max level that any character can reach is fifteen, but your initial team can only make it to level five. To get to higher levels, you must hire new team members (with, as I mentioned, inferior special skills) or pay a hefty fee per character to unlock more levels.
As your characters level up, their stats don't change at all. Instead, they unlock slots for upgrades, which are generally found as loot, but you can learn to craft them as well. Some of the upgrades improve the character stats and some improve special abilities. Ability upgrades can increase damage or healing done, as well as the duration of status effects. You may be able to upgrade skills to temporarily lower enemies' stats, but it wasn't clear to me. You are very much left to your own devices in terms of understanding the world around you, which was a point of frequent consternation to me as a player.
I should mention that the developer appears to have plans to add multiplayer to Krater, as the opening menu features a "login" button right next to "play offline." As of now, though, that button can't be clicked. Only time will tell whether that feature is ever implemented.
Krater's visuals are on a whole different level than the rest of the game. It looks really good whether you're on the world map, above-ground areas, or in caves. Enemies, your characters, and the environment are all detailed and animated well. You're given an overhead isometric viewpoint, and the camera stays in one place unless you manually swing it around. And you'll want to do that sometimes, because the environments often include very tall objects that can block the camera. This doesn't become a problem during combat, though, because anyone obscured by an object lights up. Player characters are green, enemies are red, and NPCs are yellow. I also really liked the camera's level of focus – items that are on or near the same level as your team are sharp, but taller items are blurry near the top.
Still, I have two complaints. First, these graphics come at a big processing price. Diablo 3 looks at least as good as this game, and I can run it easily on my laptop. Krater, on the other hand, requires me to drop the resolution down to 800x600 and lower the level of detail in order to keep a consistent framerate. I can't be too harsh on a small developer like Fatshark for not living up to Blizzard's standards, but lowering the resolution apparently led to my second complaint: the text is much too small to read. In an RPG, legible text is more than just nice to have &ndash it's absolutely required. I don't want to spend 20 seconds looking at each new piece of loot to see if it's better than what I've got equipped.
Krater's sound falls somewhere in the middle of the gameplay/graphics extremes. It sounds just fine without standing out. The high point for me is the NPC voicework. When you're getting or completing a quest, the NPC actually talks a bit, using a semi-intelligible chatter that almost sounds like English and fits in well with the dialect established in the written text.
Unfortunately, moving on to Krater's controls takes us right back into the territory of its weak points. Most actions are mapped to the right mouse button, which makes things awkward from your first moments of gameplay. Moving around the map, choosing enemies to attack, and looting is all done via right-clicking. For me, this often means that when I want to click an enemy for targeting, I instead direct my party to move near the enemy. "Great," I think, "my healer is now standing right next to a poisonous bear! I'm sure that's going to work out well." Confusingly, targeting special attacks is the one combat action you left-click to activate. Other than that, left-clicking is used exclusively for selecting party members, either by clicking a single character or by clicking the ground and dragging a box that includes any party members you want to control, similar to the control of RTS games.
In a word, the controls are clumsy. In addition to the combat strangeness, the screens for your inventory, character upgrades, and vendors are all separate popups, and one doesn't always go away when you open another. Krater's controls aren't unusable – they just tend to get in the way of your enjoyment rather than helping you feel like you're in command of the action.
I really came into this game wanting to like it. As I said in my preview of the alpha version, it showed promise. That promise just never seems to be realized in the final version of the game. Admittedly, a bug stopped me from finishing it, but I saw nothing in the hours I put into playing the game that would cause me to think that the gameplay was going to get any deeper. I enjoyed the care that was put into making this feel like a unique world, but that wasn't enough to lift the game out of the eponymous Krater and onto the mountain peaks of fun.