Nuke America and you get endless wastelands and rampaging gangs driving around in ridiculously spiky cars. Nuke Sweden, however, and while nobody’s going to be happy about spending their days surrounded by mutants, Krater suggests it won’t, metaphorically speaking, be the end of the world. Well, for those not reduced to bubbling goo.
An indie addition to the action-RPG world, Krater is a game with many problems, but no shortage of personality. It’s a blend of Fallout, Diablo and a whole lot of Borderlands, with a quirky script, a certain gas mask chic (making most characters you meet look like angry Wombles) and an apocalypse with a larger colour palette than most. It’s set in a crater that’s been spared the worst of the damage, and while the majority of missions take place in practically identical mines, caves and factories, at least the campaign offers some entertaining reasons to bother going in.
When the fighting kicks off, Krater brings some interesting ideas to the table, too, the best of which is controlling three characters at once. It’s not as tactical as it should be, courtesy of imbecilic AI and the lack of a pause button, but it nails the moreish nature that this kind of combat relies on. Each soldier only has two skills, but drawing a party from a pool of four classes makes for a reasonably diverse arsenal of abilities. Some attacks can even be made more useful with a little customisation, such as the Regulator’s area-of-effect electric attack. Plug healing boosters into it instead of damage types and it kicks out a circle of crackling blue that patches up your squad as well as any medic.
Unfortunately, the more you play, the more obvious it becomes that Krater fails to capture what makes Diablo interesting. There’s loot, sure, but almost all of it is pure junk to be sold en masse. Your characters are primarily upgraded by equipping stat boosters with intangible effects, rather than outfitting them with cool toys, lending little satisfaction to becoming more powerful. You never get new abilities to play with, or anything that pushes you to try new tactics.
As for the enemies, they don’t seem to understand that their job is to be interesting things to kill, not simply exponentially more powerful ways to get punched in the face. Late in the game, a few do learn to hang around healers, shoot from a distance and spit slime, but it’s too late. Most of the time it doesn’t feel like you’re fighting interesting creatures so much as going up against the Threat Level – the metric that scales the damage of mobs in the area. If you’re tough enough to handle the first couple of rooms in a location, nothing that follows is likely to be any real roadblock.
Without the hook of gaining real, perceptible power or being forced to play at your best, Krater’s grinding offers little satisfaction. Far too often you’re left in a situation where the only realistic way of handling your next assignment is to wade painstakingly through armies of enemies who are no threat whatsoever until you’ve built up enough money or ingredients to buy or craft enough power-ups to proceed. Also, upgrades gradually drip through that your team will need ever-higher stats to deploy, and with up to 15 implant slots per soldier, plus ten weapon boosts by the end of the game, all this is tiring to keep on top of.
On everything but Casual difficulty, you also have to do so in the shadow of permadeath. Early in the game, it isn’t a factor; indeed, you’d have to actively try to lose anyone for good. As time goes on, though, your mercs start clocking up injuries that can’t be healed in town, moving them ever closer to the precipice. Death isn’t a sad occasion, but it is annoying, stopping you in your tracks and forcing you to sort out a whole new set of implants and boosters before your newly hired recruit even has a chance.
To make permadeath an engaging mechanic, a game needs to build real connections to your characters, so that losing them engenders a sense of loss, rather than of wasted time. Krater goes the latter route, making you repeatedly play easy, unrewarding content to get replacements up to speed, while also tacitly encouraging you to handle difficulty spikes by out-gearing your foes instead of playing more tactically. This isn’t helped by the fact that you’re still fighting generic angry wildlife and suicidal bandits right to the end of the story, by which point they don’t feel like they should be a threat.
‘End’ isn’t quite the right word, though. While Krater is an inexpensive game, you’re also only getting a third of the full story, and most of that is just bumbling around doing random jobs for people. There is a wider plot too, involving intrigue, secret messages and dapper spies who are just a little bit too friendly for your own good, but it’s brief at best, and mostly serves as a lead-in to the first DLC expansion, due later this year.
Krater does offer a huge world along with this story, but since its main level editor is a random-number generator, that’s not too surprising. Poking around a few dungeons off the beaten track revealed no surprises, save one mammoth dungeon named Limbo. And with Krater’s scant variety, the idea of dungeon crawling through more than a couple of levels isn’t exactly appealing. Co-op is planned, which may well improve this, but had yet to be added at the time of writing.
Krater is a solid foundation for a Diablo-type RPG, and one that will hopefully come into its own as the forthcoming DLC adds more features, more variety, and more goodies. In its current state, though, it’s a long, repetitive grind that fails to reward your efforts. Genuine charm and humour carry it far more than they should, but when they inevitably fade away, the fun is quick to do the same.