Krater is a game that feels like it belongs in the post-apocalyptic world it unfolds in. It’s like a mechanical boy built in the image of the action and squad-based RPGs of our time, pieced together from what the survivors understand of those games of old, a pull-string on its back muttering phrases plucked from those games and players alike.
You start the game – you pull that string – and the mechanical voice speaks. “War, war never changes,” or so the gruff voice says.
The theatre of war never changes much either, holding on with a stubborn hand to its death and decay. Barren lands and broken societies stand amidst the rubble of a world where whispers of its wonderment only reach your ears off the backs of survivors willing to talk. Blood red skies paint the land below in an attempt to add some interest amidst the greys, browns and blacks. A tumbleweed blows by, as if to say hello and good day.
“Post-apocalypses, they never change.”
In looks, at the very least, Krater is a post-apocalypse that bucks that trend, feeling no obligation under the weight of those grit-laden worlds that have come before it. Amidst the crater impact site that has sent the world into meltdown, cities and civilisations have been rebuilt, almost thriving in this end of days scenario. Amongst the destruction, colour grows, strong and bold and unafraid, refreshing in the grim landscape of the modern video game. You find it in the forests and towns, the garb of those you speak with, and the neon signs that adorn the local bars as you progress between cities and dungeons through an overworld map reminiscent of Baldur’s Gate. If nothing else, Krater is an apocalypse you want to see.
Yet peer a little deeper and you see that perhaps the wasteland’s new look is just for show. It fools you into thinking it might be different this time around. Krater’s heart doesn’t beat – it lacks any soul.
You pull the string again, a deeper voice echoes. “You better have some spare mice – you’ll be clicking a lot!”
Krater, in playing, attempts to mimic the beat of two masters rather than one: the rhythmic beat of the hack-and-slash dungeon crawler and the nuanced intricacies of the squad-based RPG. But it’s one played with ham-fisted subtlety. Instead of a single character and a growing list of abilities, it has you rolling with an interchangeable group of three, each one lending their own abilities to the task bar that sits at the bottom of the screen in its familiar position. While all three move independently, they play as one unit. Krater is too fast to allow for much tactical thought. The pause button is mysteriously absent.
Thanks to abilities being tied to characters, you have an expectation that you’ll be switching regularly to land on a loadout of skills that suits your style of play or the task at hand, serving your greater goal of loot, loot, loot. Unfortunately, the characters that jump on board later on start out at Rank 1, while your other characters could already be hitting Rank 8. It’s just one of the game’s many quirks and baffling leaps of faith.
Not that levelling matters too much in the end, as your abilities always stay the same. You never unlock upgraded ground-strikes or healing beams, only slots on both your character and your abilities for which to embed “implants”. These stat boosting items theoretically allow you to tailor your character to your style of play, but they’re never that exciting and lack the loot lust of any other dungeon crawler.
You pull on that string again, hoping for something more entertaining. “Ding! It’s time to grind.”
Krater’s monotony arises not from the clicking of buttons but from the results that come from them. It bears more resemblance to a lifeless MMO than an action RPG, perhaps fitting given its multiplayer is still absent, promised in a future update. Even where it draws inspiration from its more tactical, squad based brethren, it’s in spirit and a longing glance in their direction more than similar DNA.
Those ruined city streets that entertain with their colour ring hollow, and not just because of the apocalypse. Characters assume their usual roles – NPCs, salespeople, quest givers – with an unnerving ease. They hand out fetch quests and offer some comedic banter as they do so, but even their jabs at themselves only serve to highlight the derivative nature of missions. Kill 10, rinse, repeat, all the while the game chuckles, and flicks its eyes from side to side awaiting your hearty laughter in response.
It never really comes.
So in more ways than one, this is the most painful kind of video game disappointments: the glimmer of ideas and missed potential. Hope isn’t completely lost that you might see the game Krater could be. It’s an experience still very much under construction, despite the flashy Steam page and the launch trailers. Patches and updates are delivered more than once a week, like life support, but they feel more like mere bandages and duct-tape on a larger wound hemorrhaging at all sides.
If that tape holds, Krater might become the game it promises to be, but it’s not the barren future that it will struggle in, it’s a videogame industry moving at light speed. Krater is sparse, parched even. You pull that string one final time hoping for something unique, but Krater is all out of things to say. And when it’s finally ready to stand up and have a say – when it finds its own voice – I fear it might all just be a little too late.