Monday, January 6, 2014

Krater: Shadows Over Solside - Review

This is a review of the game Krater, a game I've wanted to make a review of for quite some time now. I bought it already when it was released in late 2012 and had played for quite some hours when my savefile got lost in the twisting nether that is the cloud save of Steam. I took a break from the game then simply because the idea of restarting from the beginning at that point wasn't as interesting as some other games I was busy with. I did get back to Krater however, and enjoyed it almost even more the second time around. It is very lazy in its construction, yet has something charming and engaging about its gameplay. It has a simple flavor, but if it's a flavor you enjoy there is still many hours of fun to be got from this game. So what is Krater all about?

Krater is a style of dungeon crawler game released by the swedish company Fatshark in 2012. Wikipedia calls it a squad-based real-time strategy role-playing game, which is a mouthful but quite accurate and also goes to show how many pools Krater is trying to dip its toes into. In gameplay it mostly resembles games like Fallout, it even has pretty much the exact same kind of overworld travel-map, complete with random encounters of varying difficulty and is set in an post-apocalyptic world. It also borrows elements from Diablo/Torchlight kind of games. You play with a team of three characters that bring different skills and roles to your group. The Bruiser is basically the tank and has taunting and aoe style skills, the Medikus is the healer, the Regulator the CC-character and the Slayer brings the most dps. You're free to choose your party set up yourself but as there are four roles but only three party slots you're limited in your choices. Do you bring more damage to the group or do you prefer to have a tank? Do you bring three healers or play a more balanced setup? The idea is interesting and does allow for a more personalized and varied playstyle, especially if you choose to take on missions with different setups or want to do a second playthrough a different way - this is a route I took myself for my second try.

Each character in your party has two skills based on their role, the Bruiser has two tank style skills, the Medikus two healing style skills and so on. These skills have to be actively played, the rest of the time your characters will auto-attack. You will gain experience, can equip different weapons and trinkets and most importantly; personalize each characters strengths by adding buffs and implants that increase your stats. These buffs and implants can be both found on mobs and crafted, the same goes for weapons and trinkets. Both your characters skills and their stats can be buffed this way, for instance you can add a stamina buff to a skill meaning your character will gain an increase to stamina for a short amount of time when they use that skill.

Krater sports a resource-less cooldown based combat system similar to Guld Wars 2 and WAR, a system I quite like and that also works well in this game. You also heal up automatically once you're out of combat, allowing you to go all in for each fight without having to worry about any other resource management than timing your skills. This is definitely something that could've been a really fun way of dealing with combat if the game wasn't overall so easy. Now the system mostly only allows you to steamroll through the content without much trouble. There are also some interesting gameplay elements in this type of party-setup that I find they could've done a lot more with (and also think should exist in more games). I realize they probably wanted to keep your skill set fairly simple since combat is done in real time with all three characters simultaneously. In reality that does give you six skills (two per character) and three trinkets to keep track off each battle - and in the heat of an intense fight this is also where Krater really shines. Having to keep track of and prioritize your skills and maximize your characters strengths is when it gets really challenging and fun. The amount of skills is also not the issue I have with the game, I find that two per character in a fight is a pretty good amount and any more could easily become overwhelming. I would love some more choice in skills however, maybe giving each character some ten different skills out of which you can have two active at any moment allowing for more variation between the fights. As it is now it is very easy to become a monotonous repetition of the same buttons being pressed, especially for the simpler fights (which are in majority). Eventhough you can put different buffs on your skills, it's still the same skill which means the more you play the more each fight becomes a routine thing to get through rather than requiring much thought.

Admittedly this isn't very different from the typical dungeon crawler game like Torchlight or Diablo, where hordes of mobs are meant to be dealt with swiftly and the odd boss is supposed to bring the real challenge, but Krater doesn't present encounters in the same way. Instead here we have the stationary group of mobs that you engage on your own, much like in a World of Warcraft instance. This gives you plenty of time to prep beforehand, if needed (which it isn't) and the difficulty of the game is quite low even if you choose to play on the hardest mode. The modes don't actually change the difficulty of the encounters, but rather change the way the game treats your deaths. On the easiest nothing happens when you die, on normal difficulty you're allowed three deaths before your characters is useless and has to be resurrected, and the hardest difficulty has permanent deaths. Permanent deaths is not an issue to me, but since it doesn't actually increase the difficulty of the game, just makes it more punishing when you make a mistake I don't feel like these difficulty levels add any fun value to gameplay.

As it is now, Krater is the most fun when you accidentally pull an extra group of enemies and have to deal with more than you initially planned to. This is when quick and strategic thinking is truly rewarded - where you have to make sure your weaker characters aren't being targeted, while making sure you're keeping everyone alive, tanking, healing, ccing and dpsing all at the same time. These moments are rare (unless you force them) and I would've loved to see more of it. Not even the few boss fights engage much since they're mostly just about outhealing the incoming damage, much like the Patchwerk fight in WoW (if you remember that).

This being said, Krater still offers pretty much the same addictive elements that most other dungeon-crawler style games do. You kill heaps of mobs, loot loads of items, hope for something rare - rinse and repeat. Although there really isn't much variety in the encounters or environments (if you've seen one cave you've seen them all), I still have fun and want to check just another cave or grotto to see what's at the end, much like the repetative gamestyle of Skyrim still entertained a lot of people with constant promises of gold and glory around the next corner. The caves are also randomized, meaning that each venture will be different to the next even if you go into the same one. This is a small comfort for all the repetitiveness however.

There is also a DLC out now that I haven't checked out, as far as I know it "only" adds another type of character. More DLCs like this are planned.

Handling your characters works well enough, there is some delay when choosing skill sometimes, but I wonder if it's me or the game being at wrong there. This only becomes an issue when my heals don't go off timed as I want them to, risking to kill off my characters because the keys don't respond properly. There are other bugs in the game that can be frustrating however, the loss of a save file is a major drawback for instance. I have no idea how this happened and I can't entirely blame it on the game either, it might as well have been on Steams end. Sometimes when loading up the game it doesn't full screen properly, making it impossible to navigate across the screen. At this point you simply need to restart it to solve it, but it's still annoying. Also, don't think about minimizing the game while playing as this will result in the same issue. Although not a bug I also find it annoying that there is no key to target your party, the only way to do it is to traditionally mark it with your mouse cursor. Most of the time this isn't an issue, but in the heat of battle it can be tricky to find all your characters to target and give them all a command. Sometimes they're not even all on the screen making it impossible to target all at once. Characters also have a cute knack of wandering off on their own at times, they never go very far but it's still weird when it happens, not to mention potentially dangerous.

Another thing worth mentioning are the loading times which can be very long at times -  see the video for an example. Fortunately you don't come across areas that need to load that much often, so it's not something that becomes very annoying, we're not talking PSX style loading times between every scene.

Aesthetically I quite like Krater. Swedes will have extra fun with this game since so much of it refers to SWedish locations - Krater is obviously the swedish word for "crater" and Solside is swenglish for "sunny side" (Sol is the swedish word for sun). The references are many and obvious to a swede in the game, you have locations like "Elmerhult" after Älmhult where the creator of IKEA is born and "Norrmalm" which is an area in Stockholm. You kill "Vargs" and "Brölbjörns" which is swedish for wolfs and roarbears (to give you a direct translation, I have no idea what a "roarbear" is though) and the currency is in Kronor just like in Sweden, among other things.

Fatshark have also made some interesting choices to make it easy on themselves when programming the characters - they all have masks meaning they removed the need to animate any faces. As lazy as it is, I also find it a stroke of genius in all honesty because it works, the setting of a post-apocalyptic world allows for it. You won't marvel at anything you see, most things are, just as the combat elements, repeated over and over. As mentioned, each cave or basement you wander through look pretty much like the others. They're pretty but also pretty uninteresting in the long run, like that cute girl/guy you talk to in a bar just to realize after some conversation that there wasn't much more to get under that nice looking exterior. This also goes for the sound in the game, both music and sound effects get the job done without wowing you in any way. It gets the job done and never bothers you, but it also doesn't do any more than that.

I feel like that pretty much sums up my feelings with this game. I have put in some 30 hours of gameplay into it and will put in many more I am sure, I definitely feel like completing it (which I haven't yet) and I am not yet bored of it. Krater picks out some great gameplay elements from other games and collects into something that could potentially have been really good. Unfortunately I don't think Krater is using all the potential these ideas harbor and a lot can be put down to repetitiveness. The gameplay is fun but easily gets overused and I wish they would've fleshed out their ideas a bit more. Krater is a lot like a low budget action movie - it won't blow your mind or show you anything you haven't seen before, but if you go in with the right frame of mind it will provide you what you're looking for - a few hours of simple entertainment. If you like dungeon crawling Fallout/Diablo-esque games I do recommend at least checking this game out, it's perfect for when you have that odd piece of time to kill.

End Score: 6/10