You don’t need a AAA budget to make a great action RPG, or even just a fascinating action RPG. Instead, you need an appreciation for what makes the genre tick: the hack, the slash, the loot, the character leveling, the variety, the exploration, the calculus of risk/reward, the sense of personal investment. There’s a reason so many of us are clicking so obsessively through Diablo III, and it’s not just because it’s a pretty game. The best action RPGs are carefully calculated to go directly from the lizard brain to the index finger. Krater, an action RPG from a small Swedish studio, instead meanders, gets lost, and ends up in a quiet cul de sac somewhere around the cerebellum.

After the jump, Brodo takes a turn

Krater is what you would get if Martians came to Earth and tried to make a Diablo clone, having never played a videogame before. It’s got a whole slew of minor issues that will presumably be addressed in a patch or two. It’s also got some major issues that may or may not be addressed after a patch or two. But most damning are some fundamental design issues that can only be addressed by playing a different game.

The minor issues include awful inventory management, unresponsive mousing, a cramped interface, missing functionality on the overworld map, AWOL multiplayer support, and a few too many technical glitches. The major issues include loot that feels almost entirely like trash, a superfluous crafting system, being shunted through loading screens so often, an overworld map straight out of some lazy JRPG, repetitive content, and no incentive to play the harder difficulty levels.

And then there are the fundamental design issues that kill Krater. The idea that you’re using a team of three characters, each with two skills and a gadget power, is sound enough. Assuming the character control and pacing are tidied up, Krater could play like a more manageable version of Freedom Force. You can get into a satisfying enough groove of rushing into combat with your tank to draw aggro, stunning a powerful standoff enemy with your regulator, and pumping health wherever needed with your healer’s green healbeam. Repeat as needed and maybe huck a grenade on occasion.

But for whatever reason, these characters are meant to be cycled out of your party for a level zero team whenever you reach a new area. Imagine Lord of the Rings where Frodo gets to Rivendell and someone says, “Hey, good work, Frodo. We’re going to hand off the Ring to this guy Brodo now. He’ll take it from here.” Investment in a character is a staple of RPGs, action or otherwise. But Krater undermines this with its cycling cast of weird pre-named robot dudes in gas masks — I haven’t seen this many pyros since grinding Team Fortress 2 for unlockables! — each with identical skill sets.

This also means that there will be times when you’re playing the game with characters bumped up against a geographically low level cap. You’re fighting battles that give you no experience points. Then you swap out your characters and you’re going over those first few levels with weak characters, funneling the same inconsequential attribute implants and skill boosters into the same slots for the same upgrades all over again, prying out inventory items from one team to transplant them into another team. “Hey, Frodo, you’re not going to need Sting anymore, right? Why don’t you hand that over to Brodo?” A character in a good RPG is something you get attached to. A character in Krater is a disposable template into which you pour your progress before draining it to start all over again.

The battles and the world itself are poorly drawn. The joy of Diablo has a lot to do with the wild hack-and-slash of it all. Things breaking, squealing, obligingly spitting out treasure. It’s a constant stream of pinatas disguised as a fantasy world. Krater has none of that. The combination of artwork, viewing angle, and viewing altitude conspire to show you very little worth seeing. A few colored beams, an orange arc, the shoulders of some indeterminate bandit or beast, none of which lead to anything of note as you slog through the same tilesets again and again. Sadly, Krater is as empty as its namesake.

1 star
PC