The problem with working within a genre in which there are well-defined standards defined by the games considered the classics of that genre is that making changes to the template established by those classics is bound to be awkward. This is especially the case for the clickin’ ‘n’ lootin’ approach to gameplay established by action RPGs Diablo and Torchlight.
Diablo is, of course, one of the most revered games and franchises in the PC landscape. Clicking the left button of a mouse has never felt so urgent, nor so exhilarating, as it did in the original Diablo, and despite a few of the expected detractors that come out of the woodwork when extinction-event-level anticipation takes over for a game’s release, Diablo 3 seems to be accepted as a worthy latest entry in the franchise. Diablo is hardly even much of a game; while there is skill in it, that skill is mostly in preparation and trepidation. Once you master the controls and get a hang of the game’s rhythms, the most important factor in a player’s success tends to be the simple question of whether that player is paying attention. Constant equipping, exploring, looting, and clicking will eventually lead to success. This is why a game like Diablo can offer a “Hardcore” mode—the challenge isn’t in beating the game, so much as it is mastering its mechanics and figuring out the right balance between exploration, looting, and actual game progress.
In the time between Diablo 2 and 3, however, Torchlight arrived to show us that there is room for more than one such action RPG on the market and that even amidst piles of similarities to Diablo, it could provide an experience different from its primary inspiration by merely simplifying the formula. Sure, there was a primary quest in Torchlight, but the only real inspiration here is to keep digging and digging and digging down into the same dungeon over and over and over again, continually looting and killing and healing and looting some more, until you just don’t feel like playing anymore. Torchlight is Diablo for Dummies, the perfect entry point for the genre, just enough to get someone addicted without consuming their life entirely.
Now, at first, it would seem that Krater: Shadows Over Solside would veer toward the Torchlight end of things, thanks to its under-the-radar PR and its extremely reasonable ($15) price. This is not a game that is trying to be a blockbuster; rather, it seems content to take its place on Steam and wait for people to download it. Word of mouth and interest in the genre are the most likely things to draw people to it, followed by an art style that feels a bit like a cross between Fallout and Borderlands.
In fact, the apparent humility of Krater grants it the gift of low expectations—not in the way that a budget Wii game on the shelf at 7-11 carries low expectations, but in the way that something you download via Xbox Live Arcade has lower expectations than something you’re buying off the shelf for three times more. This could be a hidden treasure, a little piece of gaming that you can be an ambassador for.
Unfortunately, Krater has a hard time transcending those low expectations, and as such, turns quickly from an exciting little unknown quantity into something of a slog.
In a strict gameplay sense, Krater actually adds something new to the constant mouse-clicking formula of Torchlight and Diablo. Its insistence that the player maintain a party of three distinct characters necessitates some actual RTS elements to seep their way into the play. You can send all three members of your party out to explore whatever terrain you happen to be in, you can send your bruiser out to do as much of the combat as possible himself, you can hide your healer behind a rock, and so on. Try to treat your characters like they’re all part of the same party, and you’ll watch your weaker characters die a quick death, which doesn’t seem like such a big deal, since you can revive them and let them heal up once the fighting dies down.
That is, you can until you can’t anymore.
You get four chances, actually. Four times, you can revive a party member from “death”. Four times, you can refine your strategy in such a way to minimize the chance of it ever happening again. If your character dies a fifth time, that character is proper dead. You’re down to a party of two, and you have to go and recruit a new healer or engineer or (least often) brute.
The constant threat of permanent death offers a serious sense of tension to the game, though forcing the player to essentially play the game in “hardcore” mode may well put off a number of players. It’s certainly an adjustment, especially given that playing the game on “Normal” difficulty offers a learning curve that all but ensures the loss of a few medics along the way. In a way it makes sense—by adding a very real sense of danger to the game, the developers immerse the player further into a world in which everyone wears gas masks and nobody seems to be able to trust anybody else for more than a few minutes. This is obviously a horrible pocket of humanity made worse by the constant threat of rabid and radioactive animals and monsters.
The problem, then, is that nobody seems to see it that way.
Maybe it’s presented here as a defense mechanism, but nobody really seems to know how to take anything particularly seriously in Krater. Everyone has a snarky sense of humor, everyone’s ready with an insult, and nobody really seems to care whether you succeed or not. Sure, you get paid when you complete a given task, so they must care to some extent, but the stakes feel very, very low. Until, of course, you die doing some mundane thing like going to find some item that nobody really wants anyway. The knowledge that your deaths are being tracked and will ultimately result in a very real, very permanent bit of inconvenience and the anxiety that that that reality for the player inspires simply doesn’t match the overly glib attitudes of the characters in the game. The result is a disconnect that never really gets resolved, which in turn leads to a blasé attitude toward actually playing. Perhaps there’s too much story, too much talking; perhaps the developers tried to do too much to give us a reason to care—and actually ended up achieving the opposite effect.
Ignore everything that everyone says, and you actually end up with a nifty little dungeon hack ‘n slasher that offers a little bit of tactical strategy. Start the game as if you’re playing hardcore mode, and you may well finish with a minimum of frustration. Taking the time to come to these realizations, however, is the type of thing that will put people off before they even spend enough time trying to find a way to enjoy it. That’s the rub of living in the era of the Steam Sale, of the Indie Bundle; you shouldn’t have to try. Enjoying a game that inspires minimal preconceptions needs to be experienced immediately. If players don’t enjoy what they’re doing, it’s too easy to move on to the next thing.
Krater‘s learning curve is too high and its ceiling too low for the game to truly succeed. It’s so close, really, but it is simply not unique enough, nor absorbing enough, to attract and maintain the attention of the audience that it is aiming at.