I would like to pose a hypothetical scenario. Imagine you spot a friend of a friend on the other side of the bar. They look nice enough, have a good attitude and hold themselves well. You gesture them over: after all, he was nice enough in the two minutes you met him previously. On his way over, without any warning whatsoever, they flip the table of someone next to them and burst out in a massive tirade about Swedish places you’ve never heard of and apocalypse horror stories so gruesome your Vietnam veteran uncle would shed a tear. This would naturally be the point where you slam your beer back and chalk it up to a misunderstanding, but before you can do that, this person sits down at your table, smiles politely and shakes your hand.
Now, if you were brave enough not to shit yourself by this point and elect to remain sitting, your first and foremost question would probably be something along the lines of “why did you flip that man’s table?”. After all, this seems like something that needs to be addressed early into any friendship lest this becomes a force of habit and you need to change your address fairly sharpish. If there is an adequate response to the introduction, fine. It provides some insight into their character and what you expect from them later on in their mannerisms and personality. If this person were a game, however, and that person was called something like Krater – hypothetically, of course – and they simply didn’t answer your question, perhaps a restraining order is a good fall back plan to your line of interrogation.
Okay, tortured metaphor over. Thankfully, there is nothing about Krater’s mechanics that is glaring offensive. Everything in the game works, at least in practice. Sure, it gets a bit grindy at times, but it’s par for the course for action RPGs. Truth be told, I have never been a fan of the action RPG to begin with – the only time I have ever deliberately forced myself through one of them was while playing Path Of Exile with some flatmates. What makes me play RPGs of any sort is its devotion to narrative. Krater stylizes itself as in the same echelons of quality of Fallout or Wasteland, albeit with its own Swedish twist on things, so I really wanted to get immersed in the squishy entrails of its narrative and dig into all the lore it had to offer.
And therein lies Krater‘s greatest flaw – the narrative seems actively determined to make me not want to care about it. So I don’t. I don’t care about the stupid Krater that everyone seems to have a hard on over, I don’t care about the stupid conglomerate who is polluting the Swedish landscape with radioactive superbears, I especially don’t care about the goddamn Mary Sue that gives me the quest and not the backstory that I need to explain why I’m such a big deal, and I certainly don’t give a flying fuck about the crazed mutated pests in your basement. The intro to Krater gives you a glimpse through the window of what could be. Given a little more time and pacing, this world could certainly shoot for the stars it aspires to sit beside, sucking you into the power struggles that are left behind when the bombs fell. The amount of factions that exist in post-nuke Sweden is staggering, setting the stage for a Game Of Thrones-esque jostle for control over the eponymous Krater.
Except it’s missing something, and so are you. An itch begins, an allure that could drag you through the game as you slowly learn more about the world you’re in because everyone seems mum on the issue. After the first two chapters, all I have are two very grumpy factions, I have no idea what they stand for and no one will tell me why. What makes matters even worse is that there is some concurrent feud between the two of them, and a massive global power underpinning everything to boot. All I needed was for someone to give me a road map, but everyone was too busy posting their errands onto the local noticeboard to care for my trivial gossiping. By that point, things get very confusing very fast, and you start to get all existential and then you may as well not be playing at all.
The cause isn’t helped much by the fact that many NPCs will only answer one question at a time. The person that you get your quests from will only divulge one nugget of information regarding a faction or place at a time, and then refuse to acknowledge you until after you’ve run their errands for them. Sometimes an individual will find the time to give your quest a proper rundown, but they are few and far between. Instead, you’ll be playing post-apocalypse P.I. with these people, charging your services for insight into the way things are run in the places you go. It’s a very World Of Warcraft style of quest management, but instead of the story told in quest-sized chunks, you have the story of something to do with the story in quest-side chunks, and you might get the whole thing if you finish everything but only if you are a completionist to the nth degree. If this sounds daft as fuck to you, that’s because it is.
“I cannot begin to describe how much I don’t care!” – Dylan Moran, 2009
Any introductory dialog or sequence should very swiftly let you know where you stand in the world, what your first aim is and a brief overview of what is going on so that you can put your actions into some sort of frame. No matter what that frame is, it should let you play the same through some kind of lens that colours your perception of what is happening in the game, how you should be playing the game and how you should react to its various challenges and surprises. Even with a game like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion – a game whose opening sequence I openly despise – the lens is that of a free man; the openness of the world and your delight in exploring it is attributed to your stay in captivity, and your initial quest, however vague, gives it direction.
I didn’t enjoy Krater all that much because I’m the kind of gamer that requires some semblance of setup to really get invested into a story or a mechanic. Any kind of slapstick montage or tutorial screen just isn’t going to cut it. Krater has the unfortunate habit of dreaming big and giving you pieces of plot in frustratingly tiny doses. This particular title will see your functional action RPG and raise you a side order of narrative BDSM. I understand that some people like that kind of abuse in those kinds of games – probably the same kinds of people that still play Ultima Online. Just leave me out of it. I don’t want to go back to Sweden any time soon unless there’s beer involved.