Dread Nautical offers a fascinating mix of tactical RPG, light survival elements and a focus on exploration; something that is quite possibly a winning combo. Does it take advantage of its great setting or end up a fish out of water?
Dread Nautical hooks you seconds after booting it up. It takes a seemingly pleasant cruise and peppers in foreboding on behalf of a narrator. The, dare I say, dread you feel contrasting these two is done wonderfully well. The mix of dark atmosphere and cutesy polygonal style almost reminds me of “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared”, as you watch the unaware cruise ship – The Hope – sail its way into the Lovecraftian horror that awaits it.
That’s where you wake up, and from there you may choose one of four characters to play as, all with their own bonuses. One works well with buffing and talking to teammates, another with guns and more guns. In true noir fashion, I initially went for the gun-toting detective with an eye for detail. Once you have chosen your character, you are given the rundown by another passenger in your cabin.
The fate of the cruise, after journeying into this Lovecraftian hellscape, is made clear. Along with severe structural changes to the ship itself, many of the passengers and crew have been transformed into hellish beasts known as Thrall. It seems their entire purpose on the Hope (no, the irony is not lost) is to kill the remaining passengers and corrupt it further. This is where you are first taught about the base gameplay.
There are two main sections within Dread Nautical: your cabin and each level of the ship. In the cabin, you may use resources to build and upgrade stations, and these involve a place for passengers to sleep, upgrade, heal and level up. You must upgrade the stations alongside your characters to get the best items and levels. The resources are split up into a few main things. There is your food, runes for levels and parts for upgrading. As well as these, you can stockpile useful weapons, armour and health kits for especially tough battles. These are all little ways of micromanaging the main fighting and exploration elements that you will be partaking in.
After getting acclimated and learning of your cabin, you may venture out into the levels of the ship. Your goal is to fight through (or around) groups of Thrall until you sound a horn, sending you back to your cabin. This is when you are informed of one of Dread Nautical’s most interesting ideas – time – and the things that happen to you may not be linear. While you only attempted to sound the horn in level one once, your cabin mate informs you that you have attempted it countless times. Not only is the way the game plays with time and sanity fascinating, it is a great way of allowing you to start again or make mistakes without breaking the illusion the game sets up. It doesn’t just say “game over” and start again, it is smarter than that.
The way this shocked me most is in the form of party members. Every time you explore a level, you can discover other people. You can talk to them and choose the right dialogue to make them like you. If they like you enough (and you have enough beds) they will join your party and cabin for future levels. Needless to say, I failed miserably with one character; not only did they hate me but I killed them with a needlessly large explosive… on accident.
I was incredibly surprised to find them two levels later, with no damage, relationship or recollection of my homicide. The way Dread Nautical treats the fleeting nature of relationships and memory is something a better writer might explore and that’s what makes this, as a game, feel so wonderfully eerie. No one’s memory is perfect, not even the character you play as, so you can never be entirely sure of what is happening or how many times they have gone exploring through the ship to be slaughtered by a Thrall or arsonist.
The gameplay is simple but effective for the most part. Each character has a set amount of AP, a skill determining how much you can move or attack. Each weapon you find has an effective range and use. The weapon can only be used a certain amount of times before it needs repairing though, and this often forces you to waste a worse weapon to save a better one for a tight spot.
As you gain more members, the tacticality becomes more obvious. Each character should have items suiting them. If someone has a lot of AP, they may benefit from running in, attacking once and running away again. Someone holding a pendant increasing ranged weapons might opt to carry three guns. This makes both your upgrade path and team selection interesting as you constantly wonder how best to optimise your current loadout.
Unfortunately this is let down somewhat by progression later on. While there are things to do and upgrade, the upgrades become less tangible and unique, and this means that the RPG grind becomes a little dull as you stop earning new things and instead upgrade pre-existing stats. Furthermore, this can be felt in the design of the later levels. Although part of the point of a time loop is not knowing where you are, the similarity and little change between levels feels very disappointing.
The characters and gameplay within Dread Nautical are interesting yet the entire gameplay loop starts to get rather boring as it feels like you are taking in the same level structure continuously. And whilst the story gripped me from the very start as it taunts the information you haven’t yet acquired, by the halfway mark the slog of levels made finding that mystery less and less appetising.
Dread Nautical on Xbox One, with its oddly dark tone, tactical gameplay, and polygonal art style tries to make waves, yet manages to makes an ocean. Whilst it is let down by a lack of variation and complexity later on, Dread Nautical is a whale of a time that I would comfortably recommend to fans of RPGs or the likes of XCOM.