Dread Nautical Review- Cruisin’ for a Losin’ (Your Mind to the Black Abyss)
Dread Nautical takes place in perhaps the most viscerally obscene, madness-inducing setting imaginable. Yes, friends, that setting is a cruise ship. The cruise ship is without a doubt a deeply evil liminal space, so described by the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred and also David Foster Wallace. There is tremendous dark energy that flows through the uncannily clean decks, springing forth insanity from all who are unfortunate enough to be confined within the ship’s halls. Grotesque creatures of grease and sinew gorge on mountains of flesh within the cafeterias, bring torment to the imprisoned staff members, revert into an animalistic mindset of gluttony, wrath, and greed. It is no surprise that the developers chose this as the setting for Dread Nautical. Of any place for an eldritch god to make their presence known, it is a cruise.
Dread Nautical begins with the sinister voice of some entity gently whispering into your mind as your character enjoys another fun day on the Hope, a luxury cruise. The Hope crosses a transparent light barrier, and suddenly, everything goes dark. Your character wakes up at the bottom of the hold, finding the ship stranded in another dimension, with most of the passengers and crew dead (or worse). To survive you must venture out into the various floors of the ship to scavenge for items and find other living passengers, and hopefully figure out what the fuck is going on.
Dread Nautical is a mix of a few genres. It’s a turn based game reminiscent of XCOM: Enemy Unknown with some roguelite and RPG elements as well. The gameplay cycle goes a bit like this. You start out in a safe room and take an elevator to various floors. There are 25 floors in the ship, each increasing with difficulty and procedurally generated. Every five floors you have some kind of boss encounter. You must travel through each floor and collect as many materials and items as possible, and find the foghorn at the far end. Once the foghorn is sounded, your characters black out and wake up back in the safe room, able to upgrade weapons and level up before going back out again.
Roaming the halls of the hope are the twisted reanimated bodies of your fellow passengers. The enemies in Dread Nautical start out fairly simple. You may run into a regular human dotted with massive polyps on their body, capable only of a humble slap. You may find a similar foe, this one with a large swollen belly of which it spits toxic bile at you. Standard stuff. Soon the bodies become more and more grotesque and deformed, crawling on all fours, tentacles wriggling, and of course much more.
The cool thing about Dread Nautical is that unlike XCOM, the members of your team all have unique personalities and interests. You play as one of four heroes—Fargo the detective, Vivian the gamer gurl, Kenichi the ex-yakuza, and Miraje the singer—and play as them throughout the game. Along the way you encounter other survivors and can encourage them to join your crew. Much like the starting characters, each survivor has their own skills, both passive and active, based on their character archetype that influence how they play. For instance, Giorgio the dancer can waltz unharmed over floor traps.
Convincing them to join the crew may take some work. They are untrusting and often full of their own delusions and visions caused by the eldritch forces. Each requires you to gain their trust, trust that can be lost with the wrong responses. The concept for Dread Nautical’s recruitment system is certainly interesting. Every floor you encounter them, you get the chance to give them the correct response to whatever they say, bumping their friendship meter a bit. It can take a long while to get someone to join your crew. But having to spend time convincing people to be your friends is offset by the extremely limited beds in your safehouse. Befriend one too many survivors and you’ll have to leave one outside the safehouse, which obviously lowers the friendship meter because that’s not really a friend thing to do.
The beds are just one of many aspects of Dread Nautical that seem a little too limited. Having such a small pool of fighters to choose from in the beginning, while certainly annoying, is nothing compared to the combat mechanics. Like XCOM, combat is turn based and done on a grid. But whereas XCOM has movement and attacks as separate actions, Dread Nautical gives each character an extremely limited amount of action points. The main character starts with 4, which can be upgraded later, but this is far too few. You can’t engage an enemy safely. All you can do is approach and attack, and hope that you finish the enemy that turn.
Another limiting factor is the durability of items. Weapons and armor in Dread Nautical have a set amount of durability, and of course, cannot be used after they are broken. Each hit you give reduces weapon durability, and hits you receive reduces armor. This isn’t necessarily a bad mechanic since you can simply return to the safe house after the mission and can repair your busted equipment (even equipment that is intentionally destroyed, like Molotov cocktails). But the characters in Dread Nautical start out with way too little inventory space. Three or four items per character, meaning that a ton of items must be left behind. On top of that, you can’t carry extra armor. Any armor items you want to return to the safehouse must be worn by a character. I recognize that this is a survival game, and perhaps I am just being a scrub. But it seems like there were a lot of items that were simply going to waste because the weapon that I had upgraded and thus did not want to get rid of was not usable after 7 hits, but still took up inventory space.
Dread Nautical has a lot of faults, but I still thought it was pretty good. For a game made by a studio known almost exclusively for pinball games, Dread Nautical shows a lot of creativity. The charming art style and funny writing contrasted with the grim music and setting make for a really interesting, if somewhat grind-y, experience. If you like XCOM style combat or Fire Emblem style friend making, you will probably have a good time with Dread Nautical.
Dread Nautical is certainly not perfect, but it still is a fun experience. You could do a lot worse as far as Lovecraft-y or XCOM-y games go.