Dread Nautical – Mediocrity in the Name of the Old Ones
PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch
I don’t know if I feel entirely comfortable with pimping Cthulu to justify a roguelike element in a video game.
I mean, of all of the pantheons that you could royally and carelessly undervalue, I just feel like messing with a Great Old One who can telepathically infect your dreams with some really insane butthurt is the worst way to go.
There is a sense of blasphemy in Zen Studio’s Dread Nautical. Sure, the appropriation of a cosmic pantheon that makes you question your reality is pretty concerning, but the game feels like a glorified appropriation of …stuff … to make a game. What results is a game that achieves its base mission, but without the bright spark of revolution that it was probably aiming for.
Zen Studios set themselves an unnecessarily ridiculous challenge to redefine the parameters of several genres (The amalgamation of “Tactical Roguelike RPG” is one that even my Breville Boss Blender had a bit of trouble mixing into something palatable). This results in a chronicle of a hopeful cruise ship overrun by an undead crew, and the need to remain alive long enough to cleanse the whole hull of inhumane aberrations and try to unite the remaining guests in, well I guess in safe hygiene?
The tasks to meet this goal are repetitive but contextually relevant. By collecting food, scraps, runes, weapons, and people, you can progress through more areas of the ship, decode what happened to the crew and increase the viability of your “sanctuary” on the ship.
There is nothing inherently wrong or damning about this concept. However, it required so much thought into several game systems that the result was not as deep as expected.
The biggest question is whether tactical combat was necessary since the implementation of said tactical combat was basic. I simply did not feel like I was playing tactically in combat – after getting two pistols very early in the game, I played a lot of the combat at range. Map positioning could be used to cheese the AI, but I was not making a lot of critical risk/reward decisions in combat that would challenge me in other tactical games. Once out of combat, exploration is set to free movement by default, but the player still navigates a grid underlay to traverse the map. You have the option to set movement to utilise a turn-based mode governed by your AP points, but if the goal was to provide challenge or further tactical immersion, it may not have been entirely necessary to optionalise.
The initial character options were great – each character was quirky with interesting passives and AP/HP ratios that impacted play choices. The recruitment of survivors was more padded than I had considered, with every character needing convincing that the manic pixie gamer dreamgirl hurling her controller at zombies was a nice person. This jarred with the urgency of the narrative when every character trusted you enough to do a task for them, but then had to “sleep on it” before they would join forces with you.
“I’m sorry but I’m not sure why I need to convince you to find safety in my Shiny Safe Unicorn Bunker, Mel, but hey you should think it over! I’ll just leave you here to deal with that enraged thrall while I collect all of the remaining food and scraps on this deck.”
Both the lite tactical play and the slower recruitment of survivors folded into the roguelike components in the game – the death-progression in Dread Nautical is present through a groundhog day, sensibly to prioritise the characterisation and arguably to justify the Lovecraftian themes. In the main, it is to increase the quantity of materials to collect and use in a variety of ways – upgrading your Casa da Solitude, repairing and upgrading your weapons and armour. This fits very well with the game ideas, but again this is a standard implementation of the roguelike genre (promote death to succeed). If anything, I felt like using the horn at the end of each floor was more limiting than the potential for free reign like other roguelikes – I was not pushing the limits or potential of my character, I was meeting the requirements of the level and using the “death” mechanic to commence the next level of the ship. I anticipate that these structured parameters were to meet the mission-esque tactical components of the game.
All in all, Dread Nautical is a reasonably unremarkable game. It does well with the foundational ideas of the genres that it utilises and meets its objectives with a suitable story. However, it is more of a novelty than an advancement.
Dread Nautical was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by Zen Studios