Sail the severed seas.
Dread Nautical is further proof that Zen Studios is about more than just really good pinball sims. Following the release of Operencia: The Stolen Sun, Zen has now brought their new rogue-like, turn-based horror game to Nintendo Switch from Apple Arcade.
The game is set aboard the Hope, a cruise liner seemingly from the days before cruises were staffed entirely by former college dorm resident assistants seeking a new outlet for their over-enthusiasm. Of course, it could be that said RAs are dead, as the game begins with things having already turned south.
Dread Nautical begins with a brief, creepily narrated introduction that tells you the events about to transpire are all part of some evil experiment. I didn’t like this, as it immediately made the game feel clinical instead of scary. I guess I just fear the unknown more than I fear elaborate plots. You then select from one of four diverse players to control throughout the game, each with his/her own unique strengths. One has better attacks, one can carry more items, etc. The decision isn’t terribly important as you will be able to recruit more people as you progress, so you may as well go with the person you think is the coolest.
That character then wakes up aboard a ship that has already been overwhelmed by supernatural forces. A handy janitor tells you that although there are survivors out there, many passengers and crew members have turned into zombies, more or less. Want to survive? Well, as in real life, survival is pretty much a rogue-like experience.
You’ve got a starting point and you need to explore. At first, you won’t be able to get far. Find a crude weapon and investigate room by room. Find food and health packs. Get better weapons. Maybe find survivors and attempt to recruit them. Head back to base. With each run you can venture further out, unlocking more rooms, discovering more of the ship and the twisted plot in which you find yourself.
You’ll encounter numerous monsters along the way. Some you’ll have to fight, while others can just be avoided. Exploration and combat are both turn based, so you’ll need to consider each step carefully as you try to avoid monsters or position yourself for better attacks. You’ve only got a certain number of action points per character, so if you move too far you won’t be able to end with an attack. To make matters worse, your weapons can break. Do you take up valuable inventory space with a second weapon? If you’re nearing your immediate goal, do you risk approaching the room with no weapons or do you retreat to repair everything and start again? If just reading this is making you anxious, don’t fret; Dread Nautical does have different difficulty settings that’ll allow you to control the level of punishment passed on for not completing a run.
Management doesn’t end with combat, either. Yes, you can find and recruit survivors to help you throughout the game, but survivors need food, bedding, etc. The more you have, the more difficult it is to keep everyone fed and happy. Also, as you’d expect on a ship full of zombies, people are slow to trust you. This means recruiting them takes time, which slows down your progress. In other words, you’ll need to carefully consider who you want/need at your side instead of attempting to save everyone.
So, the meat of Dread Nautical consists of methodical room-by-room exploration, turn-based combat, skill leveling, and inventory management, all of which become quite intricate as the game progresses. Here, the game is successful. It’s less successful in its decoration. I already mentioned the story setup that leaves nothing to the imagination, and I’m not sure I really liked the main characters, all of whom seem developed for satire, not horror. They’re too clever. Too hip. They never felt real. This feeling may also be caused by the visual presentation. The stylized, colorful graphics and outlandish character designs look like bright skins thrown onto a 20-year-old graphics engine. They convey Cartoon Network’s current trend of lazy animation, not an effective horror setting.
They feel disconnected from the overall tone of the game. Perhaps that’s left over from dealing with Apple, where everything apparently has to be all happy-fun-time 24 hours a day.
Although the cartoonish presentation doesn’t mesh with the game’s creepy setting, dark story, and difficulty, fans of turn-based gaming and rogue-like horror will find plenty to enjoy here. $20.00 seems a bit much considering the game is included with a $5/month Apple Arcade subscription, but it’s worth a run on the Switch if you don’t have an Apple device.
Review: Dread Nautical (Nintendo Switch)
Dread Nautical provides a very good turn-based adventure underneath an unfortunately cartoonish presentation. It can’t quite figure out if it wants to be scary or goofy, but the gameplay and level designs are deep enough to keep players engaged throughout.