When the name Zen Studios comes up, generally the first thing that comes to mind are the amazing digital Pinball tables that they’ve been creating for years now. So when I heard of Dread Nautical that’s both a team and turned based roguelike Cthullu inspired adventure on a cruise ship basically stuck out in the Bermuda Triangle? I needed to see how that panned out and honestly? I’ve loved just about every minute of it so far.
Taking things from the top, you get to pick one of four characters that you wish to be the protagonist of this story. Each character has a special ability and a difference in their stats that can eventually be upgraded as the adventure moves on. Once you’ve made your selection, your character wakes up from a bed in a location with only one way out through an elevator as the other door is as blocked as it possibly can be by a barricade. Talking with the only other person there, you set out to find help and hopefully a way off of this boat.
Making your way to the bridge, and blowing the ship’s horn, you pass out, wake back up in that same bed only to find out that this has been going on for a while now but this time? This time you remembered what happened, and next time? Next time things will be different. What I loved about this introduction is that it leaves a mystery to exactly how long things have been going on for. So after a bit of an introduction to how things play out, the adventure starts in earnest as you set out to both find a way out and to get help to do so.
There are a lot of gameplay elements being meshed here but they work really well together. As a Roguelike, you can from the beginning choose just how brutal things will be difficulty wise. There are three modes, Normal, Hard and Insane. In a normal mode, time will always reset at the end of every stage, teammates will always be there once they have been recruited and the gear that you bring out with you will stay with you if you die. In hard mode, any survivors left outside the bridge or any gear that you brought out with you will be gone if you die. Adding to that, any teammates that were out with you will have to be found again. Finally, in Insane mode, you’ll die, die and die again and lose everything everytime that you do.
Regardless of the difficulty though, the core gameplay elements are a blend of team based and action point turned based strategy like the recent Divinity Original Sins. Broken up into rooms, moving around the decks while not in combat is as easy as panning the camera and then selecting which square that you want to move over to. If there are no enemies in sight, you and your party (if you have one) will move together or individually depending on what you’ve decided. The rooms themselves can be empty or contain objects to be inspected that contain scrap, runes and perhaps an item that can be used by the party. Other rooms? Other rooms have enemies or ambushes just waiting for you to walk into them.
Combat plays out simply enough with a “your turn”, “their turn”, party approach. What I really appreciated was that you can swap between your characters at any point in time and use their action points as you see fit which is a bit of a refreshing change instead of having to use all of a character’s action points before moving onto the next one. Moving one space costs an action point. Attacking enemies depending on whether you want to punch them or use items can cost one or more action points. A Punch, one point, hitting them with a crowbar, two points, bringing down a heavy hammer and knocking them back, three points. Guns, shivs, throwing knives, broken bottles, pool cues and so much more all range between one or two action points.
Playing with these numbers will be your key to victory. Attacking from the side will cause more damage while attacking from behind in a sneak attack before a battle even begins may even stop it before it starts. Strategy isn’t exactly going to be heavy in the beginning but as you move up the decks you’re really going to need to start bringing your A game and really thinking about what you want to do with what you have because unfortunately for you? Short of your fists, everything has durability and once that durability hits zero, that item becomes useless.
This is where things get a bit tricky. Before you can start to upgrade your party members for more attack, defense, inventory space and action points, you’re going to have to decide what a character heads out with versus how much space they have to bring items back. Anything can be used while out on the deck but you’ll have to repair it once you make it back to safety. I appreciated that durability basically worked like Fire Emblem where each point was one time that an item could be used regardless of if it was melee or ranged. The better the item, the more it cost to repair and to upgrade. Sadly upgrading an item did not fix it, just made it cost even more to repair. Well done devs… well done…
So, with the above in mind, sometimes you would want to prioritize items that were worth more scrap than actual usage because you had something to repair, or you had something that you wanted to upgrade. Weapons, armors and stations in your sanctuary can all be upgraded and the cost obviously continues to climb the more you upgrade it. To recruit more party members, you’ll want to upgrade your sleeping quarters for more beds. To upgrade your characters further and further you’ll want to upgrade the table that allows you to infuse a character with runes to unlock their potentials. As the adventure moves on, characters will need to be set up at the medical station to relax as the mental stress only compounds as you move on.
Every feature that Dread Nautical has melds into one another which makes for a great gameplay experience. Yes there are a lot of elements being put into play however they blend together so well that it just works. What I also enjoyed was that because this is basically the Bermuda Triangle and it’s shenanigans, decks can be re-explored as many times as you want to help you prepare by obtaining more scrap and runes in order to upgrade your characters and their items. Being a Roguelike, you’ll want to be prepared and there’s no shame wanting to redo a deck a few times and honestly? You’ll also want to as each deck has pages that can be found that may just explain a bit more to what is going on. Two birds, one stone.