Dread Nautical Review – The Haunting of Horatio Hornblower

“My mind’s an endless storm out in the cold unknown.”

My relationship with X-Com is one of unrequited love and passionate hatred. Even though I got into the turn-based party quite late with Firaxis’ 2012 version of Enemy Unknown, I still found myself absorbed in an adventure that took a year from my life. It was an astonishing time, albeit the victory was short-lived when I remembered that every battle was one accomplished with save-scumming, which was expected, even if it still took the wind out of my sails.


Even now, 8 years after Enemy Unknown set the AA-market on fire with a vivid reminder as to how intense turn-based combat can be, no other developer has been able to recreate the same fire — not even Firaxis themselves. X-Com 2 lacked the same fiery strategy, even with a stealth angle, Massive Chalice over-complicated how you could approach the enemy, and Phantom Doctrine suffered from being too dry. Let’s see how Dread Nautical can fare from the rest of the squad.

A screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing a lineup of random monsters ready to attack your crew.

This is the latest title from Zen Studios, a team responsible for the 3,452 different pinball tables present in Pinball FX. Varied landslide of over-sensationalized bar games aside, Zen have also seen themselves dabbling in various fun little exercises for casual gamers, like the tower-defense breeze of Castlestorm, or the quite in-depth Infinite Minigolf. They certainly have an eye for easy-to-pick-up games, and Dread Nautical is no exception.


You play as a survivor, lounging about on a ship named Hope with various other hedonistic bastards whose middle names might as well be “decadence”. While everyone is spitting on the workers unlucky enough to reside underneath the Second-Class deck, the capitalism that fueled their cruise trip collapses, and the souls of the damned begin to take over, bringing the ship into an inescapable loop of purgatory. It’s up to you and whoever you can find among the vast ship and its decks in order to find a way out of this madness.


Dread Nautical‘s gameplay is something worth observing, if only for how ambitious it seems to be. From the beginning, you have one premade survivor with a small backstory as to their presence on the ship, and you’re stuck in a small room with an elevator connected to every single part of the ship, inexplicably. If this elevator is to be believed, then the ship is the size of Blackpool Tower using the Sphinx as a skateboard, but nevertheless, you jump into the elevator and begin your journey to freedom.

A screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing a boss enemy surrounded by its own group of monsters.

If those strained opening paragraphs weren’t enough of a clue, then allow me to reiterate that Dread Nautical‘s gameplay is heavily inspired by the meaty dish of X-Com, with a side-order of roguelite mechanics, but we’ll get to that. With a maximum squad of three, you barrel through the abandoned leisurely spots of the ship, fighting whatever nasties come up, until you reach the helm and sound the foghorn. Once the foghorn is sounded, you and your party pass out and wake up once more where you began, with more of the ship opening up.


When you’re in the vicinity of an enemy, you’ll immediately switch to a combat mode, which limits your moves based on your party’s stats. You and the monsters take turns kicking each others’ arses. What you’re given to fight is based on what you’ve managed to find before the battle: bandages, lead pipes, molotovs, and what skills your party has, from stat buffs to AoE attacks.


It’s all surprisingly in-depth, as there’s quite a few ways to dispatch your squad and dispose of your enemies. All of the weaponry available in the game have many factors put into their viability in battle, like the range of an attack, the swing, and how much power it’ll require to use in a turn. The party skills available also offer a lot of approaches in how to eliminate threats.


There’s even a chance for stealth, which is a surprising element. Say you’ve only aggroed one of a potential three enemies; this means you have the chance to kill them before the rest of the squad realizes and clutters up affairs. Swipe them a few times with a fist or sharp weapon, and they’re out for the count without an issue. What weapons can and can’t cause a ruckus seem like random choices, but the strategy is there to use, refreshingly.


Problems quickly break through the skin, like the size of the battlegrounds. You’re mostly stuck to fighting in exceptionally cluttered arenas which offer no cover, just annoyance. All of these melee weapons offering a wide array of ways to attack don’t do much when you’re mostly fighting in thin ruins that can’t optimize how they work.


Ranged weaponry is also a bit broken. Grab a pistol, some darts, even a set of golf balls, and you’ll be pinging enemies across a battlefield with nary a care, with the enemy none the wiser as to how they’re being beaten. Mind you, this does work the same way for the enemy, and they have more than a few tricks in their roster, which is impressive in size, even if it needs a bit of culling.

A screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing the party characters inspecting a wrecked room.

You’ve got the regular melee fodder, who slowly become more powerful over time in different forms, whether it be in their speed, or their power. Spitters will be the first ranged enemies you come across, and the aforementioned lack of cover leads to your group taking a lot of frustrating and unnecessary hits. Nevertheless, these groups are manageable, and in the case of many of the common melee enemies, the arenas can be suited for them.

There are also Pushers, whose entire strategy seems to be disruption of a well-oiled machine, like your team. As we get further down the line, some oddities begin to crop up, like Rollers and Grabbers. They’re the same monsters in principle, possessing identical stunlocking abilities, with the Grabbers having to be right next to an affected party member. Rollers are vulnerable in the sense that they have to travel to you in order to stun you as well, just… like… the Grabbers… wait.


Rollers shouldn’t exist, as their attitude and playing style consists entirely of another melee variant, the “Runners”, except they can stun. Their role is already being filled by other monsters, they’re more like a gnat lacking a purpose. As you get deeper and deeper into the roster, their own gimmicks are fooled by the game’s own obvious mechanics and the design behind it.

An in-game screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing the player's characters surrounded by monsters.

For example, there are Trappers, who can spawn in 1×1 traps around the arena, potentially stalling your team when it comes to approaching the enemy. These traps never had any reason put into their positioning, however, usually spawning in corners or in wide-open spaces you can simply walk around. Even if you find a trap blocking a path forward, the proc-gen for the arenas usually abides by the rule of having 2 separate entryways.


The most egregious of the roster comes in the form of Blurrs. These are beings of pure air or… something like that, but their big trick is that once you hit them, they’ll instantly teleport the character you attacked with to another part of the map. While you can kinda see where they’re going with this, it’s a monster that the game can barely comprehend itself.


When one of your dude(ttes) gets teleported, the game fails to understand that they’re out of the designated combat zone, forcing them to a strict set of moves like everyone else. It’s a colossal spanner in terms of how its executed, especially since by the time they arrive in the game, monsters will spawn in previous rooms. It drags the pacing into the dirt and the difficulty into the sky. It’s absurd.


The pacing already suffers when you still have to move in grid-specific patterns outside of combat. Forcing this control scheme permanently results in awkward journeys as you attempt to get from one part of the room to the next. Why you couldn’t freely move with the thumbsticks outside of combat is anybody’s guess, but beyond that, it slowly drains on the player.


While exploring, you’ll find various potential upgrades to your equipment and weaponry, and you’ll also find direct upgrade materials that you use outside of main gameplay. These come in the forms of Runes and Scrap. Runes specifically upgrade your characters, and the Scrap is used for everything else. Upgrading and repairing weapons, crafting defensive equipment, upgrading the actual upgrading booths, it all relies on Scrap.


This is where the game’s simplicity clashes with more free-forming goals. The rate of obtaining scrap doesn’t run parallel with the increasing prices of further upgrades. Even later on, as you obtain rarer and more powerful weapons and armor, it feels like you have to replay more and more earlier levels, but this grinds on the mind. When it comes to the difficulty scaling of each deck and your own party’s skills, it’s so dead-on and precise that anything higher is a Sisyphus ordeal and anything lower is a slog.

An in-game screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing a battle taking place in a corrupted hall.

Maybe this would work better as a straight-up rogue-like with X-Com‘s mechanics, and that’s the biggest flaw Dread Nautical possesses. It cannot comprehend the balance of this extremely linear progression with a more haphazard core of danger and difficulty. It causes the game to be unsure of which one to fully commit to, ending with a gameplay loop that slowly falls apart as it gets faster.


There is a difficulty that puts all of its heart and soul into the rogue-like mechanics, but it’s also the hardest setting. There’s no Ironman challenge in Dread Nautical, outside of the hardest setting also possessing it. It wants you to go hard or go home, and if you can’t keep up, sorry little fella. Maybe our more bloated approach will do better for you, which is a shame, because as it stands, this is probably the best X-Com clone to be released yet.


While the difficulty is all over the place in terms of how it wants to directly challenge the player, whether it be resource management or tough odds, the need to save-scum is gone. It’s this accidental mishap of not knowing what genre should take center stage that kind of saves it from being a freak misfit. It’s not without its issues, like the bloated monster roster or the simple currencies being too simple for actual player progression, but this is still fine.


An in-game screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing a claustrophobic battle taking place in a green-lit room.

It’s surprising to see a title as modest as Dread Nautical. It’s a fairly beefy game with a surprisingly small price tag, in comparison to its competitors at least. For a gameplay concept so few have grasped as expertly as Firaxis, it’s weird to see the strongest contender so far be the studio more in tune with an overrated pub sport than anything else.


Dread Nautical has several strengths, but it also has several faults, one of which potentially crippling its core. It’s a dastardly monkey’s paw situation; it’s what is arguably the most reasonably-priced, turn-based strategy title to come out since the resurgence of the genre, but you’re paired with the more demanding and imperfect preset conditions of a rogue-like, a balancing act many have yet to grasp.


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