Dread Nautical has the unenviable position of following two genre giants that moved into its launch window, but it holds its own as a worthy opening act.

Dread Nautical Review: Tactics and Terror at Sea

Dread Nautical has the unenviable position of following two genre giants that moved into its launch window, but it holds its own as a worthy opening act.

At a time when the cruise industry is in the news about the horrible circumstances some recent passengers have found themselves in, you may have thought going on a cruise had reached its low point.

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While that may be true in reality, in fiction, Dread Nautical contends for the title of worst vacation ever. The tactical RPG is full of interesting mechanics and more depth than you may expect, and it’s all set to the backdrop of one nightmarish cruise trip.

In Zen Studios’ foray into new territory, some elements are unquestionably lacking, but overall, Dread Nautical is a great opening act for the recent genre headliners.

Dread Nautical Review: Tactics and Terror at Sea

After a surprisingly unsettling and dark introductory cutscene, where a brooding voice taunts the passengers of a doomed cruise, Dread Nautical thrusts players into a more light-hearted world inhabited by some silly archetypal characters.

As a tactics game, Dread Nautical lets players choose their starting character based on the stats they may want to start with, but whomever you choose, you won’t be stuck with them and their lowly beginner traits for long.

Dread Nautical is a time loop game, which has recently become a trend I very much welcome. Each level unfolds on a single floor of the 20-floor cruiseliner suddenly populated by ghouls of various shapes and sizes. Failure is just a part of the game, and you should get used to it early. With procedurally generated levels, your hero sometimes gets lucky and finds a level fit with several health items and great weapons. Other times, you may find things much more barren. 

Though there are always counters to the basic layout being disadvantageous, it can sometimes feel like a run is doomed, though you won’t often know that until you’ve picked it clean and still come up mostly empty-handed.

The traditional “fog of war” mechanic often seen in games like this is represented here by closed doors. On each floor, you can choose where to head, even skipping some rooms entirely if you don’t feel you need to scavenge through them. Some will have enemies and supplies, while others may have one or the other  or even none.

The objective of each level is to get to the mysterious foghorn and blow it, sending yourself back to the start of a new loop, but with a new floor unlocked.

The supernatural elements are fun and moody, even amid a pretty and vibrant game such as this. Deciphering a strange, almost Lovecraftian language from the enemies is a fun collectible meta-game that feels more worthwhile than finding gold statues or some of the other collectathon-tropes you often see in games. 

But at the heart of the game, its best attribute is its deep and rewarding upgrade system. Though you start as a solo survivor, you’ll soon have the opportunity to recruit others to your lobby, otherwise known as your headquarters. This area is regularly expanded, letting you first recruit other survivors. But soon after, you can begin to upgrade your heroes, craft and repair weapons and items, let characters rest and heal, and more.

Each of these areas can then be upgraded several times over themselves, meaning pass or fail, survival or death, Dread Nautical is the right kind of tactical RPG: the kind that’s hard to put down.

There are no shot percentages to worry about, though you will need to contend with action points and to maneuver the world and its enemies smartly. Just ramming your way through a level might work on the first level or two. After that, you’re going to need to strategize. While all levels are randomly generated, keeping things fresh, some encounters appear to play like can’t-miss boss battles, and they get tough.

But like the best games in the genre, there are as many right ways to play as there are wrong ones, and Dread Nautical lets players decide what kind of character builds are important to them.

It’s not without issues, though. The biggest problem in the game is one that sadly can’t be averted and regularly returns: menu navigation. Moving through its tabbed pages of weapons, equip screens, crafting, and the like, each time with button mapping that feels inconsistent and unintuitive makes one a bit seasick. I never did get used to it in my hours with the game.

You’ll likely often press the wrong thing, and you’ll want to double-check you’ve loaded out the way you intended. A few times, I entered a level without some of the items I thought I had because I fumbled through the menus at my base. Those runs don’t feel satisfying like the game otherwise so often does.

A lesser but still persistent problem is the camera. The same button to zoom in and out is also the button that recenters on your hero. So while you may be trying to scan a room for the best point of attack, and decide to zoom in or out for a better look, you’ll first get thrown back to your character, even if you wanted to peek several rooms away.

It’s an annoyance at worst, but a constant one. It also doesn’t help that the grid movement controls of the left stick and the camera movement controls of the right stick operate at two very different speeds. 

Dread Nautical Review — The Bottom Line

  • Deep and rewarding upgrade system
  • Interesting blend of colorful, fun characters and dark, moody story beats
  • Combat worthy of any genre fan’s attention
  • Camera issues persist throughout
  • Menu navigation is unintuitive and sometimes betraying 

Dread Nautical is, overall, a strong effort from a studio that once only operated in the virtual pinball space. As one of the first ventures outside of that niche, Dread Nautical proves Zen Studios has potential beyond the flippers.

The game comes on the heels of two giants in the tactics genre, and while it may not be your first pick for some grid-based combat, it’s certainly worth adding to your queue. With combat that will delight anyone who loves the genre, plus a great sense of progression, this alternatingly dark and silly story is worth the trip, even as you’ll need more than gloves and a facemask to make it off this cruise. 

[Note: A copy of Dread Nautical was provided by Zen Studios for the purpose of this review.]

Dread Nautical Review: Tactics and Terror at Sea
Dread Nautical has the unenviable position of following two genre giants that moved into its launch window, but it holds its own as a worthy opening act.

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Mark Delaney
Mark is a dad, husband, bicyclist, animal rights activist, and a gamer, of course. You can find him on all platforms covering co-op, indies, horror, battle royale, or whatever else he's obsessing over right now. In addition to GameSkinny, he's been published on GameSpot, IGN, GamesRadar, EGM, Escapist, Official Xbox Magazine, and a bunch of other great outlets.