It’s rare for a videogame studio to move away from their comfort zone when they’ve settled into a successful groove, and even more so when such a change ends up turning out so well. In Zen Studios’ case, a developer mostly known for the excellent pinball simulation game series Pinball FX, their latest foray outside of their bread and butter is quite possibly their best release yet with Dread Nautical, a strategy horror game with a cartoony look and plenty of charm to boot.
The game throws you right into the action right away as one of the handful of survivor tropes you pick wakes up in a dark cabin of the ship Hope, where the only other person around is a skinny dude named Jed. He gives you simple instructions: take the elevator and explore the deck above, you have to activate the emergency fog horn and get help, because the ship is lost at sea. Imagine his surprise when you actually make it back and are able to remember almost everything that happened during your absence from the cabin, as all other people he met before have turned into mindless creatures that attack anyone on sight.
Dread Nautical has you taking runs every time you explore one of the ship’s doomed decks, and upon activating the fog horn, your character faints and somehow is transported back to the safety of Jed’s cabin. The thing is that each of these attempts is different from the previous one the more you succeed at reaching the end of each level, expanding your list of objectives and giving the game a sort of rogelite property — even more so on harder difficulties, where you lose items and everything else you found during the run whenever your main character dies.
At the outset, you’re not much of a fighter, but that quickly changes as you start finding improvised weapons to use along the way, like pipes and broken bottles, and the further you get into the game, you’ll run into more traditional and even crazier options, such as handguns and chainsaws. You’ll need them since the horrors that await you in the seemingly but not at all abandoned decks above you have no qualms about making you their next meal. It’s cool that the combat can be so fun then, and unless you’re overwhelmed — in which case I’d heartily recommend a retreat — there are plenty of options and approaches in order to come out on top.
Everything during combat revolves around the amount of action points you have left after performing any type of movement, be it walking, attacking, or even using one of your character’s active skill, if they have any. The entirety of the game takes place on a grid, and while you’re out of combat, you can move as much as you want, but once you approach an enemy, you take turns until you either take out everything in your way, or they pound you to death. There’s plenty of XCOM-like antics playing under Dread Nautical’s hood for sure, but it’s all somewhat simplified in order to keep things going. Attacks can still be missed, and there are plenty of opportunities to completely screw up by wasting AP during your turn, but the gameplay here is much more forgiving especially due to the ability to heal yourself if you’re carrying the necessary supplies.
As with the usual survivor horror game, there’s plenty of inventory management in Dread Nautical, but more due to the very limited number of slots that you have at your disposal than anything else. So far in my time playing, I haven’t had a lot of headaches due to this thanks to the abundance of upgrades I’ve been able to exchange for my old equipment the deeper I got into the game, but there were moments where I saw myself forced to burn through some lesser healing items unnecessarily in order to take a better one I would undoubtedly need at a later point.
Your initial cabin exponentially grows the more you explore the rest of the ship, as you gather more supplies and open up upgrade stations such as a crafting table that repairs and makes your weapons stronger, an obscure skill one that lets you level up your characters, and more bunk beds for other survivors you rescue during your incursions, for starters. Each of these can eventually be upgraded further in order to accomodate for higher tiers and more space, depending on their use and how many pickups you have, be it scrap or runes, which are found in glowing spots throughout the upper decks.
Recruiting new survivors is one of Dread Nautical’s cool and unique twists. Due to its psychological horror blend of storytelling, you’re not privy to the option to merely add them to your crew as soon as you find them, since everyone on board is slightly unhinged by everything that’s going on around them. You have to earn their trust by performing specific actions or picking the right dialogue choices, and eventually coming back to them in later runs, at which point they might join up. Certain character types that you play can have an easier time convincing people to come with them, and that mechanic certainly works as an added wrinkle that manages makes sense in the lore of the game, something rare in games for sure.
Once you do get more people to help in your cause, you have to be careful not to lose them. On normal difficulty, once they are defeated in fights, they can be called back in once you return to your cabin, but on the next difficulty option, you’re forced to find them and recruit all over again. It’s also important to keep in mind that you have to keep them fed at the end of every run, and food is a commodity that’s harder to come by than other resources, so it’s a balance you have to work with.
Another aspect of Dread Nautical that impressed me are its visuals, especially considering how well the game runs on the Switch both portably and on a TV. Character designs are cartoony and are full of personality, and while they lack any sort of facial animations during dialog, their voice acting and writing are really good, which made me care about their fates. Same goes for monsters, at least in the design department since they’re not much for talking. Levels can be quite simple looking, sure, but they do a good job at conveying a strong sense of ambiance as you step into new rooms, some even shrouded in darkness as a storm rages outside, with occasional lightning.
Overall, Dread Nautical runs a tight ship, and with the exception of some long loading times when going to a new deck or when you boot it up from the system menu, it’s a wonderful pick up and play game for quick or extended sessions on the Switch. It’s also available on PC, mobile and consoles, so there’s no excuse not to embark on this grim but ultimately colorful adventure in the high sea.