Madness Deeper Than The Ocean

HIGH Realizing that secret texts were hidden on the loading screen.

LOW The last boss is a SLOG.

WTF Well that’s certainly an innovative explanation for my predicament!

A cruise ship really is one of the best possible locations for a thriller to take place. Whether action, horror, or mystery, it’s a setting perfectly suited to creating drama thanks to a huge number of people from all walks of life, the absolute impossibility of authorities coming to the rescue, and the cruel indifference of the ocean below — it’s a shock more games aren’t set on one.

Dread Nautical is a perfect example of how a cruise ship can be exploited to great effect. The player takes control of a character and is dropped into the ship’s lobby with a case of amnesia. They must discover who they are, how they got on the ship, and, most importantly, the nature of the curse that makes them repeat the same actions over and over again, Groundhog Day style. This investigation mostly takes the form of turn-based combat, with a bit of party management thrown in.

The basic goal is simple — explore a deck, loot it for supplies, attempt to recruit crew members, then blow the ship’s horn to trigger a time do-over and unlock the next deck.

For the first few levels everything seems normal, but it quickly becomes clear that something strange is going on. Not only is each new deck crawling with, but each one contains a bridge. Why would anyone build a ship with twenty bridges? Why does each new floor become more infected with otherworldly decoration? Soon enough, tentacles burst through the floors, thorns cover every surface, and entire rooms seem pulled from a horrific alternate dimension.

Dread Nautical gets a lot of mileage out of its unique art style. Everything is blocky models with bold colours, and there’s no shading or complexity to it — faces are caricatures, and arms end in fingerless stumps. The animators manage to bring these characters to life, giving them personalities through their movements as they interact with one another.

The characters themselves have a huge variety — there are up to eight spaces in the lobby that the player calls home, but over the course of the adventure they’ll encounter 15 different characters who can potentially be recruited. Each one has a series of conversations that must be navigated, along with a small sub-quest to complete — once that’s done, they become a playable character able to be added to the party for subsequent trips.

The player can only bring two partners at a time, but having a large roster is beneficial since party members quickly get stressed by the brutal combat and need to take an occasional day off. Don’t be too eager to recruit, though — every character needs to be fed, and food can be hard to come by since the amount to be found on a deck is completely random.

Dread Nautical‘s combat system works well — players scrounge for weapons, either melee, ranged, or throwable explosive, each costing a certain number of action points to use, and having a set durability rating governing how many times they can be used before they break. Killed enemies drop both runes and scrap, which can be used to level characters and repair weapons. Additionally, the player can improve the lobby itself, increasing the number of recruitable crew and upping their max levels.

At first this all seems incredibly daunting as there’s a lot to unlock and upgrade, but Dread Nautical allows players to farm levels as many times as they like until their characters are well-equipped to take on the most terrifying foes.

The only real problem with combat is the AI and documentation. While melee-based enemies can be counted on to charge the players headfirst, ranged foes always seem to know exactly how many spaces characters can move, and they stay just out of range at their end of their turn, ensuring that the player can’t get a hit in without taking a sacrifice blow.

Also a problem is that the descriptions of the enemies in the player’s journal leaves key info out. There’s no entry for things like the range of projectile-based enemies’ attacks, or whether foes get a free counter-attack every time they’re hit with a melee weapon. This is crucial information the player needs to plan each turn, and they’re expected to memorize it all. That might work in some games, but here there are dozens of enemy types (many of which look alike) and this leads to needlessly frustrating encounters.

Despite this annoyance, Dread Nautical remains a satisfying experience. The combat is solid, the characters are interesting, and like the ocean the ship sails over floats over, the developers have ensured that their work has impressive depth.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by One Gruel Studio and published by indienova. It is currently available on PC, PS4, XBO, Switch and iOS. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 25 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game was rated E10+ by the ESRB, and it contains Fantasy Violence and Language. I have no idea how the publishers got this rating. Yes, there’s no blood and the enemies disappear into puffs of smoke when killed, but it’s bleak — the kind of existential Lovecraftian horror the game trafficks in might be a bit much for 10-year-olds. Also, all of the enemies are monstrously distorted humans, including one that’s a child that screams in horror until it’s killed. And people drink booze. Just a weird rating, all around.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played the majority of the game without sound and encountered no difficulties. The combat is all turn-based and all information is clearly displayed onscreen, so you should have no troubles. Text cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable.

Daniel Weissenberger
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