A cruise ship is supposed to be a place that brings joy, relaxation, adventure, and well sometimes a case of Norovirus. What typically doesn’t happen is the boat being mysteriously transported to another dimension, and invaded by some nasty creatures. However, this is the premise found in Dread Nautical for the Nintendo Switch, from developer Zen Studios, perhaps best known for their outstanding Pinball FX2 franchise and recent classic RPG Operencia: The Stolen Sun. Does this developer that continues to break into genres have another hit with Dread Nautical?
Dread Nautical is a tactical turn-based RPG that also has quite a few roguelike mechanics that you’ll come to enjoy or hate. Before starting your adventure, you’ll have a few selections to make – the first being difficulty of the game. There are descriptions about the consequences of each of the game’s difficulties, and I chose to stick with as easy of a time as I thought I could. Followed by that, you’ll then pick your main character from a small selection of passengers. Each character is unique in their abilities and styles of play. I chose to go with a detective P.I. gentleman, with some cliché trench coat attire that made it all the more suiting. It didn’t hurt he happened to have some bonus stats in marksmanship with a pistol.
Enjoying your cruise aboard the ship Hope, you find yourself abruptly interrupted by a freak storm and suddenly things go dark. When you awake, you realize that the vessel is no longer the place it once was. Starting off groggy and confused, you’ll find yourself pairing up with Jed, who seems familiar and a fair bit more knowledgeable about this situation, but his identity will seem skewed for a while. Sitting around in a lobby, you decide it’s best to try and search around the ship to see if there are other survivors that can further help you get out of this predicament.
The game’s levels break out into the decks on the ship, of which there are 20 in total. However, every time you visit a deck the layout is regenerated and thus this is one of the roguelike elements of the game you’ll first encounter. You’re able to freely move your character around via targeting a destination square, however if you trigger an enemy the game will swap over into tactical mode, much akin to games like XCOM. Generally speaking, there’s only two ways to complete a deck, and that’s either by sounding the horn on the bridge that you need to reach (apparently each deck has a bridge….) or by death. Well, you can also exit on the elevator right at the beginning of the level too, but there isn’t a strong benefit to that and only some management consequences we’ll talk about later.
Encountering enemies that come in many forms along with basic objectives are the root goals of the game. As you go deeper into the ship, nastier creatures will be lurking about. Early on, you’ll encounter gross looking “Thralls” that aren’t very powerful or agile, but certainly cause an annoyance. You’ll quickly find that it pays to scavenge anything with a yellow glow, as that’s how you’ll pick up new weapons, items, and protective gear of varying degrees. Sometimes you’ll be equipped with darts, other times, you’ll find a rare katana that does some fun damage! Playing Dread Nautical is a balancing act for sure in terms of how the game blends tactics, management and roguelike elements, and there’s a reasonable amount of elements to juggle every time you boot the game up.
Within the Lobby, and during your time aboard the Hope, you’ll unlock new stations that offer you and your rescued crew new perks. Stations for upgrading your abilities, health, etc. along with weapon upgrades and repair services, as well as things like beds to accommodate more people ensure a lofty, but very manageable management aspect of the game.
When you head into any given deck, you’ll potentially find other passengers. Interacting with them brings up dialog choices, and should you choose wisely, you’ll gain favor with these fine, or not so fine folks. With every favorable interaction you have with them, they may choose to join your crew. When this happens you can tackle the levels with a team instead of flying solo. I found plenty of benefits teaming up since each passenger has special abilities that can come in handy during battle. Also it’s nice to have the extra firepower against the nasty baddies. That being said, another element of the roguelike genre comes into play here potentially, in that characters can die…and then they’re gone forever. If your main character bites the bullet you will potentially lose a bunch of stuff (depending on the difficulty level you chose). It’s always best to proceed with as much caution as possible.
What I think I love most about Dread Nautical is that it feels both aesthetically and objectively like a game of Clue come to life. You’re working through a cruise ship of mystery in hopes of solving the larger situation at hand and being rescued. Along the way you discover other passengers and learn a bit about them and their stories, which come to life with some really nice voice acting that I wasn’t expecting. Part of the fun is unraveling who these characters are.
Aesthetically the cartoon presentation and color palettes also align with Clue, and fit the whole murky theme of this title really well. Unfortunately the user interface is a bit clunky and could have been explained a little better, but at least there are both button and touch controls for those who want it. It took me a bit to understand where Action Points were at, and also how many AP items took to use. This led to some slower gameplay early on for me as I sorted out how the mechanics of the game played, and I would have appreciated just a bit more explanation on UI and control elements.
There are some subtle and nuanced systems to learn within Dread Nautical that’ll make for a fun experience if you experiment a bit. Chasing after solving the ship’s mystery is compelling, and even though some of the exploration does get fairly redundant, I did stay involved with it for fairly long periods of time each session I played.
Dread Nautical Review
- Graphics - 7.5/107.5/10
- Sound - 7/107/10
- Gameplay - 7.5/107.5/10
- Lasting Appeal - 7/107/10
Final Thoughts: GOOD
Dread Nautical is a tactical turn-based RPG with some roguelike elements. Mixing these elements with a compelling story, interesting characters, and the classic risk and reward systems works well. Ultimately it reminded me of the board game Clue come to life mixed with a little bit of XCOM. The repetitive layout of the ship and enemies put a damper on what otherwise is a great concept for a game.
Alex has been actively gaming since the release of the Nintendo. Turning passion into profession, he’s spent just over a decade in game development, and is currently the Creative Director at a studio.