Game review: Dread Delusion for Steam

Dread Delusion was brought to my attention on BlueSky in the Discover tab by a fan announcing that it had come out of early access. They described it as Oblivion-like, but with PS One-styled graphics. I went to Steam to check out the trailer, and it intrigued enough that I bought it and downloaded it the same day.

Before I get into the nitty gritty bits, I would like to say that what I really appreciate about the game is that it does retro nostalgia right. Yes, the graphics are clunky and similar to the PS One era, but the controls and camera are designed with a far more modern sensibility. I never once suffered with to trying orient myself even in tightly walled areas. I never struggled with the controls, even during more frantic bouts of combat. (Well, with one short exception, but that comes later.) There’s two different versions of fast travel to make tracking and backtracking less tedious. This is a game that wants to tickle you with nostalgia, but knows that not everything from the past was all candy sprinkles and Pop Rocks.

Starting out on a tutorial island of sorts as a faceless and nameless prisoner, player creation amounts to mixing three historical backgrounds that determine starting stats. Choosing one will make a character better at lockpicking or bartering, while another might make them better with physical damage or magic spells. No matter what is chosen, the first weapon given is a rusty sword. If you want to cast spells, you have to hunt them down later.

The story goes that a mercenary captain, formerly on the payroll of The Apostate Union, goes rogue and begins searching for an artifact that could break the world, again. That’s where the unique visuals come in on this game, because NPCs and books both speak of a World Rend event that tore the planet apart, leaving a bunch of floating islands that used to be…a bit lower in altitude.

There’s also a God War because a group of Wikkans were subjugating people and forcing them to worship their very real, tangible (and in some cases, super evil) entities. The Apostate Union killed a bunch of these gods, forced the Wikkans into hiding, and then went on to become the new evil dictators. (I kind of rolled my eyes when an Apostate quest giver, being questioned about the famine ravaging the land replied, “The famine isn’t the problem! These people are returning to worshiping gods!” Despite freeing these people from Wikkan rule, the Apostate is now happily hanging and burning anyone religious, because “both sides are equally bad.” Eeeeh, yeah, whatever, I’ll just run with it.

The bulk of the game revolves around rounding up four mutineers of the merc captain, each of which involves traveling to a new region of loosely connected islands and exploring and side questing until they can be found and recruited. To start, the player must find the captain’s former mentor, who offers vague leads on the others. One is an ancient warrior borne of technology and searching for some links to her distant past. Another is a seller of dreams (literally) living as a refugee in their own kingdom. The last is an undead mage capable of changing reality with a few choice words.

Each region has its own share of side stories and lore. The Clockwork Kingdom is run by a “machine god” who’s gone insane and has been ravaging the country while his closest human advisors do everything they can to pretend everything is peachy keen. The Endless Realm is a country of zombies now living in guilt for eating their neighbors and making do on flesh farms to keep them from going back to “the bad old ways.” Hallowshire is the quiet war battlegrounds between the Apostate and Wikkans. Underneath it all is the remains of the surface world, full of curses, angry ghosts, and fritzing killer machines.

It was thirty-six hours into the game on the surface when I failed to pass a speech check and ended up becoming hero-kebab, and that annoyed me so much that I deleted my save file and rolled up a new character. That character had plenty of speechcraft, but couldn’t handle a sword or pick any locks. I started over, needing four restarts to get a build I was okay with raising up. For all that trouble, the punchline is that passing the speech check didn’t change anything. I still got railed in the bad kind of way, and the story went on and ignored my suave communication skills.

Which is fine, and that’s on me. With most RPGs, big or small, I know that the main story beats simply can’t be changed. Beyond the main plots being on rails, enough changes can be made through interactions with various factions  and side quests that the ending narrated for me is likely to be very different than what you might see. It’s not just fine, it’s standard operating procedure because being able to wreck the main plot with an early decision just makes development that much harder. I respect that.

In any case, what this means is, I sunk eighty hours into this fractured world to reach the end, and while I respect the main story choices and most side quests, I also couldn’t help but be annoyed by doors. See, you can level up lockpicking as much as you like, but only a fraction of locks can be picked. Some will demand a higher Lore skill to open using magic locks. Some will demand higher Might scores to bash down the door. And a lot simply say, “You need a key.”

I want to say this is fine, but why even bother having lockpicking at all, when it’s mostly just meant to punish players for trying specialize their build? This is more frustrating because unlike a lot of RPGs, you don’t level up by killing enemies in Dread Delusion. You get XP by collecting floating skulls called Glimmers of Delusion. Collect enough of them and you get a level. A lot of these are locked in rooms, so you can see them through a window or a crack in the wall, and quite often, you get a message taunting you for not having the right skill to reach it.

The other problem for me was, while the first two regions are loaded with fascinating discoveries, loot, and side quests, the latter half feels a lot thinner and less well plotted. While early exploration leads to new gear, spells, or even just books to learn lore from, the next two regions feel larger while offering less to interact with. It gets easier to get lost, but heading off the beaten trail leads to a lot of blank areas that might pass out a few coins or a lock pick at most.

Even side questing starts to feel tedious. In one expedition, I’m tasked to talk to an NPC to negotiate their surrender. But first there’s a door to be unlocked, and I have to run all over to find the one NPC to unlock it for me. Once that’s done, the NPC I’m trying to calm says “Nope, fuck everyone,” so I have to run back to the quest giver, speak a few lines, then run back again to deliver a message. Then I run back again to finish the quest. There are two other quests in the same region with the same back and forth walking, and on the second, I would have happily killed the antagonist if the game would just let me do it rather than walk back across the island in The Endless Marathon.

But let’s set that aside and get to the closing parts of the game. After making me use drawbridges and teleport crystals for most of the game, I’m finally allowed to buy an airship to explore “the distant islands.” This sounded great, except there’s only two islands, and oh yeah, steering the ship is a massive pain in the ass. Now granted, one of those islands has a MASSIVE mechanical God Killer mecha to admire and explore, and I very much loved that. But I’m finally given a ship and told to explore, and I really wanted it to be less of a brief gimmick that’s useful for maybe one hour of game time at most. (Two if you get lost.)

So, exactly eighty hours in, I reached the final area of the game and confronted the merc captain. The narrator went over my decisions and their repercussions. I set down the controller while the credits played and asked myself the most important question for any game lasting that long: would I want to play it again? My answer is yes, because eventually I want to try a different build, maybe less of a charismatic mage and more of a rude tank. I want to try different faction actions to see how it changes the ending.

Which is why I’m going to give Dread Delusion 4 stars. It has a few quirks that I wasn’t fond of, but I do admire it for embracing a retro visual vibe while eschewing the inconveniences of those older console games. I liked it enough that I will be keeping an eye on developer Lovely Hellplace for future releases. I’ll recommend the game to fans of ARPGs that deftly blend grimdark with some much needed humor and humanity.