Dread Delusion Review — Almost Dreadful, A Little Delusional

4/10

Dread Delusion is a visual feast (at least from a distance), but its philosophical dilemmas and wickedly cool world do not make up for its total lack of depth in combat, exploration, and questing that make the otherwise-beautiful game a chore.

Dread Delusion is an apt name. In fact, it might be the most apt name of them all. Because every time before I sat down to play Dread Delusion, I dreaded the experience. And every time I sat down to play it, I was delusional enough to think it might get better. I was wrong. Though developer Lovely Hellplace’s hearts are clearly in the loveliest (hell) place, Dread Delusion fails to live up to its promises.

The short-order: though the game is chock-full of beautifully haunting landscapes, excellent art design, and some great big ideas, that is all it is full of. In every other way, it lacks: its combat might be the dullest I’ve played in some time, its exploration is pitiful once you realize how basic the progression system is, its narrative fluctuates between “interesting thought experiment” and “I’m supposed to care about this?”, and its systems all feel like how someone remembers early 2000s RPGs playing (while being both very different and much worse than they actually work).

It isn’t all bad, and there is something to Dread Delusion for the right kind of person. But, not only am I not that kind of person, I think that kind of person is few and far between. And most of them already bought the game in Early Access anyway. I’d urge most others to steer clear of this hollow, Kings-Field-coated shell.

1 dread delusion review morrowind coated

But those who are curious of the game, especially as hungry as they might be for the kind of dark surrealism its offering, probably want more than that. So, without further ado, let’s dig in.

Let’s start with some positives. People most often compare Dread Delusion to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and for good reason. If all you care about is a bizarre atmosphere dripping with moody, surreal splendor, then look no further: Morrowind came out 25 years ago and has a wickedly cool modding scene. But if that isn’t enough to scratch the itch, then you might be able to scratch it with Dread Delusion.

Yes, this is me being positive. Trust me.

That’s because Dread Delusion comes close to accomplishing what Bethesda accomplished in 2002. The world of Dread Delusion is bizarre, surreal (you’ll see me use that word a lot), and absolutely gorgeous. As a setting, the Skylands and its many factions and islands are fascinating, and as an aesthetic, the dark-retro-3d thing that Dread Delusion has going on is exquisite. Again: it’s almost as good as Morrowind’s Vvardenfell, and even weirder. And, in case that sounds half-hearted, it isn’t: being second best in that competition is a pretty high achievement.

2 dread delusion review pretty landscape
There is a vast world to explore. Thankfully quickly.

Unfortunately, though, this is where problems begin seeping in. You see, while the world is stunning at a distance, it is lacks up close. For every floating, stilted city of wonder and horror-magnificence, there are a half dozen drab houses outfitted with suspiciously similar furniture, occupied by NPCs that — and I’ll die on this hill — are less distinguishable than any of the 90s/2000s games it is emulating. For every flying landscape drifting moodily above the sky, bleeding mood faster than it bleeds its suffering populace, there are tens of polygonal hills stuffed with oddly placed loot, baddies, and other clutter. For every stunning skyship zooming elegantly through the vaporwave-crimson sky, there are three or four rectangular monstrosities that… Might be tanks? Buildings? And for every immaculately adorned god-housing chamber, there is another empty house with a single lock and a mana potion inside.

And, to bring those second examples back into focus, they can — and I know saying this will upset some — look really ugly to me. The garish colors of those small places are much more potent than anything rendered 20+ years ago, and clash jarringly enough that it did legitimately strain my eyes by the end of my 20-hour playthrough (the developers said it would take 30, but I showed them!). And the pixelated designs are often harder to interpret than they need to be.

Though, admittedly, it would be wrong of me to say there aren’t a few hits. Every God in the game looks grotesque and fantastic, cosmic in all the right ways. And… Umm… At least one Sky Pirate has a cool vibe. There are obviously more than that — you can see them in the game’s promotional material — but those highlights really are highlights. Most of the rest of the game is garish and straining, and isn’t nearly as cool as it thinks it is.

3 dread delusion review ugly
Most of this game would be considered bad looking even in the late 90s

But, that could be made up for with good gameplay, right? Well, I’ve got some bad news for you. This game has very bad gameplay. From the combat to the exploration to the puzzle-solving, I despised most of my time actually playing the game.

Let’s start with the combat, since it will be what a lot of people are interested in. To put it simply: this might be the easiest and least engaging combat system I’ve seen in an RPG… Ever. And I’ve played some doozies. All the enemies are predictable and can be parried (come back, pre-release dodge!) incredibly easily. Laughably so. You wait for an enemy to very slowly swipe or slam, press a button, and then do a heavy attack. Repeat until dead. Mixing in some light attacks so you don’t fall asleep. Every time. Over and over and over and over until you realize you can outrun the enemies and stop bothering.

Oh, yeah, you can just outrun the enemies. You should. There is no reason to fight most of them unless you want the 67th Health Potion or even more lockpicks that you can’t carry. XP (or “Delusions”, as the game calls it) are doled out for exploration and quest completion. Enemies are there because they have to be, even if they really shouldn’t be. And if I wanted to run past a bunch of cool-looking but very dull enemies that should’ve been cut while wandering atmospheric halls, I’d play Scorn.

4 dread delusion review enemies

That’s to say nothing of encounter design, which comes in 2 flavors: patrolling enemy you should backstab (if you deal with them at all), or a cluster of enemies that you can kite easily. The most mechanically complex challenge is when an enemy has a shield. In which case, pro-tip: a heavy-heavy combo will cause them to slowly recoil for about a year and a half so you can finish them off.

And, when you do finally kill your opponent, you’ll also have to wait for loot. After all, every single enemy needs die dramatically, then spit out an orb so slow that it must defy gravity. Eventually, that orb (if it doesn’t glitch out and remain an orb forever) will eventually transform into your 70th Mana Potion. Oh, right, all the enemies drop the same 6 or 7 loot items, pretty much. Even the final boss gave me some lockpicks I couldn’t carry.

While you wait for the loot to fall out of an enemy, it would probably be a good time to explore. And I mean that unironically: killing an enemy, then running to the house it was in front of to loot it, and then coming back for the enemies loot is the way to play. Not that it is worthwhile anyway. Let me explain:

The best part about the exploration is that you are fast (faster with the must-have speed spell) and the world is pretty.

The worst part about exploration is everything else. You traverse these strange landscapes, find buildings, do a skill check to enter, and then take their underwhelming loot (half the time you’ll find one of those some items that keep dropping from the enemies. Occasionally, you’ll realize you need a key, which you’ll find randomly somewhere else. Sometimes, maybe you flick some candlesticks (but you do have to be smart enough for it).

5 dread delusion review lore skill
It’s really cool to have no idea how to tilt a skull down

Yeah, some of these lock-ridden houses do look neat, and they might even have a Delusion (read: XP), but they are still, mostly, just boring. That is, if you can even access them. Which, after you get the airship, you might not be able to, because that thing creates all the best bugs: the kind that render locations inaccessible and force you to reset. But I’ll not mention the bugs too much; those could still be patched out.

To be fair, every once in a while you’ll stumble across something truly interesting, usually relating to some of the genuinely-very-cool cosmic god stuff that the game’s world has going on. But you’ll usually only know it because a quest will begin. The quest will be to explore the area you are exploring, and then to make a simple moral choice at the end.

Well, to be clear: the quest will be to explore the area, grab an item, bring it to someone, they will tell you something, then they will give you something, which you’ll take back to the area, which will unlock a secret door, which you will use to make a moral choice, which you can then turn in for points at the someone who told you something and gave you something before. Congrats, that’s every quest in Dread Delusion.

6 dread delusion review questing

Yeah, the quests suck. Universally, fetch quests with binary decisions at the end, if they even have that. And the writing for them is… Well, it’s better than the quest design, but not by much.

In fact, let’s get into the writing. Because it is weird. Unlike most of the rest of the game, I don’t hate how Dread Delusion is written. The writers are exceptionally good at character voice, are able to get some great lines across, and can convey some surprisingly effective and complex philosophical and moral themes. In that way, I’m impressed by the writing.

Except with how it connects to the game. Because, while each individual dialog with a character is well-written, it is only well-written for the one scenario you find them in. Characters that aren’t part of a quest’s direct line don’t react to the world around them, or your actions, or the freakin’ god hovering above their heads (okay, fine, they lampshaded that one). Characters almost universally have 1 dialogue tree per location. It really ruins the fun that could otherwise be had, and seriously undermines your actions in the world.

7 dread delusion review characters writing
There are at least some really cool character designs for the companions specifically

Oh, you want to get to know your companions? Hope you’ll be fine asking them how they are “settling in” 20 hours into the game right before the final quest. Oh, you want to know what the High Lord Inquistor Whateveritis thinks about your Faustian decision to summon an Old God in the town? She’d rather talk about crops or something. Want to tell the town that their centuries-long plight of suffering immortality might be at an end, finally? Well, they’ll ask if you want a room, or a drink. The only dialogue that matters is the choice dialogue at the end of each quest, some of which contain actually smart moral dilemmas. Everything else is like stand-up: It sounds good, but only the first time.

And the worst part about all this is that I want to like this game. I want to sail across the skies in my airship during the endgame, going around the cities that I’ve saved/doomed/???’d. I want to talk to my companions, to get to know them. I want challenging combat, and tricky puzzles, and a house that isn’t just another empty room with a chest containing 1 piece of Iron Ore! Let me get invested, let me sink into this dark, dreary world that’s been created! I could even get past the eye strain if just one system in this game — combat, exploration, or narrative — felt good!

And I don’t just mean this in a “oh, I’ll being diplomatic and say I want to like this game so the developers don’t feel bad,” I genuinely mean it. If you pitched me this game: with its moody atmosphere, its eldritch/folkloric-god theming, its sweeping world, its interesting characters, I’d have told you it’s exactly what I wanted. If you’d told 13-year-old me, playing an old copy of Morrowind for the first time, I’d have been over the moon.

8 dread delusion review finale
You don’t get the airship til nearly the end, it feels lame and weighless to fly, but at least it can help you explore more

But, instead, I am left disappointed and wanting. Instead of being immersed into this new, rich world filled with its grim factions and intrigues, I am left thankful that my time with the game is over so that I don’t have to slowly bat down another skeleton or find myself locked out of somewhere because I’m wearing the wrong hat.

There is a lesson in there, and in Dread Delusion, about suffering after getting what you ask for. But, honestly, after 20 hours, I’d rather take some pretty screenshots from my airship to use as desktop backgrounds, and then never open this game again.

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Graves
Graves

Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he'll try. When he isn't working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.

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