Dread Delusion review

Need to know

What is it? A lo-fi, open-world RPG that pays homage to some of the genre’s greats.

Release date May 14, 2024

Expect to pay £15.49/$20

Developer Lovely Hellplace

Publisher Dread XP

Reviewed on Radeon 5700 XT, i5-9600K, 16GB RAM

Steam Deck Verified

Link Official site 

I struggle to remember the last time I felt so compelled to explore the fringes of a game map. Dread Delusion draws from the likes of Morrowind and Dark Souls to create its dark-fantasy sprawl but to recall a similar case of wanderlust—the irresistible drive to uncover what every ambiguously drawn doodle of a tower or cave might represent for my unfolding saga—I’d have to go further back, to the physical poster that came packaged with my copy of New World Computing’s Might & Magic 2.

A spectre is haunting the Skyrealms. Well, several of them actually, hovering about in areas of note and muttering cryptic advice; but I’m referring specifically to the spectre of widespread civil unrest. Cults are rising again in the fungus forests of the Hallowshire, nurturing deities presumed dead since the God War; in the Clockwork Kingdom, farm machinery is going berserk while the deranged king—an artificial entity composed of tech and magic—is issuing increasingly erratic edicts; and the flesh-eating revenants of the Endless Realm are reconsidering their ban on sentient meat, a policy turn with grim implications for the living masses across the border. To top it all off, Vela Callose, leader of the infamous Dark Star mercenary group, is rumoured to have discovered a secret deep in the uninhabited region of the Underlands that may endanger all of existence.

(Image credit: Lovely Hellplace)

The Oneiric Isles are in a state of turmoil and their iron-fisted rulers, the Apostatic Union (imagine a more scientifically-minded Inquisition), are desperate to retain control. Desperate enough to drag you out of your cell with a task that takes you through every aforementioned territory and embroils you in each of their local crises: track down Vela and apprehend her before she triggers some kind of apocalypse.

A first-person RPG that harks back to early instalments of the Elder Scrolls series, Dread Delusion nails the exploration element via a combination of handsomely crafted retro aesthetics, an intriguing cast of characters, and an admirably deliberate approach to open-world design. No out-of-the way landmark feels arbitrarily placed to fill out an empty map. No sidequest registers as an excuse to pad out playing time. Instead, each location and each encounter meaningfully meshes with an engaging central narrative, fleshing out both the backstory of that dreamlike world and the complex personality of your quarry. Despite her elusiveness, Vela Callose is one of the most fascinating antagonists in recent memory: a sort of black hole in the middle of the narrative that, through rumours, tall tales, and second-hand accounts, seems to draw everything into her gravitational field.

Seeking clues on her motives and current whereabouts in the castles, dungeons, and settlements of the Skyrealms, I was struck by how amenable Dread Delusion was to different playstyles. The labyrinthine fortress of the Blinding Light that serves as the game’s introductory level allows you to either barge in through the front gate murdering anyone in your way, or sneak in through a side-entrance filled with traps and locked doors. Later incursions are even more open-ended: you can charm your way inside a securely guarded compound or use your Lore skill to identify and unlock hidden passages when the direct approach proves too risky. There’s an almost immersive-sim sensibility in the freedom I was afforded to approach each quest which kept exploration from feeling stale even at the later stages of my 40-hour playthrough.

Running rings

(Image credit: Lovely Hellplace)

Combat is a more rudimentary affair, requiring little more than strafing around sluggish (if imaginatively drawn) adversaries and momentarily backstepping after landing a hit. Developer Lovely Hellplace has made an effort to inject some nuance with a charged attack and a timed parry serving as advanced tactical manoeuvres, but the simplistic movement patterns of most enemies mean it’s never necessary to either master those or waste mana on offensive spells. Which may read like an indictment but, in fact, I found the rote, woozy nature of the combat tonally aligned with the wistful, dreamlike mood of the game. There’s a time and place for soulslike intricacy but Dread Delusion isn’t necessarily it.

My experience did suffer, however, from a drastic shift in priorities during a needlessly prolonged final act. After enlisting Vela’s former crew and acquiring the means to reach her, the game substitutes the sense of freedom and discovery—its vital strengths—with a much narrower focus on confronting Vela.

The Underlands, a toxic wasteland lying deep below the more habitable Isles, is not just the most visually uninteresting area in the Skyrealms, but also the most rigidly designed: basically a long corridor with buffed-up enemies to progressively eliminate and a couple of minor detours to activate the switches that unblock the path forward. Moreover bugs, hitherto frequent but only passingly annoying, become more prevalent and bothersome here, with text missing from crucial endgame cutscenes, stat changes not registering onscreen, and the ability to upgrade weapons mysteriously greyed out from local workbenches. To make matters worse, you’ll be required to go through that ordeal twice after a first, unsuccessful assault sees you back to base in order to regroup.

(Image credit: Lovely Hellplace)

Even the acquisition of an airship doesn’t save this final act. I had greater freedom than ever to explore the Oneiric Isles, but the awkward navigational mechanics meant I was disinclined to take advantage of it.

None of which quite erases the wonders I’d witnessed up to that point or the engrossing stories I’d participated in along the way. Reverberating with a melancholy vibe, populated with memorable, multi-layered characters, and rife with intrigue, Dread Delusion remains one of the most fascinating open-world settings I have visited in a while. Even if, much like that unwieldy airship, it has trouble sticking the landing.

PCGamer.com

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