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Turn-based strategy games are hot right now, and one of my favorite genres, so I was pretty excited to check out Zen Studios' latest entry, with its theme of eldritch horror.

"Dread Nautical" is set aboard a cruise ship called the Hope. Waking up below decks, players learn from a ship employee named Jed that some sort of sinister eldritch presence has attacked the ship, turning most of the passengers into some kind of other-world abominations and messing with people's heads, causing them to see a questionable reality.

Cut off from the world, the only way to call for help is to sound the horn on the bridge — but doing so triggers a Groundhog Day-like scenario, causing everyone to collapse and wake back up in bed.

Players must explore the ship, rescue recruitable companions and unlock its Lovecraftian secrets.

Starting out, players choose one of four main characters. Each character begins with an active skill and a passive skill. I started with a Dick Tracy-like sleuth, Fargo, who passively has a bonus with ranged weapons and can investigate rooms to find hidden loot.

The initial task for players is to prepare the below-decks room for more companions, building beds, workbenches and a medical station. When ready to explore, an elevator takes the player to one of 20 decks, each harder than the last, and fighting through to the 20th deck is the goal of the game.

There are three main resources to collect in the game: food, runes and scrap. Food is the rarest resource, and each day every survivor on your team eats one food ration. Anyone who goes hungry begins to be penalized in their stats, but it can be hard to find enough food to let every companion eat. Scrap is the most common resource and is used to build and upgrade sleeping quarters and workbenches, as well as in repairing and upgrading weapons. Runes can be used to upgrade individual characters' abilities, giving them more health or more powerful skills.

Players can explore the ship with up to two companions at a time, and movement happens in real-time until they are near an enemy, switching then to turn-based moves. Movement takes place on a grid and, oddly, monsters and most character attacks can only operate in straight lines — so there's no attacking diagonally. The most effective combat typically is to lure monsters into a straight-line bottleneck, such as a room entrance.

Tactically, the game can be a little disappointing. It doesn't have nearly the depth or nuance of games such as "X-COM." Progressing up the decks, players will encounter more difficult monsters with various immunities and special abilities that can offer a little bit of combat variety, such as resistance or weakness to certain types of attacks. The most difficult sequences happen when a room trap is activated, which can trap a single character in a room with several enemies, while the companions are stuck helplessly outside until the inevitable end.

On Normal difficulty, if companions fall in combat, they just return to the belowdecks, but on harder modes, they can permanently die. On the hardest mode, if the player goes down, it's game over.

Graphically, "Dread Nautical" is pretty abysmal, but it did begin its life as a mobile game. The characters are quite cartoony, with freakishly large hands that look more like flesh-colored bowling balls. All characters have voice acting, although their expressions don't change, and they're really all just one-note archetypes. The music is decent, though.

Despite the combat with guns, knives and more, there's no blood, and only some very mild curse words are used, on rare occasions. There's some replayability here, because it is possible to have a total game over, and each deck level has a randomized layout, with randomized enemies, rewards and recruitable companions.

For some reason, "Dread Nautical" couldn't decide if it was going to be a serious eldritch horror game, or a parody of one, so it sort of vacillates between the two. One minute you'll be talking to an old war veteran who is trying to remember his dead wife's name, and the next, a flamboyant dancer will be fretting about his bald spot. There's definitely some fun to be had, and there is a bit of a challenge — not just the monsters, but also in finding enough food for everyone and in recruiting new allies.

For turn-based combat fans, it's worth checking out, but it's not a priority.

A copy of "Dread Nautical" was provided by Zen Studios for this review.

Title: “Dread Nautical”

Platform: Apple Arcade, Windows, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch

Cost: $19.99

Rating: Anyone 12+

Score: 6.5 out of 10

Style on 05/18/2020

Print Headline: 'Dread Nautical' game is not a must-play title

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