Review: Dread Delusion

14 May 2024

When it comes to writing reviews, a concept that consistently crops up is the notion of a game being greater than the sum of its parts. For me, this particular abstraction does a lot of heavy lifting to establish that while a given title may have some lackluster execution in certain areas, the experience of playing it is elevated beyond those individual characteristics.

Seeing a game reach this level of execution is always impressive—and it’s an accomplishment I’m quick to sing the praises of—but there are also games that tragically miss the mark despite the potential absolutely being there to reach it, where unevenness between the game’s systems serves instead to highlight its shortcomings.

Today we’ll be talking about Dread Delusion, a first-person, exploration-heavy RPG from the hands of developer Lovely Hellplace and publisher DreadXP for PC. After debuting into Early Access on Steam in June 2022, the game has fully launched as of May 14th, 2024. I spent a majority of my playthrough attempting to figure out out which of the two categories Dread Delusion fell into.

Serve Your Sentence

Dread Delusion puts players in control of a prisoner being held for their crimes by the Apostatic Union, a powerful governmental force. They’ve transported said prisoner to the Oneiric Isles, a series of floating islands floating high above the destroyed surface below, but are met with heavy resistance from the Dark Star mercenaries.

They opt to free the player character and task them with taking down the nearby Vella Callose, leader of the Dark Star mercenaries and enemy to the Union, to stay their current sentence. Over the course of their pursuit, the player thoroughly traverses a large swath of the Oneiric Isles, meeting its inhabitants, learning their histories and customs, and unearthing treasures in the form of weapons, spells, artifacts, and the like.

Something that should be stated immediately regarding Dread Delusion is the sheer degree of focus it places on its narrative elements. Nearly everywhere you go, you’ll discover a new tidbit of lore regarding the region you’re in, or stumble upon a piece of environmental storytelling in line with what you’ve heard from the residents of the nearby village you just scrounged through.

One of the writing’s greatest aspects is in the way it teases the player’s imagination regarding recent events and the way they’ve impacted the locals, or what’s waiting for them down in that valley, or around that cliff, or even on another island entirely. Hearing about a giant enemy in a bandit camp and then stumbling upon it naturally when it was right above me was an exciting time, and moments like it occurred pretty often.

The writing of Dead Delusion feels rather thoughtful in that way. Conversing with NPCs can be quite the lengthy endeavor at times as you prod them for more information and unlock new dialogue (or even new quests) as a result. And this is to say nothing of the way the game will go back and add new dialogue options to previous locations to reflect new information or the player’s actions when relevant.

Individual characters themselves can be rather hit-and-miss. Many don’t stick around for very long before you’re whisked away from them and lesser characters in the story can often feel overly similar to one another, but Dread Delusion generally does a great job of expressing its characters, their interactions with the player, and the way everything about their lives is shaped by the oddities of the Oneiric Isles.

Hither and Thither

From minute one, you’ll probably notice several aspects of Dread Delusion that seem, shall we say, somewhat familiar to several prominent, classic RPGs. In the early game, it feels as though there’s a huge emphasis not just on on building the type of character you want to play as—your rogue, wizard, or sword-and-board—but also on how your character will interact with the environment.

The Wisdom attribute naturally enhances your magic ability, for example, but it also governs whether or not you’re able to discern puzzle mechanisms you find while exploring. The same goes for the rogue-oriented Guile attribute, which will assist with lockpicking to enter locations by alternate methods, while the Warrior-esque Might attribute will let you bust down the doors instead. This way, characters of all types can find their own secret passageways or rare items that cater to them, but still aren’t locked out of others if they’re able to build their stats up enough.

Exploration is what you’ll be spending a majority of your time doing in Dread Delusion, and there’s always something to pilfer for the thorough explorer. A corpse with potions left in the fringes of a valley, a collection of coins tucked away in a hard-to-view nook, and even hiding items or NPCs will often lead to new quests and paths to work through. It very much captures that old-school feeling of vagueness and progression; if you pull the right levers to open a secret door, you’ll hear it creak open in the distance as the game tells you “something has changed.” It’s up to you to find it yourself, and it’s a highly immersive feeling. This adherence to immersion is also felt in the game’s map system, which puts the player in the role of a cartographer charting landmarks to craft a map.

Towards the beginning of my time with Dread Delusion, these development decisions were incredibly satisfying. Reaching the entrance to a new location and scanning the horizon to decide what direction to head in was a great feeling, particularly when I would turn a corner and be reminded of the scale of the game world and the fact that I would eventually be headed to that far-off island in several hours. Verticality of level design is a constant too, both in the open world and the cordoned off dungeons as well to keep things interesting.

Would that I could continue to dole out this level of praise for the rest of the game’s elements, but unfortunately this is where its weaknesses really come to the fore. Combat is very simple and Dread Delusion is very easy to the point where there’s very little sense of danger in even the earliest part of a playthrough. There are a few contributing factors to this, but the most immediate culprit is enemy scripting and AI. Despite sporting interesting designs and differing animations, fighting every enemy feels the same as the one before it, and their behavior is highly predictable after only a few moments of observation.

There’s no decree that dictates every RPG needs to have in-depth or challenging combat to be fun—especially when the story and world is rather captivating already—but this shortcoming also has a cascading effect on the mechanical decisions of the player. Because I started off having little difficulty with every enemy, I saw little reason to prioritize my Might stat when another point into Guile would make me move faster as well as increase my lockpicking, or another point into Charm would make it easier to get better outcomes in conversations.

Balancing is also a major sore spot in Dread Delusion as damage numbers seem to be all over the place. In a vast majority of combat encounters I participated in, using my primary weapon to attack always resulted in significantly more damage than my harder-to-aim throwing knives or magic spells regardless of my stat allocations. It just feels odd and becomes increasingly hard to ignore as the player gets wise to it. By the time I was nearing the end, I found myself outright skipping optional combat encounters because I simply felt little draw to spend my time with them if they wouldn’t lead to something interesting or new. This is a pretty big issue for a game that can last tens of hours, doubly so when you realize approaching the game with a completionist mindset will eventually culminate in enough stats to trivialize most anything the game throws at you, be it active combat or dialogue checks.

Still, for the type of player that likes to take their time to uncover all there is to see and isn’t put off by a lack of challenge or wonky balancing? Dread Delusion has a lot to give them. There’s a sizable amount of worthy content to see, solid (if occasionally roughly executed) writing, and a unique world to bring it all together, but the absence of meaty RPG mechanics is a big one when there’s so much room for it here.

Floating Scale

As soon as you gain control of your character and peer out from your cramped prison cell, you’ll quickly find Dread Delusion’s unique aesthetics. The Oneiric Isles are a vibrant hellscape in the best of ways with their vibrant, stark color palette. Everything has a charmingly chunky, lo-fi look to it that paints a cohesive picture and causes landmarks to stand out without clashing with one another. The jaggedness of towering trees, distant structures, and falling shadows create depth, volume, and variety with a clever use of 2D objects and lower resolution textures.

The visuals are obviously a huge part of the game’s atmosphere, but the audio design plays just as big a role. The soundtrack, while somewhat basic instrumentally, nestles itself effortlessly into the ambiance of a given area. When you also throw in the strange, alien noises of the unique flora and fauna while traversing the landscape, it’s easy to become engrossed in spite of some occasionally stilted and reused animations.

Spirited Dread

Dread Delusion offers an interesting universe and a gorgeous art style, but both are thoroughly wrapped up in a mechanically thin and ultimately unsatisfying RPG experience. The Oneiric Isles capture the spirit of the RPG worlds of the past, and there’s a wide breadth of content and characters to learn more about throughout them, but Dread Delusion’s decided lack of difficulty, one-note combat, and widespread balancing issues actively distract from its highly enjoyable world.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Review code provided by DreadXP for PC. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of DreadXP.