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Dread Delusion review - a bumpy but fascinating new RPG

Elder gods and steampunk airships cross the skies in Dread Delusion, but is there a beating heart in this throwback to the PS1 era?

Dread Delusion review: a woman in a full suit of armor with red hair flowing out the back of her helmet.

Our Verdict

While the throwback graphics and simplistic combat won't appeal to many, the authentic and original story and endlessly fascinating world make Dread Delusion feel like a long-lost cult classic.

Retro game aesthetics have never really gone out of style, but there’s always some disconnect between how old games actually were, and how they lodge themselves in our collective memory. As I made my way through Dread Delusion‘s twisting path across a shattered landscape gravitationally locked to an angry red star, I found myself ruminating on this difference, and about how an idealized notion of the past can often lead to mistaken approaches to present-day problems. This is an RPG with its own thoughts about that, and it’s a bumpy but fascinating ride.

The first thing you notice when starting Dread Delusion is its turn-of-the-century appearance. Visually it lands somewhere between Daggerfall and Morrowind, with the former’s jagged terrain and the latter’s low-poly 3D character models. Everything takes place under an angry fuchsia sky that can make the RPG rough to look at, but it’s clearly a deliberate choice. There is something very wrong with this broken world, and I couldn’t help but want to figure out what that was.

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Dread Delusion is set on an archipelago of floating islands where a brutal inquisition has arrived to stamp out a popular movement that’s trying to cast off its rationalist overlords and return to the folk gods of the past. As the curtains open, you find yourself in an iron cell aboard one of the inquisition’s vessels, and you’re press-ganged into hunting down a pirate queen named Vela Calose. It’ll be fine – sure, none of the soldiers survived the initial assault on her fortress, but the inquisition believes in you, go break a leg.

I struggled with Dread Delusion’s first couple of hours. It was difficult to get my bearings because it wasn’t until after the introductory area that I even had a map to get a sense of where I was and how to get around. Despite its throwback looks, the game creates a sense of disorientation in much the same way as Elden Ring’s opening hours – I could see the silhouettes of landmarks in the distance, sure, but figuring out how to get there was never straightforward.

Dread Delusion review: a field of towering mushrooms set against a purple sky.

There were other frustrations, however. Fighting is dangerous and costly early on, but it didn’t take long before I had gained a couple levels and a new set of gear, and that single round of upgrades trivialized combat. This is one of Dread Delusion’s biggest weak points: its combat is clunky and uninteresting, and for the majority of the game I could defeat just about any enemy by running up to them, landing a charged strike, backing off to power up a second hit, and dashing back in to land the follow-up. I rarely had to dip into my healing potion supply, which can be crafted but are found in such abundance in the world that I rapidly accumulated dozens of the things.

It’s not that every game needs combat to be the primary focus, but it shouldn’t be the path of least resistance, either. Keeping fighting costly and dangerous would make the decision of whether to engage or find another way around more interesting, but as it is, Dread Delusion’s combat barely registers as a speed bump in my journey.

Dread Delusion review: a battle against a Lovecraftian-looking creature with multiple arms.

I also found that my quest log was unreliable. Entries would fail to update with new information as I progressed through objectives and sometimes gave unclear information. Some of this is probably down to bugs, which the game still has a few of. My first and only death came from loading a save only to find that the world had failed to spawn before me, sending me falling into the howling void below.

For all this – the bugs, the clunky combat, the harsh color palette – I’ve been mesmerized by Dread Delusion. It’s a game with some shockingly good writing, from its incidental one-off dialogues to its broader themes of fascination with old ways and old gods.

A malformed figure I find in a hollow tree will grant me a sacred mask that the goblins wear, but only if I can embrace my own wretchedness. Ancient relics of a bygone era fascinate would-be collectors but ultimately kill anyone who possesses them. A terrifying fertility god cowers in a cave, weak and diminished, waiting for my decision to either hand them over to the militant secularist inquisition or unleash them on the world again. A blind old farmer cowers in his home in the hinterlands of a machine kingdom ruled by a mad clockwork despot that can warp reality at will.

Dread Delusion review: a candle-lit mural covered in posters in a city street.

Each of these encounters has sent me scouring the world for further clues, bargaining my way aboard a blockade-running airship or breaking into a doomed city where chaos has driven the residents mad and the streets and walls are covered with fleshy tumors that spread like fungus. All of this has been in the pursuit not only of the pirate queen who might find a doomsday device, but also of her former closest friends and comrades – three people whose relationships with Vela began with hope and inspiration, but eventually shattered with broken trust and megalomania.

While I remain impressed by Dread Delusion’s seamless fusion of fantasy, science fiction, and cosmic horror, it’s the humanity packed into the text boxes that will stay with me for the long run. I was particularly struck by a clandestine conversation I had with a member of the machinist’s guild who wanted my help in solving the problem of the Clockwork King’s worsening insanity. Using magic, I said, could be dangerous – and there’s always a cost involved.

Dread Delusion review: a battle against a horribly mutated human with two heads and four arms.

“True,” she said, “but its dangers can be managed, its costs shared. And what about the cost of leaving things as they are? The… yawning abyss of suffering that we just call ordinary life?” And she was right: when we assess the risk involved in some possible course of action, we are prone to discount or even ignore the dangers of the status quo.

Dread Delusion isn’t a game for everyone, and there are certainly areas where I think it could be improved. Combat should be more interesting and dangerous, encouraging stealthy and pacifist approaches to problems. The harsh colors and early 2000s pixels definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste. But if you’re interested in an off-beat adventure that completely commands your attention for several nights in a row, this arcana-punk story is well worth a look.