Dread Delusion, from developer Lovely Hellplace, is in many ways a throwback to gaming history – and yet it’s still hard to imagine a better time for it to release than right now.
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The game, which released in Early Access on June 15th, wears its influences on its sleeve. I’m hardly the first to point out the game’s resemblance to the Elder Scrolls series – perhaps best described as a ‘lo-fi Morrowind.’ This is, after all, a choice-driven RPG in which the player begins their journey as a prisoner, and sets out to explore a fantastical world with a fascinatingly in-depth lore. So far, so Elder Scrolls.
But instead of Skyrim’s expansive map, the citizens of Dread Delusion cling to flying continents in the sky, following a cataclysmic event known as the World Rend, which left the surface below uninhabitable to human life. And yet every detail of Dread Delusion’s ruined world feels alive – no doubt aided by the decision to keep the map small and contained: large enough to explore, small enough to still feel alive.
It makes for an interesting contrast with Bethesda’s recent announcement that its upcoming title Starfield will feature over 1,000 explorable planets. It’s something that clearly appeals to some would-be space explorers, but for Bethesda fans calling for richly detailed worlds, sometimes more turns out to be less.
All of which puts Lovely Hellplace’s James Wragg in an enviable position – delivering a focused fantasy world at a time when Bethesda has seemingly adopted the triple-A “bigger is better” mantra.
“I’m really glad Bethesda is making Starfield, which is a game that I have no interest in,” says Wragg, speaking to NME. “Because it kind of makes my pitch for Dread Delusion better. If Bethesda was making Morrowind 2, how would I be able to compete with that? But this gives us an angle.”
“You’re not going to find a book on one of those 1,000 planets, are you? There’s nothing that’s going to be as interesting as that. Best case scenario, you’re going to find procedurally generated dungeons. As you expand the space, the more you have to rely on procedural generation and the copying of content. Whereas one of the reasons The Witcher 3 did so well is because it populated its world with quests with great twists. We haven’t really seen that since Oblivion, Skyrim‘s quests changed to be more about rewarding the player and less about providing a narrative twist. Bethesda has got less and less interested in doing that, I think.”
With this focus on storytelling and world-building, it might seem a little odd that Dread Delusion has launched in early access, leaving players with an unfinished world to explore. That isn’t to say the game is barren by any extent – Wragg estimates the game is around 70 per cent finished, with plenty to keep players busy before it leaves early access in six to nine months. Still, for a game with the right DNA to be considered a lo-fi Morrowind, choosing to go Early Access wasn’t an easy decision.
“We talked about [Early Access] for a while, and originally I wanted to launch it as a full thing,” says Wragg. “Because I think a lot of people will want to play it when it’s feature complete, especially since it’s an RPG.
“Dread XP has got a really good QA team, but there’s a different level of feedback when you release a game to passionate fans. It’s kind of priceless, it’s a level of playtesting that we’d never be able to hire for. Obviously, I’m hugely grateful, I find it incredibly humbling that people want to play the game and leave all this feedback.”
“Already, there’s loads of stuff we’ve been tweaking. Just in the past week, my idea of where the game world is going has shifted quite considerably based on what people are saying. So from my perspective, I’ve been completely won over to the idea of Early Access. Even for an RPG like this, it’s so beneficial to developers to get this feedback early on.”
As Wragg alludes to, some fairly substantial changes have already been made to the game. Perhaps the most-requested of which was a revamping of the game’s fatigue system – As the player explores the world, their character gradually becomes tired, lowering their stats until they find an inn to rest in.
It’s a limitation on the player that Wragg stands by. The fatigue system works in concert with the lack of a minimap or quest markers to guide the player from A to B – all coming together for a more immersive experience, if not a universally appealing one. Still, Wragg admits that it was perhaps a little too punishing, even for fans craving a Morrowind 2.
“The point of the fatigue system was to try and create a similar gameplay loop to The Elder Scrolls. My favourite thing to do in The Elder Scrolls is going back to rest at an inn. It forces you to roleplay, that simple act of needing a bed to sleep in at night makes you feel attached to your character, and less like a floating camera in a game world.”
“So the fatigue system is there to nudge you into resting at an inn, but it was probably more tailored to me as a developer, where I know where everything is and I’m rushing around and doing things quickly. When people are actually playing the game, they go out and explore every nook and cranny and take a lot more time with it. And so they were getting fatigued super quickly, and it was just annoying.”
“That was really useful feedback to hear, because right away we could re-tweak the system so that you get fatigued way slower, and it’s based on like time rather than actions you perform. That was a quick fix to make, and it massively improved the game and how people interact with it.”
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Dread Delusion is of its combat system – which at present is perhaps best described as ‘serviceable’. Though I’d hasten to add that it’s considerably better than Morrowind’s nightmarish combat system, if we really want to start making comparisons.
“A huge amount of our feedback has been talking about the combat system, and how it’s not super great,” says Wragg. “That’s something that we’re going to improve over early access, though that comes with the caveat that we want to improve combat a lot, but we’re an indie studio with limited resources.”
“I’ve been focusing on exploration and narrative, because those are the areas where I feel we can compete with the bigger games. Whereas there’s never going to be a point where we can really compete with other games in terms of combat. We’re going to keep developing the combat to make it as good as it can be, but the focus of the game is still going to be the story and exploring this world.”
There’s plenty of content due to be released over the coming months, with planned upcoming features including the introduction of player housing. Additionally, while Wragg stresses that the game’s map isn’t going to get significantly larger than it already is, he has ambitious plans for the stories he still wants to tell through the game – including, of course, the completion of the game’s main questline.
“That’s really going to change the world,” promises Wragg. “The game world, I mean. Not the real one. It’s not that good.”
We’ll be the judge of that one, Wragg.
Dread Delusion is available via Early Access now.