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Dread Delusion is more than the retro Skyrim comparisons, it's a deep, dark, and nauseatingly good RPG

Second Morrowind.

Image credit: Lovely Hellscape/DreadXP

The first thing you'll likely notice about Dread Delusion is that it's hideous, albeit artfully so; a queasy nightmare of blocky textures and shimmering, lurching geometry that builds its world around the low-poly constraints of 90s and early 2000s gaming - Bethesda's Morrowind being an obvious touchstone - to woozily disorientating effect. Its oppressive sky is the colour of a bruise, its grass the colour vomit, and its assorted flora, quivering like muscle spasms, all shades of effluvia. The next thing you'll probably notice about Dread Delusion, after you've spent a bit of time getting your bearings, is that it's really, really good.

Dread Delusion is the work of UK animator, artist, and developer James Wragg's Lovely Hellscape studio, with DreadXP - known for its lo-fi horror anthology series Dread X - on publishing duties. And while Dread Delusion undoubtedly shares a similar aesthetic outlook to the other retro throwbacks on the publisher's books, it's far richer and wildly more ambitious – a fully formed open-world RPG set across a dazzlingly weird fantasy archipelago - than its wilfully rudimentary presentation might suggest.

And it doesn't take long for hints of Dread Delusion's depths to emerge; almost immediately, as the lights come up on the squalid prison cell that marks the start of your adventure, you're asked to work through a sequence of evocative story branches to define your character's history and early stats. Decide to be a paranoid fixer born on the streets, for instance, and you'll have an agile spring in your step, a propensity for lock picking, and enough charm to talk your way through the trickiest of situations. I'm only eight hours in at the moment, but even so, it feels like these choices matter in a world that's rich with possibilities.

Dread Delusion release date trailer.Watch on YouTube

Dread Delusion unfolds across the quivering, lurid expanse of the Oneiric Isles – a series of floating, shifting islands that, once upon a time, had a bit of a god problem until the inhabitants decided to rise up and murder them all. And while there's ample horror to be found in Dread Delusion – its bloated, pustulous god-emissaries and flesh-fused clockwork contraptions made all the more unnerving by an intentionally primitive art style that never quite resolves – horror is just a single strand in its richly realised world.

Quite unexpectedly there's a strong thread of humour throughout, and its ebbing, shifting tone makes for a world that – for all its cadaverous ambience - feels, wonderfully vibrantly alive, only accentuated by the delightful sense of invention elsewhere. In its first few hours alone, you'll strike bargains with Eldritch beings, learn of the rebelling machines in a distant clockwork kingdom, and encounter a village whose main export is its mushroom tea – capable of thrusting its drinkers into their own timestream where they'll glimpse many of their possible futures.

Image credit: Lovely Hellscape/DreadXP

You'll bargain with bandits who probably should have spent a bit longer workshopping their name; prowl the night to prevent a group of cultists from resurrecting a violent god; meet a duke in a castle of illusions who's agreed to a life of perpetual agony to save his subjects from a hideous curse, and encounter a tavern which fortuitously named itself the Wobbly Noggin before a god's head fell from the sky and bashed its roof in. Dread Delusion is a world enthralled by stories, full of stories, and it's just an absolute delight.

It means every step feels like a discovery, even more so thanks to Dread Delusion's fascinating map, which should be utterly unreadable with its shimmering, rudimentary detail and woozily clashing colours but is somehow anything but, elegantly revealing its secrets - caves seductively glimpsed around river bends, ruins perfectly placed to tantalise between towering mushrooms and dense, quivering flora – as you strike out and explore. Dread Delusion might not be Skyrim expansive, and it does what it does within a set of clearly defined limitations – its more measured scope and occasional clunkiness usefully softened by its lo-fi facade – but it's frequently remarkable how far it's willing to go.

Image credit: Lovely Hellscape/DreadXP

Its combat might be stiff, for instance (perhaps appropriately so, for a Bethesda-style RPG), but its parries and deflections and stealth and stamina management balance that out with just enough welcome depth; there's a nicely streamlined upgrade system, where all related skills are boosted simultaneously as you spend Delusion found while exploring the world; there's an entire alchemical potion crafting system; cartography; home ownership and decorating; you can even purchase your own customisable airship. It's a commitment to giving players options that's reflected in its quest design too, where there's often more than one possible approach. Dread Delusion isn't an immersive sim by any means, but it's accommodating enough – do you kick down a door, or sneak through the booby tracked back? Agree to some midnight sleuthing to acquire an item, or just sweet talk someone into selling you one? - that it manages to feel much bigger, more freeing than you might expect given its primitive trappings.

And, honestly, I think I'm a little bit in love with Dread Delusion right now; with its witty, richly textured world, its eye for a surprise, and a mood that often feels more dark fairy tale than outright fantasy. Already, as I continue to explore its mushroom forests and famine-riddled fields, as I fraternise with unsavoury sorts in an underground tavern and with an exclusive order of academics high in the sky, I hear whispers of mechanical kings, of realms where the endless undead breed unliving meat, and of impenetrable tombs where powerful secrets lie locked away. I can't wait to see what else awaits in this wonderful, pustulent world.

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