I’m not gonna lie, reviewing Dread Templar has me more at odds with myself than I was expecting. When consuming any type of media, I usually cater to my expectations to create the most enjoyable experience for myself. I try to give everything the opportunity to break my expectations in either a good or bad direction. Very rarely do I find something just flatly meets those expectations. There wasn’t a single moment in Dread Templar where I wasn’t having fun. I enjoy first-person shooters, and it’s a first-person shooter. Yet there isn’t much I feel I can praise Dread Templar for either.
If I’m going to praise Dread Templar for anything, though, it’ll be that it was made by a solo developer over the course of three years. Developed by T19 Games LTD and published by Fulqrum Publishing, Dread Templar is the first game made by Xiaoting Zhu. As a first title, Xiaoting has surely shown their love for the genre and their prowess in game design. Dread Templar cannot be considered anything less than a love letter to 90’s style FPS. I can’t help but appreciate the level of work T19 Games put into this project. The fact that I played through the whole game assuming there was a big team behind it means it was a job well done.
Dread Templar is available on Steam for $19.99.
Story – Become the Scariest Thing in Hell
There’s definitely a story in Dread Templar, but like most boomer shooters, there isn’t much concentration put toward it. Most of the excitement with these games comes from playing through to see what the next level is going to be and Dread Templar certainly provides in that regard. It attempts to provide context with cutscenes in between every chapter, but there isn’t really enough there to sink your teeth into.
Cutscenes … If You Can Call Them That
There are five chapters, each with a number of levels to get through and a boss at the end. After each boss, you’re shown a small clip about a kid whose grandfather was attacked by demons or something. When I say cutscene, though, I’m not meaning what you see in most other games. What you get is what’s expected from a solo developer. A few still pieces of art with amateur voice acting voicing maybe a paragraph’s worth of text at a time.
As far as the writing goes, it’s fine. It’s not overly written or jarring. The tone of the art fits the game’s aesthetic. The voice acting is amateur but not so bad that it detracts from the feel. When compared to games I’ve played that do something similar, games with much bigger teams working on them, Dread Templar’s cutscenes are perfectly fine. But because they only make up about one percent of the total game time, it’s not the main venue by which the story is told. Like most boomer shooters, it’s all in the ludo-narrative.
If there’s any rhyme or reason to the way the levels progress, I didn’t find them. It very much just feels like ‘these levels are in a spooky prison and these ones are in a cold glacier. Oh! Now you’re on a pirate ship. Here come the lava levels’. It’s all very video gamey, which I appreciate. It’s fun being shoved into a completely new setting after every chapter, it feels very 90’s.
As you progress, you unlock a variety of new guns and upgrades, and new enemy types are constantly being introduced. There is an impressive amount of enemies in Dread Templar, especially for a solo developer. There are enough customization options with the upgrades that you can sculpt your build to your play style. You can strategize your upgrades to favor your best weapons and tactics. That being said, you will find eventually that they steer toward an optimal setup, so there isn’t much room for unique builds.
Gameplay – Perfectly Adequate
The area where Dread Templar has the most effort dedicated to it is, by no surprise, the combat. On the Fulqrum Publishing site, it describes the gameplay as “reminiscent of classics from the 90s, but with a modern twist” and yet, I find it hard to catch the ‘modern twist’ they’re toting. I guess the upgrade system is modern-ish, but I dunno if I’d necessarily call it a twist because the core loop stays the same. The classic 90’s gameplay, though, is on point.
Shooting Stuff Is Fun
I got somewhat nostalgic when I first started playing because of how little optimization Dread Templar had for modern FPS players. There aren’t any load-outs, or classes, or anything like that. You don’t get a couple of weapons to easily switch between. You get a crap tonne of weapons really quickly, each associated with a number key. To make it so you’re not having to reach halfway across your keyboard in the middle of a fast-paced shootout, I recommend changing the key bindings. I changed the number 5 key to Z, 6 – F, 7 – Left CTRL (making crouch C), and 8 to Left ALT. It is cool having each gun associated with a certain movement of your hand. It gives them more personality rather using scrolling or a weapon wheel.
Lots of Guns
The guns are the best part of Dread Templar. Not only are there heaps just from the number of buttons being used, but there are also alternate versions to most of the guns. You are unlocking guns throughout the whole game, which constantly adds more flavor to the combat. Coupled with the vast enemy types, the variety of battle encounters is endless. And you have so many weapons for all the different nuances of enemy placement. It does a good job of stretching your pattern recognition when you’re constantly having to think of what weapon is best for every situation.
It could’ve taken a little bit more from the modern mechanic pool though. To refill ammo, you have to pick up ammo that’s lying around, and every gun has its own unique ammo. So a lot of time is wasted running back to locations where you last saw ammo for certain guns. If there was some kind of mechanic that gave you ammo drops mid-combat, it would keep you more engaged and cut out a lot of needless running around.
This is another area where I think it could’ve had more of a modern touch. You get a dash, which is alright. It’s better than having no dash at all. But it’s on a cooldown, and even with the best upgrades, the cooldown is pretty long. It also doesn’t give you any invincibility frames unless you apply an upgrade. So it’s only really useful for platforming, which isn’t done very well either. Again, it’s perfect as a love letter to 90’s games because the core loop stays pure to the old ways. You’re always on the ground, shooting stuff instead of double jumping around, jetpacking, and dashing all over the place. It’s true to the old style, I just don’t think it’s as fun.
My enthusiasm went up and down when it came to the level design. At first, I was quite amazed by how long each level was. I was expecting the game to be over in a couple of hours like a lot of indie shooters, then I realized each level was taking me around an hour to complete and there were five chapters each with around five levels in them. I was impressed that an indie game was giving me so much content, then I was even more impressed when I found out it was by a solo developer. Then I realized why the levels were taking me so long to complete. I would defeat all the enemies and get to the end in about ten minutes, then spend the rest of the hour running around the level looking for secrets.
I like treasure-hunting for secrets in games. When you recognize something that might be out of place and are then rewarded with a bunch of armor or whatever, it’s a great dopamine hit. But it got to the point where I was turning my brain off and running along every wall tapping E over and over. And for a lot of secrets, that actually worked. Even when I was being the most thorough, I still wouldn’t find all of the secrets. There’s no way you can go through the game on the first playthrough and find every secret unless you have a guide open on another screen.
I will give Xiaoting credit for being one hellova treasure hider. I will give praise to the super secrets. On every level, there’s a secret that requires more than just opening a hidden door like bringing a key item to a certain spot kind of thing. And you get way better rewards for solving them. These were just plain fun to solve without any of the tedium of checking every cranny.
Graphics & Sound – Oldskewl, Yo!
Like everything else in Dread Templar, the graphics wholly embraces the oldschool. Muddy pixelated textures wrapped over polygonal environments and 3D models. There’s also the option of applying filters to make the game look like different flavors of oldschool. You can adjust the pixelation and add different styles. While it’s cool to experiment, I found that the filters only detract from the gameplay as they mostly make everything hard to see. I’m not gonna lie, I feel the nostalgia for this particular art style is running thin but I still appreciate the appeal for it.
I will always be a sucker for dark and demonic type settings. The variety of levels does a lot to scratch the devilish itch. Everywhere you walk, there’s blood and corpses and monsters and everything a 90’s kid wishes for. With that being said, there’s not much depth to it all. It’s very surface area dread. There will be skeletons and stuff laying around, but you won’t hear the screams of people in pain or interact with any writhing tortured prisoners or anything. Even Castlevania IV had jiggling skeletons in the background.
Though Dread Templar gives enough to create the overall feeling of dismay, it still becomes easy to run through each level without really soaking in the atmosphere. The polish just isn’t there. But I don’t want to criticize too much. The fact that the aesthetic works at all is a great achievement for Xiaoting.
Great Music That Gets Stale
I didn’t realize just how important dynamic music was in games before I played Dread Templar. Again, it’s keeping to the purity of old games by having a single track that plays on a loop throughout each chapter. And as much as I liked the tracks, they get tiresome after hearing them over and over. Especially coupled with the lengthy secret searching in every level.
John S. Weekly, the composer, was smart enough to make the songs super long with many movements so that your brain isn’t chewed out by earworms. It would’ve been a lot worse with a lesser composer. But when you’re spending an hour with any song, it’s going to play out its welcome. I’ve grown too used to game music changing to complement every moment. That being said, the music is still great.
Dread Templar was previewed on PC with a key provided by Fulqrum Publishing.