It’s hard to stand out after over a decade of resurgent boomer shooters and retro-styled first-person shooters in the indie space, and I’m not sure Dread Templar does. It’s slick, stylish, polished, and a lot of fun – but it’s also exactly what I expected it to be.
Less is more might be the right approach
I’ll just touch on the narrative elements briefly as they’re rarely the focus of retro shooters and Dread Templar doesn’t buck that trend.
There’s some brief introductory text that implies the protagonist made a questionable deal to gain access to hell and has now taken the path of a “Dread Templar” – hunting down demons that destroyed his family. This full release adds new narrated story panels, usually one or two per episode, that flesh out the protagonist’s past. They’re infrequent but – even as someone who prefers a bit of narrative context in their games – the quality of these story panels feels at odds with the rest of the game and I felt they simply detracted from the experience. Of course, you can just skip right past them, so it’s a minor complaint.
If I had to pick some obvious inspirations, I’d say Dread Templar looks, plays, and feels like a hybrid of Quake, Hexen 2, and, more recently, Dusk. It’s got that distinctly angular and Gothic look to its hellish landscape and architecture; most of the demons you face are Cthulhu-ish abominations with too many limbs, tentacles, or eyes; while gibbing an enemy results in an almost comedic spray of pixelated gore and chunky body parts.
The environments often impress with their scale despite sticking to that early 3D look and chunky models from the late 1990s. A combination of prop placement, old-school transparency effects, lighting, and the soundtrack still manage to generate plenty of atmosphere. The music feels a little limited as tracks are often repeated within an episode, but what’s on offer is excellent. It’s a hybrid of extreme metal from the modern DOOM games, choir-like chanting, and a few catchy chiptune-style tracks – all of which can flow from one into the other during a single level and quickly transition for larger battles.
Aside from the aesthetics, another feature it shares with those games is the incredible speed with which you move, strafe, jump, and dash around. It makes for an incredibly twitchy and reactive experience that, when combined with a kill-to-recharge “slow motion” ability, allows you to shred through dozens of enemies in a heartbeat. Given you’re frequently fighting on elevated platforms or locked into arenas, this mobility makes it easy to dash between platforms, dodge aside, and weave through even the biggest mobs with ease – switching weapons, picking priority targets, and lining up headshots. The caveat being it’s just as easy to hurtle off a ledge to your doom and back to the last save point if you’re not observant.
Difficulty-wise, Dread Templar is fairly forgiving if you’ve any experience with the genre. There are five modes to pick from – with Nightmare unlocked in the tutorial area a la Quake – each ramping up enemy health, damage output, and mobility – while reducing the number of med-kits you’ll find. As someone who got into PC gaming during the mid to late 90s and still enjoys the odd boomer shooter, “Hard” offered an appropriate difficulty curve that didn’t feel too bullet-spongey but would still see me shredded quickly if I stopped moving. For those thinking of playing with a gamepad, it offers two button layouts (full remapping would be nice) and a few sliders, but the response curves and auto-aim strength need tweaking. Movement feels great and intuitive but aiming always felt too imprecise and unforgiving.
An adaptable arsenal for every demon
The gunplay itself feels incredibly satisfying, suitably varied, and adaptable thanks to a traditional arsenal that both offers variants within several categories and a powerful upgrade system to modify them further. Some examples include the basic dual-Katanas that are fine for slicing up weak spawners and boxes, but can be combined and thrown as a powerful, piercing Javelin. The pump shotgun is an effective all-rounder but you can quick-swap to the double-barrel variant for close encounters. The trap-launcher is akin to a grenade launcher, just less about direct damage and more about stunning mobs. Demonic “Inferno” weapons – a rocket launcher, revolver, and gauntlet – cover splash damage, high-damage precision, and kill-everything BFG categories respectively. Oh, and there’s a bow that I rarely ever used.
The enemies you go up against will be familiar to retro shooter fans. Melee rushers, riflemen firing improbably slow projectiles, lumbering grenadiers, sorcerers that spawn other demons, floating skulls, the demon equivalent of plasma hurling artillery. Each episode introduces new demons or tweaked re-skins of existing ones to keep combat fresh, but it’s the boss and mini-boss encounters that’ll truly test your ability to move and shoot at the same time. You’ll need to dodge massive sweeping attacks, AoE spells, swarms of projectiles, and often lesser demons as you whittle down their health. A lot of combat boils down to not being swarmed and it was during a few desperate retreats I noticed demon pathfinding and behaviour can bug out and be exploited if you backtrack far enough.
Now despite the retro trappings, Dread Templar is not without several modern features. In every level – on the critical path and as secrets – you’ll find blood gems and runes. With enough blood gems, you can unlock up to three slots for your character and each weapon, in which you can socket silver and gold runes that provide passive buffs. Silver runes offer incremental boosts to your maximum health and bullet time meter, or marginally increase weapon attributes like damage, clip size, and fire rate. It’s the rarer gold runes that are the highlight, often providing more powerful boosts and unlocking Inferno variants of basic weapons, altering how they function.
If you’re actively hunting secrets from the get-go – something I’d strongly recommend on the higher difficulties – you can find several powerful gold runes early on. There’s a rune that removes the need to reload pistols, a rune that minimises the damage drop-off of the pump shotgun turning it into a rifle, or a rune that turns your thrown katanas into the equivalent of a lightning bolt. Dread Templar encourages you to experiment as you can freely reset your load-out at alters. Better still, if you’re looking to replay levels for secrets, you retain all your current upgrades within a chosen difficulty.
Talking of runes and secrets, another of Dread Templar’s strengths is its sprawling, multi-layered levels that hide an absurd number of secrets to find and side paths that often function as platforming or guantlet-style challenges. It’s got your typical structure – five episodes, with five levels, and a boss at the end – but does a decent job of changing up the scenery during and between episodes. That said, it helps if you’re a fan of oversized Gothic architecture, hellish landscapes, and garish lighting.
You spend a lot of time in claustrophobic interiors like tombs, prisons, and caverns, but later episodes keep you above ground more often and battling through sprawling graveyards, a demonic pumping facility, and a twisted library suspended above an abyss. Most levels are functionally key hunts – sometimes linear, sometimes featuring a hub-and-spoke design – but you’ll never go far without spotting some supplies or a gold rune on a distant ledge. Secrets include supplies tucked around corners and hidden rooms that require careful observation (or just wall-mashing). The most complex are the “super secrets”, with a puzzle-like element that might involve memorizing visual clues, solving a riddle, and finding hidden key items. Thankfully, looping paths and teleporters ensure you never have to waste too much time backtracking.
Of note for those returning from the early-access build, many levels have been streamlined to prevent you from getting lost, and include more visual elements to highlight areas of interest. The updated placement of save points and auto-saves also makes for a more forgiving experience as you can often play it safe and loop back to save after every major battle.
If you’ve been nodding along thinking this all sounds familiar – it does. Dread Templar is a smart mix of old and new designs but doesn’t try to reinvent the genre or push any novel element. Despite the retro sensibilities when it comes to the aesthetics and gunplay, smart level design and a powerful upgrade system make for a more modern experience.
Now this is always subjective (I typically prefer shorter games I’ll replay) but Dread Templar also offers a decent amount of playtime. I spent upwards of 2 hours in each of the five episodes, only uncovering maybe two-thirds of the secrets and side paths, and a handful of super secrets. There’s also a surprisingly fleshed-out, wave-based “Guardian” mode that has you defending a central crystal and using points from kills to purchase upgrades and supplies.
As someone who plays a few retro shooters each year, I really enjoyed Dread Templar. On the other hand, if you’re someone who considers this genre their bread-and-butter, you might consider the familiar premise and lack of novel mechanics more of an issue.
A review code for Dread Templar was provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Dread Templar (PC) ReviewDread Templar (PC) Review
Gameplay8/10 Very Good
Visuals8/10 Very Good
Audio8/10 Very Good
- Slick, polished, fast, and fun gunplay
- A varied, adaptable, and upgradeable arsenal
- Smart level design packed with secrets
- Authentic visual style and great soundtrack
- It’s possible to exploit enemy pathfinding and behaviours at times
- It does nothing new when it comes to the premise or mechanics