Dredge is the debut title from New Zealand indie studio Black Salt Games and after the game’s announcement at Gamescom 2022, I was as equally enthralled as I was anxious. The anxiety didn’t come from any doubt cast into the sea over the quality of Dredge, but rather the fear of the unknown underneath the game’s waters.
What initially looked like a quaint fishing game that you could get lost in, became a descent into cosmic horror that I was going to be captured by. And that’s exactly what happened in the best way possible in this third-person fishing survival sim.
Hook, Line and Sinker
We meet our unnamed protagonist in rough waters during a storm, only to be shipwrecked moments later. You wake up on the pier of Greater Marrow – one of the many islands within this fictional archipelago – and are greeted by the town’s Mayor. He kindly replaces your boat, with the promise that you pay off your debt by supplying the Fishmonger with… you guessed it, fish.
The townspeople are aloof, and if they’re not, they usually have an ulterior motive or both. You’re a pariah for the most part and with seemingly no knowledge of your past, you toss it up to the archipelago being a dystopia rather than a paradise. You learn very quickly that the seas have been cursed, emanating a fog that corrupts the minds of people who dare wade through it, as well as creating aberrations of fish. It’s a stranglehold as most people can’t cross islands before sundown, forcing them to live within their means.
You learn this solemn tale from a man known only as The Collector, who urges you to find relics and in turn learn more about the mysteries of the deep seas. This is the driving force of the narrative and by the time I finished it, I was still trying to piece it all together. In true cosmic horror fashion, the unexplainable remains unexplained. This makes the true horror what is left to the unknown.
Reel It In
I might have been distracted by fighting for my life every day I went out to sea, but the story didn’t click until the final act. Before that, I felt like a yes-man just accepting blindly for gameplay rewards. There are a couple of off-the-cuff lines from certain characters or discoveries out on my travels that made me question my motives – though those moments were few and far between.
However, the ending has compelled me to try and discover everything and really learn all that Dredge has to offer. There’s so much world-building that you have to earn, making the story an overall compelling journey albeit a late bloomer. Whilst I’ve got both possible endings (I assume), there’s still a lot of backstory I’m hoping to learn as I try for the Platinum trophy. Thankfully the gameplay has so many satisfying loops, it elevates the narrative.
The whole game is from the third-person perspective of your boat. You start your journey with a humble fishing rod and a light for when it gets dark. Your boat’s capabilities are extremely limited at the beginning and when every movement with the left stick makes the day-and-night cycle tick, you’re not pushing the boat out at the start.
Because of your starter kit, you’ll see yourself doing a loop around the sea of Great Marrow using your rod to fish. Once you approach a patch of disturbed water – that usually has fish seen beneath it – you’ll initiate a small mini-game where you tap square within the green zone. It’s simple yet gratifying and does have some advancements dependent on the fish.
Each type of fish you catch is entered into your encyclopedia with its stats, monetary worth and what kind of waters they can be found in. This’ll be the geographical area but more specifically shallow waters, coastal or oceanic etc. There are over 150 to discover, and after 15 hours with the game, I’ve still not collected them all. Your starting rod can only catch shallow and coastal fish, but as you progress you’ll unlock more methods. This could be by way of nets that once plunged acquire fish passively, pots that gather over time for you to collect and dredging with a winch.
The gameplay is very compartmentalised, meaning you learn your limits quickly. You’ll work out an optimal way of making money through fishing, dredging items such as planks, cloth and scrap metal to upgrade your ship and completing pursuits given to you by NPCs. All the while trying not to be taken away by the night. The loop itself is so satisfying and the progression comes at a pace that keeps you increasingly engaged.
Cod Have Not Said It Better Myself
Your boat only has a set amount of slots within a grid, some of which are for your different equipment, and the rest being space for cargo. Part of the game’s charm is playing nautical Tetris with fish and objects coming with their own required shape; Making the most out of this space is vital to your success. All of the systems harmonise like a gaggle of sirens, especially at night.
Nighttime is obviously the most dangerous due to the fog. Spending more time in the dark and becoming susceptible to the visions at sea increases your paranoia tracked at the top of the screen beneath the time and date/compass by a glaring eye. If you don’t sleep when you need to, the visions become more deadly like a ship passing in the night becoming a mutated fish big enough to swallow you whole and obliterate your hull.
Receiving damage whether it’s from the apparitions or bad steering takes space away from your cargo, and you can even lose stuff at sea if you’re not careful. This furthers the notion that the more deliberate prep and planning you do, the better off you’ll be. One gripe I had with this though, is that even in the endgame you can’t have it all. You can’t carry all the best equipment at once, your boat only gets so big, making trips even by the end a potential loss. I get it, the sea is a cruel mistress and the horrors are never solved – just made easier. However, it makes catching ’em all a chore by swapping out gear every trip just to fill an encyclopedia.
The Past Should Stay Dredge
This does then make researching better equipment and doing certain quests to unlock more almost pointless. On top of this, I ended up with enough money to move everyone out of the wretched islands, but instead, it stayed in my purse catching dust. These are only minor issues for someone who’s going for 100%; the bulk of the game made my thorough sifting of the seas a bountiful endeavour every time.
With the narrative creating intrigue, and gameplay that then captures you, all that’s left is to be whisked away with the sights and sounds of Dredge. There are five biomes to explore within the archipelago all with their own distinct environments that echo the islands of our world. Whether it’s the Madagascan-inspired Stellar Basin or the Volcanic Ruins of Devil’s Spine – all boast their own life and with that, monsters.
The luscious day and night cycle watching the sunrise and sunset pierce through the stop-motion-like clouds all hit differently where ever you are but are all equally as amazing. The painterly art style and the colours used are so mesmerising, I couldn’t help but stop and enjoy the view almost every in-game day. Not to mention the vast creative designs of the cosmic horror-inspired versions of fish just build towards a layered atmospheric world that I just found myself lost in.
The music is used criminally sparingly, mostly at the start of a new day, with a new song dependent on your locale. The earlier segments are led by a beautifully melancholic piano theme accompanied by violins. Whilst the later areas use those similar melodies but linger into flat notes creating a foreboding off-kilter feeling that you can’t shake. I just wish they were accompanied by my gameplay more.
O-Fish-al Closing Statement
Like a Fisherman’s Friend, Dredge is a breath of fresh air. The endgame has its flaws and the systems on the buildup towards it felt meaningless. However, the journey up until that point was truly something special. Even after hours of playing, I came across new fears to be worried about during my nighttime excursions, and the overall gameplay loop fires on all the dopamine receptors for those who like a steady pace in equipment, upgrades and fish.
Like the announcement of Dredge in 2022, I came away from the game still equally enthralled and anxious. The notion that there’s still more to discover, no matter how terrifying my journey can be is like an infection from the fog I can’t purge. This may not be for everyone, but if you’re into cosmic horror, deliberate and strict game design or you’re looking for the next biggest catch, look no further than Dredge.
DREDGE’s numerous gameplay systems that don’t overwhelm but invite players are a cloak and dagger for the true horrors that’ll keep you lost at sea. Phenomenal in its art direction and engrossing to play, it’s clear that Black Salt Games have dredged up a mystifying debut.
DREDGE releases 30th March 2023 on PlayStation 5 (review platform), PS4, Xbox Series S|X, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam.
Developer: Black Salt Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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