Dredge is something of an anomaly. It’s described by its creators as “a fishing adventure with a sinister undercurrent”, but roughly thirty hours with the game reveal it to be much more. Dredge is a tense, Lovecraftian psychological horror game, but also a cozy fishing game with a focus on inventory management. These are things that have been known to work separately, but do they work combined into a single package?
With Dredge, developers Black Salt Games have created a world that is as multi-faceted as the game itself. It’s simplistic and beautiful thanks to its Unity Engine foundations, colorful models, and flat textures. The gentle-yet-effective reflections on the water help a fair bit as well. The first time I saw the sun rise over Little Marrow and reflect its radiance in the waters between Greater Marrow and its smaller neighbor, I was instantly hooked.
"The first time I saw the sun rise over Little Marrow and reflect its radiance in the waters between Greater Marrow and its smaller neighbor, I was instantly hooked."
But then the sun goes down, and that very same world morphs into something straight out of H.P. Lovecraft’s nightmares. There are unfathomable monsters, spontaneous storms, and an ominous, disembodied evil that permeates the waters and islands of the archipelago you’re tasked with exploring, and the only constant source of light is the often distant lighthouse of Greater Marrow. Dealing with these horrors and the ramifications of facing the unthinkable is stressful, but also great fun and very unique in how it’s presented within Dredge.
Your journey into the depths of madness begins when a thick fog rolls in without warning, causing a fisherman to wreck his ship on the rocks by The Marrows. Upon waking, the player character is greeted by the first of many characters you’ll meet throughout the game: the mayor of Greater Marrow. He’s a generous chap, and goes so far as to loan you one of his older boats in exchange for a small portion of your earnings until you pay it off. In addition to paying off the boat, that money also goes towards revamping the town and making more facilities open to you.
He warns you not to stay out fishing too late, and I wish I had listened to him this first day.
During daylight hours, Dredge is a cozy fishing game. There is a series of mini-games that make up the fishing, which depends on the type of equipment you need to use to catch different fish at different depths. Most of these mini-games are comprised of “stop the marker in a designated area as it moves”-style affairs, and I found their mechanical simplicity to be very satisfying. I could fish in Dredge all day, but there are a few systems in place to keep things moving and the stakes high.
"I could fish in Dredge all day, but there are a few systems in place to keep things moving and the stakes high."
First, there is the concern of limited inventory. The tiny boat you start out with only has so much space for your catch, so you’ll end up making frequent trips back to a dock to sell things and free up that space. Though, the equipment that is not just important but required for several aspects of the game also takes up this precious inventory space, which is a bit of a nuisance in the opening hours. This includes the boat’s engines, fishing equipment, and lights.
Speaking of lights, this is where the other system designed to stop Dredge from being a straight-up cozy game comes into play. As you move through the waters and fish, time passes by. And when the sun goes down, everything goes pitch black. Later in the game, this can be remedied with big, powerful lights equipped to your boat, but at the beginning, all you have is a candle. Making your way back to Greater Marrow in the dark without crashing into rocks would be hard enough on its own given the limited light, but that coupled with madness-inducing darkness and the creatures that hide in it makes things considerably worse.
Dredge has a sanity meter, which is represented by an eye over the time indicator at the top of the game screen. The more time you spend in the dark and the more terrors you encounter, this eye becomes increasingly red and agitated, and increased levels of madness make you more susceptible to spooky happenings or progress-slowing events. These include such things as having your catch eaten up by a flock of possessed birds and being pursued by sea monsters or sentient water spouts. Rest and light can reset your sanity, but there are points in the game where sanity, or the lack of it, opens up more story and gameplay opportunities which provides some enticing risk and reward.
This cycle of peace and panic is the core of Dredge’s gameplay, and it’s enthralling. That’s not all this game has going for it though, as are multiple upgrade systems, a resource-gathering mechanic, and side quests galore given to you by a host of interesting, well-written characters.
"This cycle of peace and panic is the core of Dredge’s gameplay, and it’s enthralling."
For the upgrade systems, there are crafted upgrades for your boat that require you to dredge up or collect things like metal, wood, and cloth from shipwrecks or random fishing spots, and there are improved parts that can be researched and unlocked for purchase using research units you find or are gifted with for completing quests. I found these systems work well, and thankfully you can access upgrades and new parts at other islands as well, not just Greater Marrow. It’s a pretty big map with no fast travel, so having to head back for improvements would have been annoying.
The upgrade curve in Dredge is also satisfying. The slow boat with limited equipment and a pathetic excuse for a light source can be upgraded into something much more substantial in a short amount of time, depending of course on how much you focus on upgrades versus the many other aspects of the game.
Finally, when you aren’t fishing, collecting, or dodging nightmares to maintain your sanity, you’re probably talking to the many characters who live on different islands around The Marrows. They are all represented by character portraits, but the quality and style of each of those pieces of art convey the personalities and demeanors of the characters. Each character you meet also seems to indirectly deliver a piece of information that further fleshes out the situation in The Marrows as well as the overall story. Mysterious shipwrecks, a mayor gone mad, a person trying to get away from everything and start a new life on another island, a son lost to the sea. Each character has a unique story, and one that is worth seeing to its conclusion.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Beautiful presentation; Addicting fishing gameplay; Fantastically spooky nighttime gameplay.
The boat is very slow at the start; Precious inventory space is taken up by equipment you need.
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