The sea is a pitch-black orchestra of rain, wind, and waves. You know what needs to be done but you don’t know if you have the courage to do it. Lightning strikes the deck. All you hear are screams above the roaring waves and torrential downpour, “Throw it back! Throw it back!”
Dredge isn’t a game to throw back. Hauled straight from the hearts of Black Salt Games, a brand-new game developer from New Zealand, is Dredge, an indie fishing-sim with sprinkles of RPG and eldritch horror. With the perfect storm of a cozy/eerie art design, hooky gameplay, and minimalist Lovecraftian storytelling, Dredge snuck up from the deep and has stolen our hearts… maybe literally.
Fear the Fish – The Gameplay
On paper, Dredge sounds quite simple and ordinary. You play as a fisherman on a boat, free roam an open sea, trade fish for cash, buy upgrades, and make repairs when needed. While the fundamentals of Dredge appear standard, its deeper layers are what make the seemingly mundane a murkier affair.
The Fishing and Day and Night Cycle
In this fishing game, you’ll do a lot of fishing. Ripples on the water and shadowy schools below inform you where fishing spots are. All you need to do is approach and drop a line. On the right, you’ll see your cargo which is where you’ll need to perform some puzzly inventory management to fit your fish and on the left, you’ll see a reel minigame. Each fish has a slightly different minigame and size which provides a temporary challenge to enjoy, but the real fun is found in trying to collect all 150+ fish varieties.
The fishing, like everything else in Dredge, has two deeper gameplay layers: Aberrations and the day and night cycle. While fishing, if you’re lucky, you’ll find an Aberration which is an abnormal fish of the species you would normally catch at that specific fishing spot. Not only are the Aberrations freakishly cool and fun to collect, but they also sell for a lot more.
On top of hunting for Aberrations, some fish only come out at night. This means you’ll need to keep a weather eye on the day and night cycle to determine when to fish and for how long. While remaining still on the water or spending time in town stops the clock, when you are sailing or fishing, the clock is ticking. When nighttime does come, you’ll see ghostly blue and green vapors above fishing spots that are guaranteed to give you an Aberration, but you also run the risk of becoming Paranoid. Overall, the multilayered fishing gameplay loops easily get its hooks in you — and that’s just the start.
The Paranoia and Dredging
The slithering shadows of the sea at night mean you’ll slowly become Paranoid. If you’re out in the darkness for too long or venture into the screaming red winds, you’ll gain Paranoia which is marked by an eyeball at the top of your screen. The more Paranoid you get, the angrier the eyeball gets, going from nonexistent, blue, green, and then red. When Paranoid, negative events can strike — events that can spoil your fish, steal your cargo, or damage your ship. After resting at a dock to get rid of your Paranoia, you’re free to sail the sea safely… until night looms its scaly head again.
When you aren’t fishing or staving off Paranoia, you’ll need to be dredging for materials. Everything in Dredge can be upgraded — your engine, your fishing pole, your lights, and your ship size. But to buy upgrades, you need to dredge wood, metal, cloth, and, most importantly, Research Parts to unlock the upgrades. Hunting for upgrade materials makes for addicting progression and battling Paranoia adds an element of horror to enjoy.
The Pursuits and Exploration
The last elements of Dredge’s gameplay are the Pursuits and the exploration. Pursuits are the side quests you’ll receive from the various characters in the game. They start out easy: go take this note to another harbor, and slowly get more difficult: catch and deliver a rotting Conger Eel. Completing Pursuits gives you cash and Research Parts which, like the mouth of a river leading right into the sea, feeds into what makes Dredge great.
Exploring the open ocean is exhilarating. Not only is building the ship and the confidence to chart the uncharted regions of the map a delight, but exploring the secrets found on the small in-between islands is either relaxing or anxiety-inducing, depending on the time, but always thrilling.
Uncharted Waters – The Art Design
What makes Dredge Dredge is the art design. Without the haunting melodies that play at the docks or the dark pastel palette, Dredge wouldn’t make it far from the docks. As enjoyable as fishing, dredging, exploring, questing, and navigating the day and night cycle are, the general backdrop of Lovecraftian mystery propels Dredge into being a uniquely mesmerizing experience. Instead of being the cheery and bright fishing adventures of The King of Red Lions from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Dredge is set on being a grounded, dark, thalassophobic cosmic horror in large part thanks to the art design.
Shadows and Similarities – The Story
After catching your first few fish, you’ll not only stumble upon strange mutations but also shady characters with cryptic pasts. As you complete Pursuits for each unique character in the game, you’ll discover touching micro stories as well as the thread that leads to the final catch.
Indie games of this caliber don’t have the time to tell a story with cinematic cutscenes and lengthy dialogue — which is exactly what works in Dredge’s favor. Black Salt Games expertly takes a page out of Lovecraftian tales like The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Call of Cthulhu to tell a similarly briny and minimalistic tale that draws the player in further as holes in the mystery begin to fill. While exploring, you’ll come across messages in bottles that bobble on the ocean’s meniscus in each region of the map. While seemingly nonsensical at first, these messages begin to piece together the tale of what happened previously and how it all relates to your story now. While Dredge’s simple yet striking story is an inessential addition to an already amazing game, the pacing at which you pick up the pieces and unravel the supernatural mystery as well as the payoffs in the end made for an enhanced voyage.
Dredge takes a beloved genre of storytelling and makes it a fun fishing-sim. It’s as shallow and deep as that. While it isn’t a long game, it’s one that I was immediately grateful for experiencing. From the expertly interwoven gameplay loops to the horrifically charming story and art design, Dredge succeeds in creating a new genre blend that I desperately need more of.
This game was reviewed using a copy of the game provided by the game's publisher,public relations company, developer or other for the express purpose of a review.