Sometimes, Dredge is just a normal fishing game. On a clear day, you can putter from port to port, dangling a rod into the depths or trawling a net through the waves, perhaps searching for a specific fish, or hoping you pull up a perfect specimen to sell for a little extra cash. You can use a telescope to scope out your next catch, or even go searching shipwrecks for long-lost trinkets. You can use what money you scrape together to maintain your crab pots, or buy a new outboard motor, or patch a hole in your hull. You go to bed when it gets dark, wake up the moment it gets light, and head out for another day on the sea. And you have to be safely docked once the sun sets, because there are things that lurk in the darkness that you don't ever want to stumble across.
Release date: March 30, 2023
Platform(s): PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Black Salt Games
A traditional fishing game might want you to focus on the weight of your catch or the condition of your boat, but Dredge puts a Lovecraftian twist on the formula, for which measures of success like 'money' are far too innocent. Instead, the most important resource at your disposal is time – the limited number of hours and minutes available between sunrise and sunset. The clock only moves forward when you undertake certain activities – moving your boat, fishing, maintenance – making the first few days at sea an intricate balance; can I drop another line and still get home before the sun goes down?
Getting home in time is crucial, because the other resource that Dredge makes you play with is Panic. The creatures lurking at the edges of your sanity only come out when the darkness sets in, and the dim bulb set atop your cabin is unlikely to keep them away for long. And once panic sets in, every extra moment you spend at sea threatens your livelihood; hideous gulls attempt to steal fish from your hold; disgusting infections wriggle in among your catch; in the dark, rocks loom out of the mist that you could have sworn weren't there the last time you rounded this headland.
Time and Panic are a fascinating double-header that make the first few hours of Dredge genuinely special. You come to the island of Greater Marrow to replace their missing fisherman, and spend the first few days penned in by a natural harbour. There are other islands, further flung across this sea, but with your tiny motor you don't need to worry about them – just focus on reeling in the minnows that dwell in the shallows. But gradually, Dredge pushes you ever further afield, a new motor or a request for a rare fish which forces you to skirt the darkness if you want a little extra cash. Eventually, you'll make that first shot for new ground, sprinting out across the waves before the sun has risen, looking for any safe port before it sets.
As you earn the money and dredge up the materials required to upgrade your boat – fitting new rods, more powerful engines, or brighter headlamps to keep the darkness at bay – jetting back and forth between the first and second islands starts to feel a little less terrifying. But Dredge makes sure to weave in gentle horrors that ensure you can never fully relax. The haggard faces of the people you encounter speak to the gnawing fear and exhaustion of life among these islands. Occasionally, you'll pull something disgusting up from the depths, mutated 'aberrations', each one boasting uniquely horrifying artwork; fish bulging with extra eyes, jagged, ruined skeletons, bodies ruptured by impossible, swirling voids. Even the sound design, the minor piano trill that cuts through when you pull in one of these nightmares, is enough to send a shiver down your spine on even the game's most idyllic-seeming days.
Eventually, however, those upgrades start to add up, and it gets harder to take Dredge's cosmic threat seriously. A big enough engine means you'll always win your race against the setting sun, and a big enough wallet means you also don't need to worry about losing your catch to infection. Later islands do more to weave in obstacles; complex, maze-like reefs and ruins to prevent you jetting back and forth; ancient monsters, unrelenting in their pursuit or unflinching in their strength, but often those threats can be subdued or avoided, becoming more of an annoyance than the Lovecraftian menace they're intended to be. It's not enough to entirely undermine the mood of Dredge, but it's an unfortunate by-product of the need to progress, and one that dilutes those excellent opening hours.
There's a lot hiding within Dredge that's not immediately apparent; research trees open up different ways to play; complex secrets and side quests that I felt I was only scratching the surface of; a bestiary filled with beautiful, mind-bending artwork. Collectively, it all serves to transform what might have been a perfectly serviceable fishing game into a fascinating, ever-so-gently horrifying experience. It's not often you see a game deliver on its elevator pitch with such perfection, and while Dredge's progression systems hinder the impact of its final act, 'wholesome fishing game meets Lovecraftian horror' remains an expertly-realised idea.
Dredge was reviewed on PC, with a code provided by the publisher.