Come for the fishing and management, stay for the tantalising horror mystery. Here’s our review of Dredge.
For humanity, the ocean has always been one of nature’s great risk-reward propositions. Stare out at the expanse and it may call to you as liberating and bountiful, or foreboding and deadly. It’s a relationship that Dredge understands well, as it strives to capture that dual personality. One minute in this fishing adventure you’re chugging off into the sunlit blue, cheerfully hooking tuna and salmon. The next you’re fearing for the casing of your tiny vessel, lest it rupture and send you choking beneath black waves.
On one side of its equation, then, Dredge recreates the serene escapism of an RPG fishing mini-game. As an unnamed character, you pootle around a cove overlooked by a tiny coastal village from a zoomed-out third-person view, dipping your line into fishing spots, then selling your catch back in town. Fishing itself takes patience rather than skill, powered by a simple micro-game where well timed button taps speed up your reel, and poorly timed taps slow it down. Once a fish is in hand, you find space for it in your limited cargo area, like arranging items in a Resident Evil briefcase, but with mackerel and crabs instead of Magnums and shotgun shells.
Before long, villagers ask for favours, like bringing them specific fish, and one individual supplies you with dredging equipment so you can scrape wrecks and sunken debris for treasure. So you earn money, you find materials and you invest it all in sprucing up your vessel with more powerful engines, deep-fishing rods, and the like, which provides more incentive to venture further across the undulating water.
While this alone would make for an acceptable fisherperson sim, however, there’s more under the surface of Dredge than marine life. For one, although the people you meet tend to be friendly enough, it’s clear they aren’t telling you everything. And whatever the reason is, it’s surely connected to the mutant fish you occasionally pull aboard – a salmon with three fanged heads, perhaps, or a flatfish with a sort of vile egg where its eye should be. Indeed, some of the locals seem excited rather than disgusted by such freakish specimens, and the fishmonger eagerly pays extra for any you find. Now you’re part of a tantalising horror mystery that drives you to learn more.
To do so, you’ll have to push outwards from the calm waters around the central isle, exposing murky events piece by piece via a smooth loop of resource management – exploring, fishing, upgrading and meeting new people. Dredge remains compelling for much of its 10-plus hour runtime because there’s always something interesting to unveil, whether that’s merely a new type of fish to admire or a fresh location full of secrets. Also because your boat is always lagging behind the demands of the sea, and you’re desperate to improve every part of it as quickly as possible.
Whenever you’re moving or fishing, though, time keeps spinning through an intimidating day-night cycle. Your desire to progress can be your biggest enemy here, pushing you to test the sea’s risk-reward gamble as you work beyond sunset into overtime, to dredge one more wreck or bag one more eel. It’s alarming how swiftly the dark can creep up on you, leaving you stranded in open water with nothing but a map and a short-range lamp to guide you. As an experience it’s chillingly disorienting, not to mention dangerous – jutting rocks and landmasses spring from the gloom to punch holes in your hull with scant warning, or send precious cargo overboard. Perhaps you stumble across an abandoned landing spot and wait it out till sunrise. But customers only pay top dollar for the freshest fish. Every misjudgement comes with a cost.
Still, any port in a storm they say, and that goes double when it’s not so much a storm that’s bothering you as a Lovecraftian leviathan. Such things exist in Dredge, and you do well to reach a haven if you’ve strayed into their range. Usually by the time the game’s ominous music rises and you glimpse a giant eye peering from the deep, the best you can do is brace for impact. Perhaps you take the hit and live to tell the tale, perhaps not, but learning when and where real monsters emerge is all part of fishing these territories.
Each of the game’s five archipelagos, all linked by a single mass of water, contains some such ancient predator, standing (or swimming) in your way of collecting crucial items to complete the main quest. Usually a local NPC will have some idea what you’re dealing with, and supply you with the means to survive if you bring them certain fish and materials. The main challenge then is getting to the tight spots where rarer fish dwell, navigating your boat between cliff faces or through dense mangrove swamps without scraping the sides.
Towards the end of the game, in fact, such acts of precise steering rather take over from Dredge’s light management elements. Once you gather a certain critical mass of equipment, including trawler nets and crab pots that snare sea-life automatically, you should stockpile enough cash to take care of any need that arises, without having to worry much about hunting out valuable trinkets or catching fish the old-fashioned way. And with the introduction of an ability that lets you warp back to a central dock at will, even time becomes less pressing, since you always have an escape route if you stay out too late and lose your way.
Strangely, then, for a game that wriggles in the grip of Eldritch horror, Dredge at times becomes a little too routine. As the demands of key objectives take centre stage, they detract both from the joys of fishing and the sense of dread that should erupt as you disturb ever darker waters. But then, is that the point? As even the most remote parts of the ocean begin to feel like home, you may wonder whether you’re the one being lured and reeled in by an unseen will. As humanity has long since learned, you take the sea for granted at your peril.
One sailor’s loss is another’s gain, as shipwrecks supply you with scrap metal and wood to improve your own vessel. Nothing’s more delightful then than finding several dashed boats in close proximity, ready to be plucked. Then again, if so many ships have gone down in one area, you’d better watch out for whatever caused them to sink.
An original take on fishing that marries rewarding exploration with sinister undertones.
Read more: Weird Fishes | The making of Moonglow Bay