At first glance, Dredge by Black Salt Games seems like a relaxing game full of fishing mini-games. But not everything is as it seems and leaving the safe harbor can quickly lead to encounters with horrors hiding in the depths. And once you submerge into the ominous atmosphere of the Dredge, you can’t hide from it even on land. You are surrounded by dark secrets and your only way out is to hope that your nets catch something, that will help you survive the madness.
You start the game as a fisherman who crashes his ship near an island called Greater Marrow. The ship is destroyed beyond repairs, but luckily the local mayor is looking for somebody who would supply the community with fresh fish. He’s willing to give you a boat, in exchange for a portion of the profits from your catch, until you pay back the value of the boat. The mayor also warns you that you shouldn’t stay on the sea once the sun goes down because then a thick fog creeps in and you don’t want to lose another ship on sharp rocks around the island, right? So you head out to the bay of Greater Marrow, to learn to control your new boat and catch some fish to repay the debt of 50 dollars. The controls are pretty straightforward, WSAD to move with the boat, F to catch fish, E to use a lantern, and other equipment. Catching fish consists of finding a fishing spot, marked by bubbles on the water surface, and then completing a simple mini-game, where you need to press a button at the right time.
The boat moves slowly but the fish are plentiful around Greater Marrow so you are quickly filling up your ship with your catches, without even getting too far from the island. A big part of Dredge is inventory management. The boat is covered by a grid and you have to figure out how to fill that grid with as much fish as possible. The problem is, that your fishing equipment shares the same cargo space so you will soon have to make some difficult choices about how to use the space on your boat in the most effective way. To make things more interesting, each type of fish comes in a different shape and size so you can finally put those Tetris skills to good use.
Once you fill your boat to the brim, you return to the town and visit a fishmonger, who will buy your catch. The freshness of fish is very important so even if you catch a trophy fish, you can’t lug it around for too long, otherwise, you won’t get paid much. After you sell your first haul, the mayor approaches you again and gives you a small bonus, an upgrade part. These can be used to research fishing equipment like specialized nets, rods, crab pots, and boat upgrades like engines. That’s where another inhabitant of the town comes to play, the shipwright. She takes care of all the upgrades and repairs of your boat, which is critical because if your boat takes damage, fishing equipment can become unusable, or a breach in a hull causes your cargo to fall off the boat and you can’t put anything in the damaged spot. The upgrades in Dredge feel really powerful and meaningful. With the new fishing rods, you are able to fish for bigger, more exotic, and more valuable fish and the upgrades to the ship engine make traveling around the map much faster.
Be careful what you dredge for!
The map seems enormous at the start of the game with The Marrows sitting right in the middle of it. Surrounding it are four other regions, each with a different biome and special types of fish. In total, you can catch more than one hundred types of fish and by day the Dredge seems like a relaxing fishing game with easy mechanics and beautiful low-poly art that makes you stop and just enjoy the view very often.
But as the mayor warned you, when the sun goes down, a thick fog creeps in, and with it comes madness. The horror in Dredge is very subtle, don’t expect any jump scares, but rather a sinister atmosphere, that will slowly creep in and it will soon make you question the sanity of your character and everyone around you. Everything seems very innocent at the beginning, you catch a strangely-looking fish, discover a creepy dark altar, or get asked to deliver a mysterious package. Later you are approached by an ominous character that calls himself the Collector and he will send you on a quest in search of five artifacts, each hiding under the sea in a different region of the map. In order to reach them, it’s time to brave the night.
At night the game introduces a new mechanic - sanity, represented by an eye icon at the top of the screen. The fisherman is getting tired, the light of the ship is barely able to pierce through the dark and the fog around you is twisting, taking on nightmarish shapes. As your sanity slips away, the lights of your boat flicker and you start to hear a ship horn in the distance. Is there another fishing boat? A bright light approaches you and if you wait long enough… you find yourself facing enormous angler fish that is about to swallow your boat. So you turn around and race to the safety of a lighthouse in the Great Marrows, but just as you are about to reach the dock, you crash into a rock that you swear was not there just a minute ago.
Encounters like this will force you to manage your time and teach you that it’s very risky to stay out on the sea at night. But soon you will also discover that it can be highly rewarding, with some valuable fish being available only at night. If you want to improve your ship, to be able to reach the next area, you also need to risk staying out after the sun goes down. Time in the game flows only when you move your boat or do the fishing mini-games, so you have plenty of time during the day to look around and think about whether it’s worth it to go further to another fishing spot, a place to salvage materials for boat upgrades, explore ancient ruins on the shores of a distant island, or if you should head back to safety. But once the darkness sets in, the madness does not wait and the shadows pursue you even when the clock stops ticking.
Join the dark side
After you start turning in the artifacts to the Collector, you will receive another set of weapons in your arsenal. You will get mysterious powers that help you travel faster, fish more effectively, or stop the dark forces around you, which will prove very useful with each new region presenting a new and unique threat. But the strange powers come at a price of your sanity and sometimes even boat damage. If your boat gets destroyed, the game will reload to a nearby safe point, so you won’t lose everything. But there is no option to manually load a save so if you lose a valuable item, it’s gone.
During your search for the artifacts you learn about the story behind them and behind the whole area through encounters with different characters, by finding messages in bottles, and by interacting with dark obelisks. The writing and the sound design are simple, yet work perfectly to create a sinister atmosphere, where mysteries are hiding behind each corner, danger is always nearby and yet you feel compelled to explore the whole map to not miss any piece of the puzzle. If you were to speed through the main quest, Dredge is a relatively short game, but if you want to discover all the fish and go through all the side quests, which really help build up the spooky atmosphere of the game, you get about fifteen hours of tight and highly enjoyable gameplay. Some might still say that it’s not enough, considering the price of the game, but I personally can’t remember the last time a game pulled me in so much. The narrative is very compelling and the mix of relaxing fishing, exploration, and Lovecraftian horror works exceptionally great together. My only complaint is that the two endings the game offers do not require a much different approach. To avoid spoilers I won’t go into details, but I was able to change the outcome of the game by making just slightly different decisions and I would much prefer if the good ending was locked behind larger decisions, for example, avoiding using dark powers.
Even though I am not an avid fisherman, nor a big horror fan, Dredge won me over with its combination of satisfying gameplay loop and spooky atmosphere. I can wholeheartedly recommend the game to everyone who is tired of recycled AAA titles and is looking for a breath of fresh air with a rather short, but unique experience.