My experience with DREDGE can be neatly encapsulated by describing a single moment. I was sailing around behind the town of Greater Marrow, catching flounders, and enjoying the calm sea and nice air. Then my hook caught and pulled up a flounder that was little more than a lump of mutated flesh. A Cyclopean Flounder, its head a pulsating mass. Suddenly, the water didn’t feel so calm; the air didn’t feel so nice. Something is wrong here.
This is DREDGE‘s greatest strength. Its core loop will fool you into thinking you’re playing a nice, relaxing life simulator. Catch some fish, upgrade your gear, enjoy the sights. Then you’ll hook something up or the sun will go down and you’ll realise things aren’t so nice. There’s eldritch in my life simulator.
Hook, Line and Ew
DREDGE starts with a fisherman taking an angling job in the town of Greater Marrow. His illustrious new career begins with him crashing into some jagged rocks. Starting as we mean to go on. Thankfully, we’re rescued and handed a new ship, with the instructions to haul in enough fish to pay off the debt. A sweet deal, frankly, because DREDGE‘s scenery is gorgeous. There’s a painted feel to the graphics that makes sailing into the deep blue a continuously enjoyable experience. Paired with the gentle music, the sight of leaping dolphins and the ambient sounds, it’s easy to get into a relaxing groove.
The main gameplay loop helps with this as well. You catch fish, at various depths, then haul them back to the nearest fishmonger to get your gold. Once you’ve paid off your debt, you’re free to spend the cash on upgrading your boat. Different fish require different rods or nets, so the more money you pour into your boat, the more you can get from fish. Space in the hold is limited, so you’ll naturally navigate to the pricier fish. This, and the main story quest, encourages exploration of the surrounding islands. It felt quite organic. Most islands I visited because I’d exhausted the pools of nearby fish and materials, rather than strictly following my quest log.
But, lest we forget, we can never fully relax. Mutated fish start popping up early on and catching a fish with a set of bloody, human teeth isn’t something you forget in a hurry. What’s more, when the sun goes down the veil is lifted completely. Trust me on this: upgrade the boat’s lights. The darkness makes us panic, causing us to see shapes in the fog. I dismissed this at first, thinking it a figment of a panicked mind, until I blasted my horn and it echoed back out of the fog. I watched as a shadow of my ship came towards me, only for it to morph into a giant angler fish and disable my engines. My hubris ended with me limping back home, praying to whatever God oversees small fishermen.
DREDGE isn’t scary exactly, but seeks to get under the skin. It certainly burrowed under mine. Though it wouldn’t have worked if DREDGE wasn’t so well-rounded. Controlling the ship feels smooth, ensuring that every hull breach was my own stupid fault. The different mechanics all link together well too. Bigger upgrades take up more cargo space, meaning less room for fish, so choices come with a trade off. I don’t normally like inventory systems that force you to manage space, but DREDGE handles it well. Every fish has a slightly different shape, turning each voyage into a game of stinky Tetris.
That being said, there are a few mechanics that could’ve pushed the envelope a bit more. The first is crucial: the fishing itself. Fishing has a lot of potential when it comes to creepiness. A small hook descending down into the black, otherworldy ocean where anything could grab hold. I was a little disappointed when I drove over a fishing spot and was greeted with a simple quick time event. It may be a compromise due to the sheer amount of fishing involved, but it feels like it’s missing a trick. Hooking a deformed monstrosity would be a lot spookier if we could see it squelching towards our hook.
The second is the questing. Throughout the ocean there are many individuals, all in need of a fisherman. Before I gripe, I will say that I like the writing. Each character feels distinct and they deliver the requisite ominous dialogue well. There were even hints towards the endings layered in the dialogue, which reflected decent writing, even if the endings didn’t quite cash that cheque. Yet every quest we get is a simple fetch quest. Even the main story is just an elongated one of these. Given the tools on our boat (like the horn), I’d hoped for a little more diversification. At one point, I was talking to a soldier about how his comrades had been massacred by beasts lurking in the mangrove swamps, only for him to promptly send me off to catch a catfish.
Quite A Catch
Marrying together fishing simulator and Lovecraftian nightmare is a difficult task but DREDGE pairs the two well. The day is spent gathering fish, cash and materials but the mutants make it so you can’t fully relax. The night is a panicked drive through tumultuous water, but the nice graphics and variety of night-time fish means it never gets old. The gameplay loop is the thread that keeps it all together. Admittedly, this may lead to something of a niche audience. It’s aiming for players who enjoy life simulators and then the subset of those that enjoy eldritch abominations.
Thankfully, I fall squarely into this niche and as a result I thoroughly enjoyed my time with DREDGE. Every time I stop playing, I itch to get back into it, just to see what variety of monstrous fish will be dragged up next. I’m impressed that this is Black Salt Games’ debut title. DREDGE is a wonderfully well-rounded game that hooked me straight away. While there are a few areas that could’ve benefitted from some envelope-pushing, DREDGE is a perfect marriage between relaxing fishing and skin-crawling nightmares.