DREDGE, video game, box art, featured, sea, rocks, lighthouse, boat, waves

DREDGE review: it’s got me hooked

It’s an amazing feeling when you find a game that reels you in immediately.

DREDGE first came upon my radar during the Steam Next Fest back in October. Although the idea of a ‘single-player fishing adventure’ seemed a little strange, I decided to give Black Salt Games’ demo a try thanks to its mention of secrets and use of a lovely visual-style.

I wasn’t disappointed. Pete watched while I played and we both added the title our wishlists afterwards. It felt as though it would contain something for both of us: he’d enjoy the grind of catching fish and using the money made from selling them to upgrade the boat, while I’d look forward to the exploration and uncovering the mysteries of the deep. We picked up the full release as soon as it was available at the end of March.

The story begins when you find yourself washed up on the shores of Greater Marrow after crashing into the rocks during the evening before. Your boat is beyond repair, but the local mayor is happy to provide the ‘new town fisherman’ with an old vessel. He tells you to get out there and start catching fish to repay him for this gift, with a warning to keep an eye on the time and return before nightfall.

The Marrows region serves as a tutorial and the bubbles on the surface of the waves indicate somewhere you can cast your rod. The nice thing about DREDGE is that you never have to wait for a nibble and there are always fish ready to bite, so it isn’t a game which requires a huge amount of patience or inspires frustration. Once you’ve made a catch, new species will be added to your encyclopaedia so you can track progress towards collecting all 128 (although this isn’t a requirement).

Dredge, video game, screenshot, sea, island, boat, fishing

The fishing mechanic involves several types of mini-game where you have to press a button on the controller at the right moment to reel in. They’re not particularly difficult, but they do get a little faster when you’re trying to catch a rarer creature or pull up an underwater treasure. Black Salt Games have put some effort into making their project suitable for everyone, and the inclusion of several accessibility options including a ‘relaxed fishing mode’ where you’ll automatically succeed is thoughtful.

Once you’ve landed a catch, you’ll need to place it into the cargo hold on your boat so you can deliver it to a market or an inhabitant of the islands. Ensuring you have enough space is kind of like a round of Tetris. For example, mackerel only take up two squares and are easy enough to fit in, but larger species such as rays and sharks are much more awkward in shape – and you’ll occasionally come across something so big that you’ll need to get straight back to a dock to unload it.

Your catch will need to be organised around your equipment too as items such as engines, fishing rods and nets also take up space in the hull. This made DREDGE a great game for two people as it continuously inspired discussion: Pete and I had frequent conversations about what to leave behind in our storage locker, what we might need for our next trip, and what we could potentially discover. I guess you could refer to this release as a ‘cosy game’ during its daytime sections due to this fishing-inventory gameplay loop.

Having to throw something back to sea when you don’t have space available in your hold is disappointing, especially so if you’ve just caught a trophy fish or aberration. The latter are creatures which are horribly mutated in some way, featuring multiple heads or misshapen skeletons. There’s always elation when finding one as they’ll fetch more at market and complete another page in the encyclopaedia. But they also serve as a reminder that despite the perceived peacefulness of daytime, something is constantly lurking beneath the waves.

You’ll spend the 12 hours from 06:00 in the morning exploring, fishing and running various errands for the islands’ inhabitants. The money earned from completing these tasks can be used to purchase upgrades for the boat if you’re in need of better rods or more cargo space. But the mood begins to change once night descends. Thick fog rises from the water, jagged rocks appear out of nowhere, blinking eyes watch you from afar and strange columns of red light can be seen out at sea.

Dredge, video game, screenshot, fishing, boat, sea, night, eyes, panic

Leaving the dock in the evening can be dangerous and there were many times Pete and I came back with a damaged hull and worse as a result. You may be wondering why you’d risk going out there if there’s so much that could go wrong. But you’ll only see everything that DREDGE has to offer if you’re brave enough to sail in the darkness. Certain events (along with the rarest fish) only take place once the sun has set, and you’ll need to experience these to reach the end of the game.

The title’s voice-acting is limited to short exclamations and grunts, and dialogue with the inhabitants you meet is short. But the atmosphere created by Black Salt Games says so much more about DREDGE than any conversation with a non-player character (NPC) could. It’s the type of horror that slowly creeps up at you, makes small movements in the corner of your eye and then disappears as soon as it’s focused on directly. Each time you venture out at night, you wonder if the trip is really going to be worth the risk.

The longer you sail through darkness, the weirder things become. The eye at the top of the screen gives an indication of the protagonist’s state of mind and it will start to dart about when he’s feeling panicked. It gets harder to steer the boat in these situations but that’s not the only danger to watch out for. If you decide to push through and stay up until morning, a flock of squawking black birds will attempt to steel your catch or something infectious may wriggle its way on board.

You can combat the panic by adding more lights to your boat to cut through the fog. You’ll also come across books that the fisherman protagonist will passively read while sailing, granting bonuses to help you sail faster, catch fish quicker or become more resilient. Eventually though, the paranoia will become too much and you risk crashing or having the vessel ripped to shreds by some massive underwater creature. It’s therefore important to plan your trips carefully and make sure you know where the nearest dock is so you can recover.

During your adventure, you’ll discover someone on a remote island who calls himself the ‘Collector’. He tasks you with travelling all over the map to collect five ancient relics. This encourages the player to journey to new islands and catch new fish – but there are also new dangers to overcome and they aren’t always constrained to the night. The Collector will grant you a power each time you deliver a relic, including the ability to ‘dash’ across the water for a short period and immediately transport back to his location.

However, something is amiss. It’s hard to shake the feeling that he isn’t telling you everything, and that using these powers will come with a price. The story is pieced together through conversations with NPCs along with messages found in bottles floating out at sea. I thought I had it figured out around halfway through the game, but a twist revealed in one of the two endings managed to catch me off-guard and make my time with this release an even more fulfilling one.

DREDGE’s individual components give it everything it needs to be an adequate fishing game. But when combined, they turn it into something which is genuinely fascinating and addictive. Pete and I played at every available opportunity and for several hours each time until we’d completed it – and he didn’t even complain once about having to read in place of voice-acting. It’s safe to say that Black Salt Games’ horrors had him hooked just as much as me straight from the beginning.

I think this has been my favourite release of 2023 so far. There’s just something so melancholic about it that pulls at your emotions, the music complimenting this feeling wonderfully. The title of the game is absolutely perfect too – not only does conjure up images of a monster hiding beneath the waves, it hints at memories long forgotten and secrets best left undisturbed. The ending is incredibly fitting even though it isn’t the happiest, and I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about those murky depths out at sea for a while yet.

4 thoughts on “DREDGE review: it’s got me hooked

  1. Okay, you can stop with your propaganda campaign now. I’ll get the game, ok? You happy now? In return, you get DAVE the DIVER. Or Teslagrad. The latter has more puzzles.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.