What Sound Upon The Midnight Air?
Fishing simulators are generally considered to be relaxing endeavors, where you kick back, crack a cold one, and pretend you’re on the river. Taking things a step further and embarking out on the boat itself—with crab pots and all—screams Deadliest Catch. While the danger can still be found, jamming together some rather interesting mechanics and tossing in a dash of cosmic horror takes things to a whole new level. Dredge, from Black Salt Games and Team17, not only thoroughly surprised me right out the gate with its fulfilling gameplay cycle, but blew me out of the water with its marriage of mechanics—much like the ungodly bottom-dwellers you spend your time reeling up.
After your boat sinks on the open water, you’re given a new trawler on loan from the mayor of Greater Marrow—your main base for the beginning portions of the game. From here you begin to meet all of the dark, reserved characters across the various islands of this region, where mysteries and questions look to be solved and answered. Clearly, something isn’t adding up, but until you’re able to put the pieces together, you’ll just have to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Even though Dredge is steeped in classic cosmic horror and could have gone deep with its story, it instead decides to leave the player hanging for a majority of the game—slowly trickling out clues here and there while never truly answering anything. While this allowed for the gameplay and RPG mechanics to take center stage, I wanted there to be more and more revealed, but Dredge sticks to its principles and leaves you to wonder, matching with the setting of the open ocean and pure fear of what could be lurking underneath. A detriment, typically, but one that works out for Dredge.
Graphically, Dredge utilizes a lower resolution look, but nothing about this game looks old or unkempt. The Nintendo Switch runs Dredge splendidly, with no real hiccups at all. Load times are a bit long, but you’re almost never in a loading screen outside of the first opening of the game due to the player constantly being on the open ocean. The soundtrack keeps things eerie throughout while making sure you hear every odd growl and break in the water to make sure you’re never entirely comfortable with your situation.
The gameplay loop is simple but meshes enough minor mechanics throughout to keep each trip from water to dock one that doesn’t bore in the slightest. Heading out, you find bubbling patches across the top of the water where you can stop your vessel and fish away. In order to catch the fish, quick-time events are used where timing out a button press reels the fish in quicker. There are a few variations on this formula, but all in all, each time you fish it’s just that simple. From there, loading up your catch into your boat consists of a grid where you can rotate the fish to fit best alongside your motors, rods, and lights—think Tetris, without the falling blocks. All fish are shaped differently, so making a diverse catch fit properly can take some practice, but you quickly find out how satisfying it is to get a full load to return back to town with. That’s the basic loop you can expect from Dredge.
From there, things can get a bit more interesting. Dredging is a big part of the game, where shipwrecks can offer resources like wood and scrap metal that can be used to upgrade your ship. These resources, along with research tokens, allow you to unlock bigger and better motors, various types of tackle, different fishing methods, and so on. Some even give you strange powers, which can be very useful as you progress, so being thorough is a must. These upgrades are vital to being able to get around and catch the different types of fish that require specific rods. As you start the game, your ship is really slow and can barely make it across the bay before night sneaks up on you, so pursuing these upgrades means more fish, more areas to discover, and less time wasted.
This brings us to a major mechanic of Dredge: time. Each day offers 24 hours to work where you’re more than welcome to work through the night day after day, but once nighttime rolls in, you’ll have to decide if you’d like to continue fishing or head back home. After dark, a sanity meter pops up which increases the longer you’re out or when you come across some eerie things that start to occur. The more insane you get, the more you’ll start to see things, so returning to port is crucial so you can sleep (which returns your sanity meter to zero), make money, and repeat. Some fish and events can only be found at night, so you’ll have to eventually venture out whether you like it or not, but it’s at these times Dredge really comes into its own, departing from the relaxing fishing game to reveal Cthulhu-esque frights.
With over 125 types of fish to catch, plenty of side quests, and lots of islands to explore, Dredge offers a good amount of content for players to sink their teeth into. For those who would want to just mainline the story, you’d still be looking at around 10 hours of gameplay, while easily doubling that when going for a completionist route. One of the few downsides is that some of the side quests are on a timer, meaning you can fail them if you start them too soon and can’t meet the necessary criteria for completion. Otherwise, everything is pretty laid back from start to finish (minus the constant impending sense of dread the mix of open ocean and cosmic horror gives the player).
Dredge takes the simple fishing simulator formula and layers on just enough new mechanics to make the gameplay loop a spectacular experience from start to finish. The constant fear and impending sense of dread make sure you’re always uncomfortable, making Dredge a master class in the subtlety of horror. Even though the story never comes out and explains everything that’s happening, it does enough to make sure you can put it together, while relying on the journey you’ve made for yourself to stand tall. All in all, Dredge is one of those near-perfect indie games—it accomplishes everything it sets out to do, keeps the player entertained throughout, and manages to be innovative in an industry filled with games for us to play.