It’s past midnight, and you’ve been at it for hours on end. Your eyes are bleary and your mind is wavering. You think you’re seeing things that aren’t really there. You could probably push your limits just a little bit further, but there’s a pang of anxiety in your gut that fears this one last foolish run could be the one that finally gets you. This is the cycle of Dredge.
For dozens of in-game nights, I puttered my rickety fishing boat out into deep, dark seas of Dredge, eager to push on through the pitch black to try to procure the specific fish and the salvage I needed to keep pursuing the mysterious goals of my unseen protagonist. For several real-world nights, I too physically pushed myself to stay up late, past the point of exhaustion, because the seas of Dredge had such a hold on me. The lure of the unknown had hooked my curiosity for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time. I felt attached to this sinister world. Or perhaps, the sinister world had eerily attached itself to me?
In Dredge, your unseen protagonist pilots a fishing boat. You never leave the boat – the boat is you. Washing up on a township one day, you’re asked to go fishing to repay the mayor for a kindness, but it soon becomes clear that something is not right about this town. Something is not right about the seas and islands that surround it. There’s an unspoken past here, and something fishy is definitely going on. Upon repaying your debt, you’re compelled to keep fishing in order to fund your expeditions further out, to try and tease out just what kind of ungodly things have happened in this land.
But as you putter around the waters of Dredge to find and catch fish to sell, on top of hauling in salvage and raw materials to upgrade your boat, the clock keeps ticking. And while there are different species of fish to find at different times of day, when day turns into night, strange things begin to happen in the dark – especially when you start to get tired.
You might begin to see silhouettes and strange auras. Rocks might suddenly appear where you thought – you swear – there were none before. Your floodlights might begin to fail mysteriously. You might begin to lose your mind a little, and those silhouettes might not be in the form they first appeared anymore.
If you manage your day and routine carefully, resting regularly, you’ll probably be fine. But lose track of time while fishing – the timing based mini-games to reel in your catch are simple, but strangely compulsive and moreish – and you’ll find yourself further from safe harbour than you wanted to be when night falls. So you have to brave the dark, and pray for the best.
The undercurrent of Dredge is impressively ominous. The eldritch undertones only lightly brush the surface of the game, leaving enough of a mark to give you a faint sense of what might be going on, but not enough to let you in on the secret, let alone burden you. There’s some incredibly tantalising worldbuilding here – your conversations with various townsfolk and inhabitants of the world, as well as the writing that decorates items, events, and things you come across in the world are brief but evocative. Enough to keep you hooked. Enough to keep you going.
Go fishing. Sell your catch. Upgrade your ship. Push further abroad. Repeat religiously. Like the worldbuilding, each mechanical element in Dredge feels expertly tuned to keep you perfectly satisfied and strung along, wanting to keep taking that next step, and another, and another, so you can keep peeling back the layers of the onion.
Piloting your small boat across the seas and listening to the waves splash against the sides is inherently satisfying. Getting excited at discovering a particularly lucrative fishing spot – one that hosts just the right kind of salvage you need, or a high-value species – makes you feel fiendish. Managing your haul, done by playing a game of inventory Tetris akin to the grid-based inventory of Resident Evil, is an all-consuming, gratifying task.
Sometimes, unspeakable horrors will threaten your catch. Often at night, and sometimes in the day if you’ve become particularly obsessive and let your protagonist become overtired. But sometimes, you manage to catch a quiet sunrise, and you can’t help but stare in awe at how beautiful the infinite maw of the sea can be. These moments of calm can be a real boon in healing your psyche. Thank god for the daylight.
Dredge is a masterclass in atmosphere, worldbuilding, tactile mechanics, and game flow. Like all good sinister stories, by the time you get to the end of the line, you might wish you had never kept going. But in Dredge, it’s impossible not to.
5 Stars: ★★★★★
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4
Developer: Black Salt Games
Release Date: 30 March 2023
The PC version of DREDGE was provided and played for the purposes of this review.