DREDGE presents itself as a fishing/exploration game in the surface, with an obvious mystery lurking just beneath the surface, hiding in between the different islands you can travel to. I am the first to admit that I can hardly resist a game with a Lovecraftian vibe that seems to be well-made, and, as such, DREDGE immediately caught my eye. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with DREDGE and if you have an affinity for the strange and bizarre while yearning for exploration, then this game may be what you are looking for.
It is not a perfect game by any measure, and I will point out what I felt were, albeit small, shortcomings while playing the game. If you are reading this preview then the game has likely already caught your eye, and if it did, I’d bet you have a grand time, as long as you are not looking for an action game, that is. It’s obvious to me that Black Salt Games knew what they wanted to do, and that they focused on atmosphere first and foremost, which I applaud.
You can get your hands on DREDGE by pre-ordering it or waiting for release on March 30th on Steam, for USD $24.99. Also coming for Switch, PlayStation 5 and 4, and Xbox Series and One on the same date.
Story – A Strange Job, From a Strange Town
Aligning itself with its indie feel, DREDGE aims to keep things simple, as far as story goes. It’s presented through a short introduction, showing a nameless fisherman braving through the storm in open sea, with a job posting taken from some newspaper about a wanted fisherman. After this short introduction, the screen fades to black and you are thrown into the game. You are met by the Mayor of this town, called Greater Marrow, who explains that you crashed against the rocks that surround the town, so they had to rescue you.
Once it’s stablished that you are in town to take the fisherman position, the Mayor provides you with a new ship, for which you’ll be paying a percentage out of each fish sale you make in town. You can get around this by selling fish on other towns, but this one being the main town, you’ll want to cover that debt sooner rather than later.
As time goes by, you start meeting some more characters in town and from other towns. Each character you meet has either a side quest or an interesting mechanic or characteristic that makes them either useful, interesting or both. All of these characters will ask and remind you not to fish out at night, and not to stay awake for a long period of time, lest you start to become paranoid.
You soon start to realize that the waters hide hideous fish mutations, sunken ships, treasure, materials and something… else, stranger, ancient and indescribable, all right beneath its waves. As it is customary with these types of tales, there is a mysterious stranger that seems to know more than meets the eye. This mysterious stranger is pulling unseen strings in order to compel you to find some items in the water. As you help him, he uses his strange presence to bestow useful powers on you, which makes the game progress a lot more easily.
Gameplay – Fish, Explore, Rinse, Repeat
That heading may make it sound like the game is repetitive to a fault, but if you are decent at planning, it doesn’t have to be. There is definitely a grind component to the game, as you will need money to upgrade your boat and acquire the necessary tools to explore the more dangerous zones. However, once you learn how to fish passively, then it can become quite simple.
The game can be divided into three main activities: Fishing, exploring and managing your inventory. Once the activities click for you and you find the balance between all these, that’s when the game really shines.
You are going to be fishing a lot. Luckily, the folks at Black Salt Games managed to make it not tedious and even enjoyable. There are different kinds of water types, and different fishes can be found on different types of water. Sometimes a particular fish will only be available in a certain type and depth, or sometimes it can be found in multiple types. Some fish you can find day and night, and sometimes they are bound to only one of those. Luckily you have your trusty encyclopedia to help you keep track of each one.
You can only fish in the type(s) of water you have an specific rod or net for. You can load more than one rod to your boat, but they take up storage space and sometimes come in odd shapes, so there is some planning involved, as you don’t want to go out in the water without enough space for your catch.
Once you’ve located the disturbed water, be it by the naked eye or by using your telescope, you need to position yourself on it, and then start fishing. The rods will reel automatically but each time there is a minigame that you can play to accelerate the reeling speed. However, if you miss the mark, then you are going to lose significant time and daylight. The minigames themselves also vary, there’s only a handful of them. Still, they are varied enough as to keep you entertained.
There are several different locations and characters spread along the waters in DREDGE, and in exploring these waters is where the bulk of the game is. As you manage to upgrade your equipment and boat, the faster and farther you can get, and you’ll find all sorts of characters by doing so. The main characters will find you, so there’s no need to explore to get things going, but there is typically a reward to exploring and acquiring quests or just finding some sunk treasure or a new kind of fish.
The world in DREDGE is very well-designed, to the point where approaching already explored places from a different place or at a different times of the day/night can reveal something that you hadn’t yet seen. A lot of the characters you find will ask something of you, with some of them being useful to move the story forward. And while the rest may not provide some useful tool or tip for you to complete the story, they will reward you with something interesting regardless.
All in all, exploring in DREDGE is a pleasure. It can be unforgiving if you go on too long or too deep into the night, but that is also part of the charm. Paying attention to the subtle clues you may find around particular areas is also instrumental to your survival.
Managing and Upgrading
As you move forward finding different types of gear and a stronger hull, you can venture deeper into the ocean and find rarer, bigger, and/or more valuable fish in your travels. Upgrading your hull increases your storage space, but you can also pay to increase it further. You’ll learn to be mindful of the space you are embarking with according to the particular fish you may be looking for, and you’ll learn to best manage said space.
The outer areas of the map will require you to have specialized gear, such as special rods or explosives, to be able to fish in them or find something in them. You will also use the storage space you have at the harbors you dock in, and this space is just enough to keep you on your toes and deciding what to save and what to get rid of.
Graphics & Sound – A Fine Line Drawn
You may think that DREDGE doesn’t look graphically impressive. And you may be right, depending on what you consider impressive. There are certainly no photo realistic scenarios or anything of the sort, but it is not needed. Not every game needs groundbreaking graphics and this is certainly one that takes advantage of the art style it chose.
The cartoony look works great when all the elements are put together and it creates a believable world. The human characters you can see in the world are pretty limited, with the images of the people you usually talk to appearing during the dialogues only, but the ones that do show up don’t break the immersion the background creates.
The different aquatic denizens you can find, be it normal, mutated, monstrous or gargantuan all look well enough, with some of them being terrifying to look at, when you consider you don’t necessarily have a way to defend yourselves from them.
The music is also tranquil, ideal for a fishing/exploring setting out at sea, and I found it enjoyable, albeit a tiny bit repetitive. The sounds effects for your different tools such as rods or the dredge are also well done, so there is no complaint on my side for side effects. The game doesn’t have a lot of voice acting, with most, if not all dialogue being written with the characters letting out sighs and grunts only. Whether the game could be best fully voice or not, I can’t say, but do be prepared to read quite a bit.
As our very own Frances Addison points out, there is a significant challenge in making a good Lovecraftian game, however DREDGE manages to combine it’s graphic style, music and sound design, and story, cryptic as it is, to create an atmosphere that is both tranquil and nerve-racking at different times, and borderline upsetting most of the time, which is a thin line to draw. Luckily Black Salt Games does manage to walk it gracefully.
DREDGE was previewed on PC, with a key provided by Team 17.