I have finally got around to reviewing Dredge. The Lovecrafting fishing game by Black Salt Games and Team17 has been available on PC and all consoles for over a week. The game takes inspiration from Howard Phillips Lovecraft lore and Sunless Sea, but is it a drudge?
In Dredge, you play as a fisherman who sails to the coastal town of Greater Marrow, an island in the centre of a distant archipelago, to work as a fisherman.
You quickly realise that the nights are littered with strange spectacles surrounded by mist. Rocks and islands appear and disappear, ghost ships, speed sharks, water spouts, ravenous crows, sea monsters, and paranoia dominate.
The archipelago is sparse, with very few residents and ports to stop at. However, these small islands sometimes have quests available and revolve around acquiring fish or dredging objects from the cold ocean floor.
Most of the story is revealed by finding messages in bottles. These messages are diary entries about a woman called J who moved to the archipelago with her fisherman husband. Disasters strikes and there is an unhappy ending for the couple.
I appreciate that at least it has a thin narrative to give you a reason to explore and fish, but I often was expecting more when I reached a port and talked to a new resident.
Each character usually gives you one quest or “pursuit,” as they are called in Dredge. There is hardly any dialogue, and once the quest is complete, there is little fanfare or sense of accomplishment. For example, there is a quest to find four rare fish. This took me a while to accomplish, and in the end, I got a couple of research tokens, and that’s it. You don’t even get any new equipment or fancy trophy to put in your boat.
Most of the time, the rewards are resources to upgrade your boat, research tokens or books. These books, once read, give permanent buffs like faster engines, quick fishing, and more resilience to the dread. Yet, they are mostly so small, like 10%, that they are unnoticeable.
The overall story isn’t particularly memorable or unique, which is surprising. As it draws so heavily from the Cthulhu Mythos that it becomes predictable. Even though I am not a fan of the mythos, I enjoy the themes they often portray. It is why I love Darkest Dungeon, Sunless Sea, and Fallen London despite not caring about Cthulhu.
It is good that Dredge’s gameplay is a least fun and addicting. You travel from island to island, completing quests, fishing, researching, and upgrading your boat.
A day and night cycle (which more games should have) impacts various factors, mostly what fish can be caught. Each action increases the time of day, such as fishing or installing new equipment on your boat. In the daytime, you can see further, and it is safer. While in the nighttime, it becomes harder to know what you are doing, and your dread meter slowly rises. Once this rises to a higher enough level, you see various hallucinations and monsters that try to sink your boat.
At the start of the game, the night can be dangerous. Careful planning has to be considered if you want to survive. As you get better at the game and upgrade your boat, you will spend more days and nights on the open sea, speeding across the waves, netting tons of fish like a rich person having a yacht party. This means all danger becomes non-existent, and while you may take damage occasionally to your boat, you will be so rich that it doesn’t matter, like in real life then.
As fishing is the focus part of the game, the developers have made several minigames to determine if you catch a fish. What makes fishing in this game different to others is that you can’t fail to catch a fish in Dredge. If you do nothing, you will eventually succeed, even if it takes all day. Completing the minigames speeds up the fishing progress, but it isn’t challenging. There is even an option in the menus to turn it off, which makes it even easier.
While I am glad they made it so you don’t have to spend hours retrying a failed attempt to catch a rare fish, it means that your progress is more about being in the right place at the right time than any actual skill. Even in Animal Crossing, the fishing takes a bit of skillfulness.
There is 125 fish to catch in Dredge, and many have aberrations. These versions are corrupted by dark forces and are worth more and rarer. At the time of writing this, I have caught about 110 different fish, and it has felt rewarding. The simple way of checking something off a checklist. It also means I have over $6,000 with nothing left to upgrade, except I am missing a few research items.
The economy in the game is unbalanced. At the start, you will struggle to repair your boat and buy upgrades, but at a certain point, the curve skyrockets, and you are making hundreds, if not nearly thousands, per day. They should have put some house you could buy, upgrade, and decorate with trophies. You have one, but you can’t do anything with it, and it is a spoiler if I mention more about it.
Even though Dredge is in the name, you won’t be doing much dredging. Dredging is required to find several relics, treasures, and resources, but if you don’t care about improving your boat, you could complete the game by only using it a handful of times. While I know they chose the name as it fits the theme and brings up connotations of dread and drudge, you would think it is more prominent.
…you will spend more days and nights on the open sea, speeding across the waves, netting tons of fish like a rich person having a yacht party.
Helping you out are relics, once given to a person called the Collector, give you special powers. They range from speeding up your boat in exchange for more dread, one that defends against attacks, to teleporting back to a particular spot on the map. The most helpful tools and power is the speed one and the telescope. The telescope helps you identify fish in the distance, even if it can be hard to use effectively, and the extra speed helps to get around the world much quicker.
The overall loop of fishing, visiting islands, researching, upgrading and completing quests is satisfying enough that you won’t really care about the story or your reason for being.
I always enjoy the cell-shaded look that Dredge is going for. It is reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, if not as detailed or nuanced as that game. It has broad strokes such as the water ripples, wind lines, and islands, if not what made that game fun to look at and explore. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is probably my favourite Zelda game, so I enjoyed playing a smaller scale of that in Dredge.
The 3D visuals mixed with 2D characters were a bit off-putting. They were well done enough to blend in with the rest of the visuals. However, I didn’t mind the 2D icons for items, fish, and objects.
It is worth mentioning that the game uses a Tetris-like space system. Considering the space when picking up fish and equipping your craft is important. You can rotate objects around and slot them to make pleasing space-saving shapes. The largest ship has quite a lot of space, but because the fish and equipment also increase, you often don’t notice the extra space you have.
I appreciate the little visual touches added to Dredge. I believe there are four different boats you can use. Which look progressively faster and more powerful. The net shows up visually along with your dredge crane, and the cargo is also displayed in boxes on the deck. The light emitting from your boat is a nice touch that adds atmosphere and cosiness to the fishing experience. It is also clear where you should fish, as schools of fish appear just below the service.
The creatures you can see in the game are pretty impressive. A pod of dolphins might swim along the boat, a whale might break the waves in front, and a flock of birds might fly overhead. Large fish try to attack you, gigantic tentacles emerge from below and crash down on you, and piranhas cling on. Meanwhile, if you stray too far into the open, a sea monster will attempt to eat you. This adds to the tension, but there isn’t enough there to make the seas not feel empty.
Dredge has quite a varied soundtrack. When sailing around, you will mostly only hear ambient sounds of the sea and boats. When you get to a location on the map, a track accompanies it. The travelling merchant who seems to be in four places at once or uses a fast boat is always accompanied by the same music track.
You won’t hear each often, and you don’t get too tired of it, meaning the game helps preserve that feeling of loneliness and exploration. That’s not to say some of the sound effects aren’t annoying. The same travelling merchant has annoying wood creaking sounds when you are on board that gets irritating after a short period.
There is no voice acting except grumbles which I prefer to badly voiced lines or lines you will skip anyway.
Overall, the small team have created a good soundscape, and while it can be sparse at times, it fits the overall theme, visuals, and style.
Dredge suffers in that the story is long and not very interesting. It makes up for this by allowing you to play the game continuously before choosing an ending. This means you can complete the fish list and see all the game has to over. This is a good move.
There are two endings in Dredge. Both can be watched at any time. If you haven’t given the story much attention may seem odd or anti-climatic.
I hope the developers add DLC in the future. There is one called the Blackstone Key that adds two items to Dredge. They both boost your early game progress, but I haven’t tried it and not worth the price. The game has tons of potential for more content in the future. Plenty of places present could have quests or locations added if they want to, and I hope they do.
The price of the game feels too much for what you are getting. You will have to squeeze out the value of exploring everywhere, completing all the quests, and getting all the fish. The game is fun, many will do this, but none is essential to the story, meaning the overall game feels overpriced for what you are experiencing.
I have looked forward to Dredge. It is one of those games you knew would probably be good just by looking a some of the media associated with it. I was not disappointed by my experience, and it lived up to some of my expectations if ending up being a more shallow experience than I predicted.
Overall, I hoped Dredge would be more like Sunless Sea with a fair challenge and 3D graphics. It isn’t, and the story and writing don’t come close, and while that is pretty dispiriting for me, many will enjoy their time with the game, and I did after getting over that initial disappointment.
Developer: Black Salt Games.
Platform: Xbox Series X.
System: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S and X.
Release: 30th March 2023.
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