Punishing, unsettling, and captivating are not the words I thought I’d be using to describe Dredge when I first loaded it up on my Xbox Series S. With a fun and gentle introduction to its fishing mechanics, set against the backdrop of the picturesque yet slightly obscure fishing town of Greater Marrow, I thought I’d settle in for a few hours with a cosy fishing sim that will chip away at a semi-interesting narrative as I went. Oh how wrong I was.
I was not expecting such an accomplished adventure from what is the debut game of Black Salt Games, a New Zealand-based team of just four developers. Dredge really punches above its perceived weight with amazing world building and exploration, strong storytelling, and a great gameplay loop.
Dredge begins just as I’d initially anticipated, with clear skies, idyllic visuals, and an island fishing town of helpful locals who help you (a fisherman) get back on your feet with a new boat after yours was wrecked on the nearby rocks. Your opening 20 minutes or so are spent getting to grips with the game’s fishing and dredging mechanics, and your boat happily bobs around the town’s bay. It’s all rather lovely. The only thing close to sinister is the warning to return to the safety of the docks before nightfall, as there are some mysterious goings on out on the waters after the sun sets.
How will you know when to call time on your fishing trip? Well, Dredge operates on a sped-up, 24-hour day-night cycle. While the clock will only advance if your boat is moving or you’re doing an activity such as fishing, each 24-hour window probably lasts on average about 3-5 minutes. Of course, with the night time being billed as ominous and dangerous, you can reach the docks and choose to sleep through until sunrise the next day.
So, as you venture out each day to haul in some fish, and sell them to the local fishmonger to pay off your debts to the town after they loaned you this new boat, everything feels very wholesome and relaxing. The only real early challenge is squeezing all the fish into your cargo hold, which is an Escape From Tarkov-like gridded inventory where you have to make all different shapes and sizes of fish, materials, and items fit together.
However, this is far from the true reality of Dredge. As you begin to upgrade your boat and start venturing further and further from the safety of the bay (which you’ll want to do with the way new, undiscovered islands lure you in from the horizon) you’ll start to experience Dredge’s true Lovecraftian setting. Shafts of red light cutting through the black sky, ghostly-looking ships that briefly appear between islands, and someone (or something) that will repeat back the sound of your foghorn from way off in the distance.
Gradually, the weirdness – of both your surroundings at night, and the behaviour of some of the locals – will ramp up, and you’ll eventually come across the Collector, who serves you the game’s main quest line.
This main questline will send you off to each corner of Dredge’s map, where you’ll meet certain characters, upgrade your equipment to be able to fish in new environments, and face increasingly sinister and challenging barriers to your progress.
The way Dredge urges you to sail that little bit further and try and squeeze in one more catch before the sun sets is its greatest strength – and it’s also the thing that will, eventually, land you in trouble.
Dredge loves to punish carelessness, complacency, and overconfidence, forcing you to reconsider the plans for your next voyage. The sea is a cruel mistress and in Dredge, that’s never been more true.
Even if you remove all the excellent world building and creativity, at its heart, Dredge is a very good fishing sim. I was taken aback by the depth of the equipment and ship upgrades you could make, and at just how many different species you can catch. As well as actual species like barracuda, sailfish, or conger eels, you may also come across bizarre, deformed variants of them that appear to have been corrupted by Dredge’s dark forces.
While you do have an encyclopaedia to document all the species you catch, I would have loved some kind of aquarium system, a la Animal Crossing, for the true collector’s experience, but that’s a rather selfish ask given the size of the game’s development team and all the content Dredge already has to offer.
The only main criticism I really have from a gameplay perspective is the dredging mechanic, which is used to obtain treasures and materials from shipwrecks and the sea floor. With its fairly fast rotating circles, I personally found it quite straining on my eyes to follow at times. There are also a couple of instances in more built-up spaces where the camera won’t quite behave as you want it to, leading to you colliding with something and often losing cargo space or items you were already carrying as a consequence.
While I’ll try to avoid spoilers here, I was also a tad let down by the conclusion of Dredge. There are alternate endings (the two that I’ve played both had their merits) but I had hoped that I’d be a bit more involved in a big final gauntlet of some kind, which wasn’t the case.
Overall though, I absolutely loved my time with Dredge. While I didn’t tick every side quest off my list, and there are still plenty of blank pages in my encyclopaedia, I got around 15 hours of really enjoyable action out of the game. Not only was it enjoyable, but it completely threw me with how it urges you into exploration, and lures you into situations that it loves to punish in a sinister yet meaningful way.
Dredge manages to be both cosy, creepy, and captivating all at the same time. While there are plenty more games to come this year, I’m confident it will remain as one of my favourite plays of 2023.
Dredge – Xbox Series S
Dredge manages to layer great exploration, a punishing and ominous gameplay loop, and an intriguing story on top of a very good fishing sim. It constantly and expertly switches between wholesome and haunting, and is definitely worth a play despite a few small issues.