James Stephanie Sterling
Dredge - Thanks For All The Fish (Review)
Released: March 30, 2023
Developer: Black Salt Games
Publisher: Team 17
Systems: PC, PS4/5, Switch (reviewed), Xbox One/XS
Fishing isn’t my usual wheelhouse, unconducive as it is to the dopamine craving of someone with a notable deficit of the stuff. It takes patience, concentration, and a whole lot of doing nothing, all of which is poison to my brain, and this extends to videogames based on the activity. That said, I’ve had plenty of fun with engrossing enough fishing minigames, and I’ll play pretty much anything if there’s an intriguing enough twist on its genre. This is where Dredge comes in.
Dredge is, at its core, a fishing game. You sail on the open waters, you fill your boat with fishies, and you sell them all off to afford superior equipment. Oh, and sometimes you pull up mutated perversions of your aquatic merchandise - salmon dripping inky black ooze from their mouths, red snappers so full of blood it leaks from behind their scales, eels caught in a tug of war between the heads at each end of their bodies. Bad stuff happens at night, when things really start to get spooky and dangerous. Fishing may be the foundation of Dredge, but a horror game has been lavishly built over the top of it, a distinctly Lovecraftian tale of mysterious relics, sinister whispers, and corruption beneath the waves.
It’s the most compelling horror-themed fishing game since Killer Bass.
The entirety of the game is played via direct control of the boat, which handles quite nicely - it’ll move in the direction the stick is pushed, and aside from just enough momentum to make rocky waters sufficiently challenging, it’s responsive and easy enough to steer that navigation's a breeze. The core loop involves setting out from various docks and venturing ever further into a sea that gets more threatening - and weirder - the further you go, with curious destinations in each of the map’s four corners. The water is littered with fishing spots, indicated by a bubbling surface with piscine prey circling below it. Your main job is, of course, nabbing these fish and bringing them back to the town of Greater Marrow or nearby merchant ships in order to sell them.
Acquiring said fish is fairly straightforward and a far cry from the methodical mundanity of a true fishing simulator. Fish are caught one by one via timing minigames - each one is slowly reeled in, and you catch them quicker by correctly hitting targets at the right moment. Reeling them in as fast as possible is important, since an in-game day flies by rapidly and the ocean’s threats won’t wait until you’re done.
The minigames take a handful of forms depending on what’s being caught - sometimes the marker will race along a circular track marked with target areas, sometimes you’ll be waiting to line up a growing ring with an outline, or you may be required to move a dot up or down to avoid blockades on a rotating path. Whatever the goal, the mechanics are largely the same - you’re hitting a button at the right time, each failure making a catch take longer and eventually risking the fish’s escape.
Fishing is pretty easy in general - even the tougher catches are hard to consistently botch, and instances of fish escaping are so rare it happened to me once the entire game. Most mistakes are made when dusk falls, or the sound of something scary approaches, creating a sense of panic.
What’s more challenging is maintaining enough space for all your stuff. Taking quite a few cues from the original Resident Evil 4, your boat’s cargo hold is represented by a grid into which you slot items. While some fish only take up a single square, the majority of them require multiple slots. Every species has its own shape that must be accounted for - a fish that takes up three spaces might be L-shaped, while bigger ones can have all sorts of uneven edges that make them difficult to efficiently store. This “Item Tetris” makes up a huge part of the game, and while I never like seeing it in an action game where it’s just a distraction, the fact it’s woven into the challenge as an integral part of proceedings makes it far easier to swallow in Dredge. That said, navigating item menus can be rather slow, especially when having to manually transfer them from one inventory menu to another, such as when purchasing tools from a merchant or giving an NPC something. By the end of my time with the game, I was getting tired of shifting blocks from left to right.
Naturally, fish of varying species have their own value which can be higher or lower depending on a sample’s individual size, and aberrant versions of each creature brings in more money. NPCs visited at different locations may offer little quests, such as item deliveries or even transporting themselves from one place to another, provided you’ve the cargo space. Trinkets can be dredged up and sold to a specific merchant in the town of Little Marrow, and anything currently not in use may be moved to a storage space accessible from set locations.
The main quest involves acquiring relics for a mysterious islander who grants you powers with each find, such as the ability to temporarily hasten your boat or instantly warp back to his island. It’s worth getting at least two relics as fast as possible to obtain those two specific powers, since they’re bloody invaluable for travel and defense.
The story itself is well written, full of genuinely interesting mysteries and quaint characters. Dredge’s writing is best showcased in the encyclopedia biographies of every caught species, including their mutations. The entries for said aberrations are beautifully evocative, describing their grotesque forms and evidently painful existences with a level of detail that’s quite impressive given how short each description actually is.
As well as fish, you’ll be bringing up various materials from shipwrecks with which to upgrade your vessel, increasing its size and improving various gear such as engines to make the boat faster or lights to make risky night fishing all the less likely to involve crashing against rocks. Research parts, either dredged up or given as rewards for completing tasks for NPCs, can be spent on learning about new gear that can then be purchased from the shipyard, and sometimes you’ll be given books that grant passive skills. Upgrades soon become a major part of the game, as fish species are unique to certain types of water requiring specific rods or nets, while speed and hull space become more necessary as things progress. Acquiring the right materials proved frustrating for me at times, predominantly because I struggled to ever find bolts of cloth while I drowned in metal scraps. Upgrades also require the manual transfer and slotting of items, just in case you were worried there wasn’t enough of that.
Obviously, Dredge’s waters aren’t entirely relaxing, with horror elements providing a variety of threats to both the boat’s health and its precious cargo. From red-eyed crows that steal fish, to vicious leviathans giving chase, to vindictive little whirlwinds that can actually follow players, there’s plenty to be afraid of… and eventually annoyed by. Nightfall is when the ocean’s at its most threatening, and there’s a real level of tenseness out there if you decide not to safely dock and sleep until morning. Some fish can only be caught at night, but going after them means facing constant paranoia as you attempt to avoid and outsail whatever goes after you in turn. By no means is the daylight safe, but night is certainly when the risk versus reward gameplay comes into full effect.
While Dredge’s monsters and hazards are effective at wracking nerves, they’re likely to simply frustrate at times. Taking damage means gear breaking, inventory space shrinking, and cargo being lost, with damage sometimes feeling just straight up unavoidable. I keenly felt this when I finally caught a fish I needed for a quest after hours of playing, sailed all the way to the delivery point, and some crows manifested in broad daylight (not even at dawn like they usually do) to help themselves to it. Monsters can emerge right in front of you or otherwise sweep in from blind spots, and there’s some stuff that will just be impossible to evade. When Dredge wants to hurt you, it will hurt you with spiteful emphasis, and losing precious fish or upgrade materials through no real fault of your own can feel like you’ve been punished for playing.
I’ve reloaded a save quite a few times when I really didn’t feel like losing an important item was fair.
This doesn’t take away from how compelling the game otherwise is, and some may even like that level of punishment. While rushing through the main story and even upgrading the boat doesn’t take a massive amount of time, I spent several more hours playing than I ever needed to simply because the core fishing loop had effectively absorbed me. The speed of the minigames, the elation in capturing trophy fish, and the general sense of exploration was more than enough to keep my investment high, even during Dredge’s more annoying moments.
Added to that is some lovely hand drawn art for characters and fish. I especially love how sea creatures’ artwork wobbles and splats a little when you move it around. While the gameplay graphics are simplistic, they’re stylistically pleasant and colorful, and the fact you can start to tell which fish are catchable by watching their tiny models circling underwater speaks to how effective the visuals are at communicating with players. A soundtrack of mostly relaxing tunes and ambience really helps set the tone, and is especially welcome during the game’s more chilled out moments.
Dredge reeled me in to the point I sunk hours into it, and even if my patience floundered at times, the net experience was fun to tackle. While its content isn't stuffed to the gills, it’s hard to be crabby with a gameplay loop that had me hooked, and the intriguing horror angle perched on top of a swimmingly good adventure is worth wading into. It doesn’t have to fish for compliments, but since I’m trawling for puns and you’re probably salty about it, I’ll wave goodbye and say that Dredge isn’t crappie. Sea you later!