Say what you want about eldritch fishing sim Dredge, there’s no denying that it understands cosmic horror. Sometimes, that’s evident in the evocative eeriness squirming just below its disarmingly pristine waters. Sometimes, it’s in how powerfully the game shows why a real clock-watcher of a day shift could easily lead you to pissing around with eldritch artefacts, just to shake things up a bit. At its best, Dredge’s waters teem with promise and mystery, veering from the satisfying numbness of chill, repetitive tasks to exploring a dangerous and fascinating setting. At its worst, this cursed expedition feels far too much like work.
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You play as a nameless, faceless fish fancier, out to make their fortune in a far-flung archipelago known as ‘The Marrows’. Things start out simple enough. You’ll sail about, catching fish through a perfunctory, vaguely synapse-tickling minigame. You’ll return to the nearby town, sell your catch, and buy new equipment that lets you fish different waters. You’ll speak to a few ominously folksy locals. You’ll maybe pick up a sidequest or two, rewarding you with materials to research new trawling tech. It’s the same pleasant, narcotic loop a lot of work sims attempt to lull you into – the sort of thing I’d describe as a podcast game, if the music and atmosphere of Dredge wasn’t itself absolutely worth taking in fully.
There’s just one catch (this can be a fishing pun if you want it to be): When night falls, happenings in the archipelago start to become altogether stanger. Bizzare illuminations litter the inky horizon. Apparitions haunt your periphery. You can brave the darkness, sure. Maybe upgrade your lamps. Perhaps you’ll find a rare catch – hopefully before it finds you. Your ship can be destroyed in rare circumstances, but it’s more likely any mishap will simply damage your components, forcing you to repair them next time you’re at a shipyard. Sometimes, your engine goes out, and you’re made to glacially crawl back to the nearest port. It’s an agonizing gateway to madness that sells the theme a bit too hard.
So, you potter around the marrows for a bit. Upgrade your boat. Maybe catch some crabs. Make a little coin. Soon enough, you’ll find yourself visiting a crusty collector of curiosities, who tasks you with finding a particular item lost in a shipwreck. Return it, and you’ll be rewarded with a hint of the unsettling truths that await you beyond the small part of the map you’ve already explored. You’ll also be rewarded with ‘Haste’ – the first of what are, effectively, spooky super powers to help you explore more dangerous places. This one gives you a quick boost of speed, but will burn out your engines if overused. Later, you’ll be granted teleportation, a protective aura, and more.
That Haste ability is the first hint of one of Dredge’s problems: moving your ship around feels oddly floaty and sluggish, even with the power granted by this skill. This would be completely fine in a game just about exploration and simulation, but Dredge also wants to impart the sense of a physically dangerous world, complete with hazards, narrow tunnels in cliff faces, and the occasional pursuing monster. It’s a double edged swordfish. On the one hand, the initial sluggishness of your boat lends Dredge the poignant sense of vulnerability of a good survival game. Upgrades become crucial to venture outside the starting area with any success, and the sense of progression in the initial hours feels meaningful and satisfying.
On the other hand, though, Dredge just isn’t very enjoyable to control, even beyond the deliberate sense of upgrading an old clunker of a boat into something swifter and more durable. I feel there’s a theoretical version of Dredge that purely involves navigating menus, one that does away with the rubber duck bobbing in a bath-ass feeling of driving your boat, and one that adds more depth and choice to its many, often well written, story events. That’s not what Dredge is, though, and this combination of the much more successful narrative adventure game and simulation elements with dull skill based navigation makes for an experience as draining as it is fascinating.
It doesn’t help that Dredge soon reveals its spread of quests to consist almost entirely of find thing, fish thing, bring thing back, before upgrading to doing the same, but you’re being chased by something. I realise I’m griping about a fishing game making you do too much fishing, but despite a few small minigame alterations, angling in Dredge is more or less the exact same thing, whether you’re ten minutes in, or ten hours. For such a core component of the game – arguably, the core component – there’s bafflingly little complexity, strategy, skill, decision making, or, like, just good old fashioned fun to be found here.
You know what is fun? The game’s take on inventory Tetris. Since nighttime is where the bad things live, you’re always on a timer in Dredge, the daylight hours tick down unless you’re docked. This goes for fishing, too, but crucially, the timer pauses while you try to find space in your cargo hold to cram in your latest catch in a limited share of tiles. It’s a small thing, but an incredibly nice touch. As is the way the fish wiggle sloppily as you move them across the grid.
Dredge’s presentation continues to astound and delight as you play, becoming the main motivator to push on long after its well of systems have run dry. It’s both gorgeously weird and weirdly gorgeous, from its bubbling, fuggy mangrove swamps to Pompeii-esque ruins where volcanic veins sear the seabed. It’s tempting, sometimes, to ignore its deeper mysteries altogether. To live a blissfully quiet life fishing the same spots, to hide from the darkness every night. You won’t, of course. Like any Lovecraftian protagonist worth their salt, you’ll keep digging for dark secrets. Some reveal deep truths. Others, just frustratingly shallow limits.
Dredge releases on March 30 for Playstation 5, Playstation 4, Xbox X|S, Xbox One, Switch and PC. This review was conducted on Steam.
A beautifully decorated vessel that runs well for the first few hours, before revealing itself to be a bit of an old clunker, the experience of playing Dredge doesn’t line up with the promise of its enchantingly strange presentation.
- Enchanting presentation with a wide variety of gloriously strange sealife
- Initially satisfying progression systems
- A genuine sense of mystery and possibility
- Repetitive quest design
- Fishing itself gets dull quickly
- Traversing the world is sluggish and uninteresting before upgrades, and oddly frictionless after