We’ve known since Shadow over Innsmouth that fishing and Lovecraftian horror are inseparable. In games, the combination is no less rare, think of the Call of Cthulhu games or the fishing village from Bloodborne ‘s DLC. Combining the verb fishing and horror is a bit rarer. Sunless Sea tried it first and did so successfully, but that was already 8 years ago. The new ambassador candidate has arrived in the meantime: Dredge. Can Black Salt Games break into this niche market of horror fishing sim with its very first title? We’re taking the boat and leaving our sanity for good to bring you this review!
Darkness, emprising me…
Whoever mentions HP Lovecraft or the corruption Lovecraftian immediately knows what to expect. Esoteric plotlines, dark magic, an obscure cult, and horror so horrific the human brain isn’t even armed to comprehend it. It is no different in Dredge , although this time we are very poorly armed: our nameless main character just washes ashore in the picturesque Great Marrow without any memory whatsoever . The local mayor sees this and of course decides to seize this opportunity to force you to work to pay off unsolicited debts. You get a boat (or at least the legal minimum to fit the term) and one assignment: fishing.
There is an eel below the surface: the seas are no longer favorable to fishermen. Recently, the sea has been accompanied at night by a dense fog that obscures sight and senses. Stay away too long and risk seeing things that aren’t really there, or that shouldn’t exist. Home before dark is the message, although that is easier said than done. Many trips are longer than 24 hours, and the night remains the most lucrative time of the day despite the warnings.
At night, the sea is accompanied by a fog that obscures sight and senses
Plus, it doesn’t take long for the real plot of this game to float to the surface. A mysterious man named The Collector wants to make a deal with you. He is looking for artifacts from the deepest pits of the sea. A scientifically sound question, should it not be that the location of these treasures only becomes visible to you at night when you embrace the madness of the mist…
Start your adventure here in search of fish, money, treasures and especially your memories. For this you will have to explore the four corners of a vast map. Although you won’t get very far in the beginning. Not with that rickety boat, and not with those debts.
Fishing couldn’t be easier. You sail with your boat to a place in the water where fish splash. Then, depending on the type of fish and your available fishing lines, a mini-game will start where you have to click with the right timing to reel in the fish faster. Once on board, all you have to do is tetrise it in the available space and voilà, you’re one fish richer. Fish responsibly and leave a few alive so the stock can build up for later, or fish it all out and find a new spot, you choose. A simple and relaxing gameplay. And that’s necessary to recover from all the parts that are anything but chill .
A gameplay loop of stress, relaxation, and upgrades
Boating and fishing (or dredging for treasures) takes time and you have to manage that time extra well. Not only because your fresh fish is worth more, but also because you don’t have to float at sea in the dark. At the stroke of 6 pm in-game, the evening falls. Every minute you still spend at sea fills an eye at the top of the screen that should represent your panic. In the beginning the consequences are minimal, with a strange fish in your nets or a stone that appears when you sail. Let it fill up, and things go from bad to worse. Unwanted passengers in your cargo, ghost boats that want to sink you, tentacles of impossible proportions that drag you into the depths. Take too much damage and it’s over. No comeback mechanics or things you can keep. You can start over all day.
Harder, better, faster, stronger
Fortunately, you can repair and improve your ship. For this, the regular gameplay is supplemented by a research tree and an upgrade tree . One unlocks new parts such as engines or fishing lines to buy (nothing is free in Dredge ), the other provides extra life or more spaces in your ship’s cabin for fish or parts. And it will all be necessary. Because without better motors and lamps you will never make it to the other islands before night falls.
That whole gameplay loop of stress, relaxation, and enhancement works great, with plenty of variety in that loop through colorful NPCs with lore, changing sea conditions, and treacherous islands to navigate in and around. Unfortunately, that refresh is not enough to cover the entire duration of the game. By the last missions making money is easy but upgrading extremely slow. And if you do take that time, you trivialize the entire finale of the game. A small flaw that is doubly compensated by a good portion of style and character.
Style matched to atmosphere
Dredge is terrifying without being edgy .
Because Dredge totally succeeds in immersing you in the oppressive atmosphere of a gaping ocean in the dark. The art style is simple but appropriate, and perfectly carries that uneasy atmosphere associated with Lovecraftian horror. The soundtrack fully supports this, with frequent dissonant tones in an otherwise quiet melody that immediately makes your heart miss a beat. The little piano piece that plays when you hook an aberration immediately makes your hair stand on end. It sucks you in and doesn’t let go. So much so that you can sometimes catch yourself panicking, even though it is broad daylight in the game. Great job.
And it does it without being edgy , something that games tagged Lovecraft all too often are. Sometimes it works, but all too often in other games it ends in overly gory scenes or grotesque designs that are “dark” to appear “mature”. Lovecraftian horror is in the head. It’s about things that could never reasonably exist and our impotence against the irrevocable fact that they are true. No better place for this than the immeasurable deep seas, and Dredge plays this inconvenience like a virtuoso.
Ripe for bigger
As mentioned, the ins and outs of your adventure will send you to the corners of the world, where each island group has its own theme and atmosphere. Steep cliffs with narrow passages in the west, treacherous sandbanks in the south, a labyrinthine mangrove in the east and an active volcano in the north. The story leads you there in order in search of the artifacts for the Collector and each offers their own main mission to do so. You can also go there from the beginning, but then you will encounter some artificial looking barriers that can only be overcome with upgrades of the main missions. Between the large islands there are also many smaller ones, with or without treasures, upgrades, lore or side activities. Don’t expect too much from those optional missions.
The motivation mainly comes from the main missions, and once those run out, Dredge’s pace really drops.
Dredge is the first game from an indie developer, and in that respect you can certainly be satisfied with the 8 hours of play you get. Unfortunately, the few side activities that the game has to offer provide little food for those who would like to play longer. You could finish your collection or complete Dredge ‘s secret ending , but those are pretty simple and tedious quests at that point in the game. Most of the motivation comes from the main missions, and once those run out, Dredge ‘s pace drops really put together.
Dredge has plenty of room for more content with a future DLC
The addictive gameplay and unique atmosphere calls for a bigger map with even more main islands and missions. Only this would also mean more upgrades and more fish species. Of course you have to define the boundaries of your game at a moment’s notice, but the feeling that five large islands are just a tad too few continues to gnaw. Again a small criticism but at the same time a big compliment. We really crave for more!
Dredge is a wonderfully captivating yet relaxing experience that, despite its limitations in longevity, puts the under-explored genre of horror fishing sim back on the map. The atmosphere is fantastic, the gameplay is stressful and addictive at the same time and the story is mysterious without being stupid. It’s just a pity that the ending is a bit more difficult due to a lack of new mechanics and story. All in all, it is with great praise that we welcome the first game from Black Salt Games, and we look forward to their next projects. Highly recommended for those who can’t get enough of Lovecraftian media and certainly worthy of a wishlist for those who love innovative indie games.