I haven’t ever played a game quite like Dredge before.
I’ve certainly played a number of games its mechanics have been inspired by, or even derived (a little) from, but as a whole package, there’s something special about this Indie title from New Zealand-based Black Salt Games. And what that is, is tone. It’s a theme that has come up a lot in 2023 across a number of games and pertains to how a studio handles the overall feel or atmosphere of a thing. A lot of remakes have been in this conversation early, like the recently released Resident Evil 4 Remake (somewhat poignant here, if a little unintentionally) while we also look towards upcoming heavy-hitters such as Diablo IV as well as other lesser known Indies like The Last Case of Benedict Fox.
With these examples (and a handful of others), each game’s respective studios have worked tirelessly to deliver an experience that is… palpable; building a tone that is almost tangible; something transcendent of gameplay mechanics.
In Dredge, this is most prominent in its setting, which sees a hapless fisherman crashed upon the rocks of the island archipelago of The Marrows. Alive, but worse for wear and without a boat to ply his (your) trade, he is beset upon by the Mayor of Greater Marrow -- the collective islands’ largest settlement -- to take up an offer of a new boat and some fishing gear, and a measure of debt that ensures you’ll get to work right away because the denizens of these small residences like their sea bounty.
“Off you go then, sell those fish,” he says with a smile from ear to ear knowing you have no choice. And with that you get to work fishing, entirely unaware of what lies ahead.
Except you kind of are, because part of the reason you washed up against the rocks is a dreaded fog has rolled into The Marrows and the larger game-world. And it is… menacing. Denizens are on edge, and something in the waters is changing the very makeup of some of the sea life that inhabits the majority of this playspace -- a sprawling sea made up of a number of unique biomes and bodies of water, from Shallows and Coastal, to Oceanic, Volcanic and even Abyssal, among others. And so whatever is blanketing the world in its seemingly ubiquitous disquiet is also now attached to you, like an unseen burden; an Oni or bad luck charm, or a hex you can’t shake. And it follows you mostly at night when the sea is blackest and quietest.
"The unfathomable Old Ones, from the deep or from beyond, yet somehow inextricably linked to hapless individuals. The spin or trope or setup is hugely popular in games right now...”
That last tonal example we used, The Last Case of Benedict Fox, was a deliberate name drop. Lovecraftian, Eldritch, Cosmic… whatever you want to call these “atmospheric horror” games, they all come back to a spin on the unknown and the unseen. The unfathomable Old Ones, from the deep or from beyond, yet somehow inextricably linked to hapless individuals. The spin or trope or setup is hugely popular in games right now, as we’ve already explored in-depth (heh). And in Dredge all of the above is on display in a tantalising unfurling of a mysterious space replete with its own take on it all. The team has steadfastly refused to suggest they are H.P. Lovecraft fans, or that they set out to make a so-called “Lovecraftian” game, but much of the genre identity here is layered in semantics.
In Dredge there is an unknown presence which has caused calamitous change to the natural order of things. People crave things they ought not, and the sea has swallowed more than it ever has and things have emerged from depths unknown. You’ll meet mysterious folk in your travels, and even more mysterious creatures. You’ll be tasked with Pursuits -- side-quests gathered along your work and exploration jaunts, that range from helping research elusive fish to reuniting feuding brothers to helping a downed pilot seek revenge on nightmarish creatures of the muck. And each one of these Pursuits is peppered with character and verve. That tone I’ve been so strong on, it’s represented so much in the people you meet and the stories they tell, and throughout all of this, the writing in Dredge, albeit short, is exceptional for what’s here.
"Once you upgrade your boat you can also add nets for trawling that effectively gather bounty for you in the background while you go about your seafaring, which winds up being really handy. There’s also crab pots, which is a different lean on fishing itself...”
All of this is accompanied by what could be described as a series of tight mini-games that make a whole, and in return represent a fantastic gameplay loop. Fishing is mostly what you do, but there is, of course, the titular task that sees you gathering resources and lost treasures from the myriad shipwrecks that have fallen prey to the many islands and rocky crags of this world. Or, more recently, that eerie fog. Fishing and dredging are all tied to a circular, timed input, though they’re disparate in how they play. Once you upgrade your boat you can also add nets for trawling that effectively gather bounty for you in the background while you go about your seafaring, which winds up being really handy. There’s also crab pots, which is a different lean on fishing itself, but is just as fun when seeking the craziest ones from the deep. Most of this is gated behind biome and water-type access, however, which requires upgrades, and these require resources and money.
There’s also a neat economy built around time. If you don’t move, time stands still. It only advances when you travel or are doing something, such as fishing. In addition, upgrades and repairs and more while docked also ‘cost’ time, and you’ll often need to sleep to avoid traveling at night -- the most dangerous time. But there are rewards for the adventurous, but equally those who don’t get much sleep... well, they see things ‘neath the waves.
So the gameplay loop is tied directly to doing your job, but as the game wears on, you’ll need more extravagant and even larger fish (to negate too much grinding), forcing you out to new areas but then needing the new gear to work each new spot. It’s a simple and genius design at times, though it’s not without its issues.
You have access to the entirety of the game-world from the outset, but it takes some time before you can fish all of its different areas. Sometimes you’ll come across Pursuits that are timed, only you won’t know that, and activating them means when you fail for not having the right equipment or capability, you’ve hard-failed that Pursuit. The game goes on, however, and so like a lot of great RPGs you don’t reset and try again, you simply live with the loss. Again, frustration can also be said of certain Pursuit items you might find before activating that Pursuit, that you then go on to sell at the Merchant in Little Marrow who will take just about anything off your hands. Then when you realise what you’ve done, it’s simply unfixable, left instead for your potential next playthrough, should you so choose.
"The devs cited The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as one source of inspiration, mostly in the lay of the land and your traversal across it, and it’s easy to see that inspiration as you play...”
To this end, there’s a value in main-pathing Dredge on your first sojourn, but it’s such an inviting and tangible world; a place where you can almost smell the sea air through the screen, that it’s hard to not want to just get out and find and collect everything right away. And from this there’s a sense of a lack of balance overall. The devs cited The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as one source of inspiration, mostly in the lay of the land and your traversal across it, and it’s easy to see that inspiration as you play. But unlike Nintendo’s open-world opus, which has so much you can do within it and with its systems, activities and Pursuits dry up quickly in Dredge, and after you’ve conquered even half of them the space can begin to feel void of content.
It’s kind of funny because there’s a heady conversation around bloat in open-world games, but for mine I feel Dredge needed more Pursuits or more layers to the ones that already exist in the game-world. It’s not for nothing as what is here is entirely engaging, it’s just that because of that it’s hard to not want more. In addition to that, going all-in on filling out the fish Encyclopedia in the game is a lengthy task on its own, and so what initially might have felt incredibly connected and wonderfully paced quickly comes undone, leaving aspects of the game as more 'fetch-questy' with little in between to keep it all engaging. I feel another settlement or two could have helped, or more opportunities for different types of upgrades to allow for more investment in that side of the game to fill those voids. But we’re talking about an Indie studio and its first original IP and therefore a not ‘the sky’s the limit’ effort, so we’re still really happy with what we have here.
Rounding out the whole tone angle of this review is perhaps the game’s biggest triumph, which is its presentation. A low-poly, low-fi experience that punches so far above its weight it feels like eldritch magic at times is behind it all. The game’s painted representations of its many characters is charming to a fault, and some of the best we’ve ever seen, while its score throughout, as well as the overall audio design, is perfection. It’s also a game that, across my two playthroughs on both PC and Xbox Series X, never hiccuped once. There are issues in its pacing and how the endgame comes in earlier than the world perhaps should have allowed, and more upgrade options and Pursuits could have elevated it further, but in nailing the tone Black Salt Games set out to do, Dredge is a triumph, and we can’t wait to see where this studio takes us next.
What we liked
Nailed the “atmospheric horror” tone
A stunningly realised lo-fi, low-poly world that is incredibly rich and always gorgeous to look at
Traversal in your boat is a dreamy experience across the seas. Calming to a degree, and maddening elsewhere
Interlocking mini-games that make up a tight gameplay loop keep you coming back for more
A fantastic story with a mild amount of choice and sometimes too much freedom, but exceptionally written
An incredible soundtrack that is worthy of an award at the end of the year
The spatial ‘Resi 4’ item management aspect is fun and at times challenging (BSG says it didn't borrow it from there, specifically)
What we didn't like
After you complete everything the game dries up quickly
Not enough diversity in how you can upgrade your boat
The time to upgrade versus some of the Pursuits added doesn’t marry up well
More settlements would have been great
No New Game+ after you finish which, when you do, you’ll know is a missed opportunity