Dredge consistently asks one question over its 10 or so hours: What are you willing to drag into the light of day to accomplish something? To accomplish anything? As a fisherman who washes up on the shore of the most obviously cursed archipelago this side of RuneScape and racks up a debt in no time, you’re quickly tasked with doing whatever it means to make ends meet and then some. Fish to your heart’s content, rummage through wreckages for supplies, bring back your haul to clear that debt, and you’ll eventually find that there are things that shouldn’t be surfaced out in those waters. Things whose presence there signals that everything isn’t well… and yet you dredge them up because how else are you going to get things done?
In Dredge, there’s very little consequence for doing the bad thing. It’s the default setting and just about the only mode of play, really. It’s the first notable thing about Dredge and one of the reasons I love it. The entirety of the game’s action is set against this morally fraught economy and this task to collect relics that seem primed to unearth something awful. And yet it is one of the sparse directions you’re given throughout the game and in fact the chief imperative you follow. The fisherman is not a bad person for what they, and you, through them, do. It’s just their job after all. But they are, like most of us, the unwitting participants in a system and way of life that encourages the worst, rather than the best, from us. And so even if the mutated monsters you fish out of the sea are harmful, even if the deliveries we sometimes finish harm folks, and even if our ultimate goal is ominous as hell, we do it.
None of that means that you aren’t capable of good. Much of the game’s sidequests, favors that you’ll do for people you come across in towns or just as you’re sailing around, are by essence helpful. The detours that you make at most of the four major regions in the game see the fisherman try to repair the broken state of this world as much as he can, assisting researchers trying to unravel the phenomena of the mutated marine biology or repairing broken families. If anything, I felt more compelled to do these quests because of the increasingly uneasy feeling completing the main quest was giving me. Dredge really revels in the kinds of dread it’s able to conjure and make you sit alongside.
It isn’t just the dread of potentially dooming the world by unearthing arcane relics for a mysterious man who gives you increasingly strong magic, which itself reveals an almost Metroid level of progression through the game’s runtime. It’s also the fact that Dredge isn’t just a fishing game, but a survival game with a strong emphasis on fishing. You salvage materials and money for the fish and mutated horrors you shore up and you tinker, all the while trying to keep your sanity as you explore the sea both by day and night. In particular, the night will play its tricks on you, upping your anxiety as you lose sleep, conjuring ghost ships, menacing red auras that follow you, and allowing an otherworldly ooze to sneak onto your ship and rot your findings, among other things. Spend research parts at docks on improved fishing rods, nets, crab pots, and engines, all the while using your scrap at shipyards to upgrade your cargo, retrofitting spaces to be delegated to more engine space or room for better lights for when you go out at night. I got a real sense of pride turning my shitty rundown boat that could hardly take a knock from an idle rock into a vessel worthy of sailing the whole seven seas, which it’ll need to be in order to survive encounters with the real dreads of this game: the monstrosities that you’ll meet over the course of the story that are big and bad enough to hit back. As you go from region to region—one a windswept series of cliffs that form a bit of a maze, another an actual maze in a swamp— you’ll encounter aberrations greater than the three-headed cod that you managed to snag, and often will need to collaborate with nearby characters to just narrowly survive getting out of there with your ship intact. The tension bred from this survival gameplay is the real star and tone-setter for the game.
The fishing, which is perhaps what people thought Dredge was primarily about, is serviceable, though I think it best complements and pads out the survival elements rather than stands out on its own. I’m a fishing minigame hater, so it was always going to be a hard sell for me. I don’t like it in many of the popular games that people enjoy it in, even if I do get the appeal of checking out mentally and just thoughtlessly doing an activity for some time. Even the best of them grind my gears, often due to how randomized the rewards are, or better put, how often the games fake me out. So on paper, a game that centers this activity should be my natural enemy. And yet, I’ve fallen deeply, maybe even madly, in love with Dredge because of how simple it is. All fishing consists of is sailing up to a clearly disturbed shoal—marked by a school of fish, ripples on the water and sometimes even colorful auras on the surface—and hitting a button when the your arrow lands in the green area of a circular interface. Some later derivatives mix things up by splitting the circle and making you dart between the fragments, or making you have to match a growing circle with the outline of one like a rhythm game, but they are at the end of the day uncomplicated and over in a pinch. When you’re scrounging for supplies rather than fish, you then maneuver an arrow through obstacles on an interface made up of rings. A button sends the arrow from the outer ring to the inner one as you avoid blocks. Mere seconds later, you’ll have your rewards, whether it’s metal scraps, wooden planks, cloth, some research parts (for upgrades) or just loot to hock. When paired with the passage of time in the overworld, and especially in some settings that are particularly dangerous to stay still and fish, it takes on a slightly new and more interesting, even immersive, dimension. For the most part though, it settles in nicely besides Dredge‘s great survival loop.
Dredge is over before you know it, in part because it’s genuinely a short game, but also because it kind of wraps you in its eldritch tendrils and doesn’t let go until you’re done with it. I’ve rarely played a game with a more satisfying and simple loop in an intriguing and dubious world I just wish I could’ve seen more of. Between the cults (yep, this game has got those too) and the sort of unexplained nature of Why This Stretch Of Sea Is Like This™, I think it’s actually a world ripe for even more exploration. But even if nothing more should come out of it, Dredge is a wonderful experience in smooth sailing over choppy (maybe even supernaturally charged) waters.
Dredge is developed by Black Salt Games and published by Team17. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available on Switch, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.