We’re so used to fishing being classed a relaxing pastime – especially when it comes to video game incantations – that it’s easy to forget how merciless sea fishing can be. Harsh waves, cragged rocks, dense fog, and monstrous creatures from the deep. Team17’s DREDGE taps into the dangers and mysteries of the ocean, while also taking inspiration from the works of Lovecraft.
It begins reasonably cheerfully. Well, as cheerful as DREDGE gets. As the new fishermen in Greater Marrow – a small coastal town overshadowed by a towering lighthouse – the townsfolk welcome your arrival with open arms, especially the fishmonger. The shipwright will patch up your trusty vessel day or night, while the trader will gladly pay for any curios dredged from the depths.
As you set about exploring the vicinity – catching fish via brief timing-based mini-games – the threads of the storyline starts to unravel. What happened to the previous fishermen, and why are there so many shipwrecks along the coastlines? Every so often, something sinister finds its way into your nets too – monstrous, mutated, fish. The fishmonger will buy them off you in heartbeat, being somewhat fascinated by their existence. Obsessed, even.
The storyline’s crux is soon revealed. A mysterious collector, holed up in a ramshackle mansion on a lonely island, seeks your assistance in finding a handful of relics – spread across the furthest reaches of the map. To travel safely, you’re going to need to upgrade your boat with more powerful motors, brighter lights, and bigger hulls. This entails searching for rare research parts and dredging scrap from shipwrecks, meaning you’re going to be spending almost as much time resource gathering as fishing. When those resources start to dry up, you’re going to have to go further afield.
There’s another hurdle to overcome with the collector’s request – the relic beacons only appear at night, which is when things take a sinister turn. Visibility is vastly reduced, dangerous sea creatures wallow in the depths, and if our silent hero becomes tired (it’s essential to rest often) their mind starts to play tricks. The struggles of night make for an experience where it’s vital to plan ahead, keeping mental notes of where the nearest ports are to you can dock before sunset. Certain fish only appear at night also, so there is some benefit to braving the darkness too.
A day lasts around five minutes, which is roughly enough time to catch half a dozen fish, place and retrieve crab pots, and maybe dredge up resources. Losing track of time can result in a sea monster giving your hull a battering while returning to a dock at night. Improved motors make traversal swifter – suddenly those far away islands can be reached effortlessly – while improved rods make fishing quicker and more efficient. In addition to the aforementioned crab pots, nets can also be added – allowing you to amass a hold of fish just while travelling.
From an early stage, DREDGE provides a lot to focus on, helping it to hook instantly. The fishmonger makes the occasional special request, retrieving a relic may require a few extra steps, docking at a new port usually sees a quest or two added to your journal, and there’s the occasional surprise when approaching desert islands. On top of this, there’s a fish encyclopedia to fill too.
Fishing spots are clearly visible, right down to the fish themselves – giving an indication of what kind of catch you’re going to land. Not only does each fish type have a different timing based mini-game, but they’re of varying sizes too. This ties into the inventory management system, reminiscent of Resident Evil 4 and the more recent Save Room. If you’re smart and use space shrewdly, you may be able to find some ‘wiggle room’ in the inventory for an extra fish or two. Upgrades see the hull increase in size, with blocks assigned for the motor, light, rods, and nets.
There’s a lot here to admire, right down to the writing – evocative of ‘80s text adventure games, describing locations in vivid detail. Heading to a new location is genuinely exciting, with new sights and ambient sounds to take in. A little unnerving too – arriving in a new location at night, not knowing where the local port is, can feel unsettling. The flat-shaded visuals aren’t particularly striking, yet the lighting system still allows for some alluring sunsets and daybreaks.
While it’s easy to become absorbed in the day-and-night structure, trying to plan that day’s events in advance – be it raising upgrade funds, resource searching, turning in quests, or travelling to a new location – I did find that progress occasionally hit a brick wall. Although the mission objectives are always clear, you may have to spend time scouring for certain fish, all the while wondering if you’re in the right location. Other times a relic may be visible, yet unobtainable; like a puzzle with a piece missing. One other quibble I had is that the only trader is located at the starting area, so upon amassing a storage hold of trinklets, returning is essential at some point.
I still wouldn’t hesitate to say that DREDGE showcases a lot of smart design choices. The quest log always demands your attention, but unlike a typical RPG, it’s never inundated – and the majority of busy work is effortless and rewarding. It’s also easy to admire how it can be played at your own pace. That said, it may have benefited from extra guidance outside of mission objectives to make progress a little swifter. This isn’t something you’ll beat in an evening or two, being more time-consuming than you may expect. Possibly even 10+ hours to see everything.
The unique blend of horror and fishing makes for an experience just as relaxing as it is harrowing, helping DREDGE to cast its net wide. Lovecraft would (probably) approve.
Developed by Black Salt Games and published by Team17, DREDGE is out March 30th on all formats.