New Zealand independent studio Black Salt’s Pickup surfaced in a very mysterious trailer in 2022. All we saw was a small boat cruising through scorching seas, terrorized by threatening Lovecraftian skies and giant tentacled monsters. A later trailer showed a fisherman catching bigger and bigger fish, selling them for ever larger sums of money, and upgrading his boat as he went. These ideas sum up Dredge together: a fish-selling upgrade loop in a disturbingly mysterious and horrifying setting. It’s the latest thing to wash up on the shores of iconic indie publisher Team17 – but is it just a tragic wreck, or is it some sort of cool mutant newt thing?
We’re happy to report that it really is the latter. Although the central loop isn’t the most original, the scenic dressing of cosmic fear, ferocious monsters and terrifying sinking depths make all the difference. The story begins with a fisherman running into jagged rocks. Although they are at the foot of a lighthouse, the rocks seem to appear out of nowhere. The mayor of the nearby town lends the fisherman a boat and shows him around the local fish market and shipyard. And here you take the helm. Controlling your little boat with the left stick tank controls, you search for bubbling spots on the surface of the water. A brief moment of sub-minigame action is catching fish, then you can return to the dock to sell your transport of tiddlers. Upgrading at the shipyard allows for new rods to catch more varied fish from farther away and overall it’s a good old time in the salty sun on the ocean wave. Until the night.
Sunset comes suddenly and the night lasts from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and that’s when things are very different. As fatigue sets in, an angry, frantic eyeball appears at the top of the screen, representing your growing panic. As this happens, the supernatural dangers begin to arrive more aggressively. The impulse to return to shore is powerful and the rushing journey thrilling as you urge your boat to wish in vain that it was faster as the moon rises and darkness gathers.
This is where Dredge’s strongest card is played: there are species of fish to catch that only come out at night. Horrifying as the dark skies and seas are, you must venture during this time. Ship upgrades are suddenly all about having an extra notch of toughness against crashes or attacks and not just having enough room to fit in a fun octopus. The story relentlessly sends you out of your comfort zone, among treacherous cliffs or dancing vulnerably atop dark, sickeningly deep waters.
The story does just enough to keep you going: hints of a mysterious ritual, sunken relics with supernatural auras, a shadowy figure whose obsession with them is unexplained…it’s dark stuff and scary – and all that on top of the fact that sea creatures are already all weird when you think about it. But as surely as history and the night are filled with horror, the morning brightness always comes, with the joy of catching more exotic fish with your elegant and spacious trawler as the sometimes soothing or triumphant orchestral score echoes on the hissing foam and breaking surf. He sometimes awakened faint memories of Wind Wakercrossed with the quirky and sleazy characters and location of something like last year’s strange horticulture.
When it comes to terror-fueled gameplay, there’s a small barrier to getting into the game. Tough challenges are thrown at you early on, and we weren’t sure if we should focus on improving our profession – which required fairly arduous back and forth between fishing trips and hunting for materials – or on the progression of the story, which was quite opaque and blocked by a difficulty peak. More than once we knew what we were supposed to do, but we had no idea how to do it. A more generous helping hand from an NPC dropping hints wouldn’t have gone wrong.
Ultimately, there’s a sense of tension in what Dredge is asking you to do. On the one hand, there is a mysterious story that unfolds, on the other hand, side quests, then on yet another on the other hand, the central catch-fish-better-boat loop. This tension is sometimes motivating but sometimes frustrating, as the different moving parts of the game seem to have their own distinct agendas rather than connecting and reinforcing each other. For at least a few hours, it alternately felt like a story glued to a number-based action RPG mechanic, or the RPG mechanic nailed to the story. Once things clicked, however, they really clickedand we were happily caught up in the strong currents of mystery and exploration.
With its encyclopedia of over 125 fish, Dredge’s bounty is limitless like the sea, its action RPG upgrade compulsion loop as deep. That said, you get what you put in – for the first two hours, anyway. Once you hit the sweet spot of an upgraded ship, manageable difficulty, and a booming story, it’s magic. The excellent presentation of a terrifying ocean really hits home. The need to push the limits of safety to reach your next take leads to moments on the edge of the seat, while the pouring rain and eerie creaks of sound design do little to calm you down. Interspersed with confidence-building sunshine angling and the fun of slotting oddly shaped creatures into your tight inventory, there’s just enough encouragement to keep enjoying the horrors. A wonderful debut effort from Black Salt, Dredge is absolutely the kind of game you get up the chimney rather than throwing it down the drain.
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