I have immense admiration for creators and artists who attempt earnestly to capture what H.P. Lovecraft wrote about over a hundred years ago. A sub-genre in their own right, Lovecraftian books, board games, video games, and on and on probe that which cannot be probed. They attempt to conceive of that which cannot be conceived. Angles, colors, dreams, and elder gods that exist beyond our perception of reality. How exactly does one communicate this in a video game? This Sisyphean feat may actually be impossible, but the more important question is whether or not the attempt is engaging for the player.
Dredge culls up what hasn’t been forgotten: monsters hiding in the dark recesses of the sea. And, no, I’m not talking about angler fish. We’ve had more than enough of that in Outer Wilds. With children’s book adaptations, comedic RPGs, and plushies on the market centered around Cthulhu, the entire premise has the fangs — or tentacles — taken out of it. Regardless, I’d say Dredge does better than most modern-day recreations of the mythos.
You are an errant fisherman who, after a catastrophe at sea, wakes up in a small island town in an archipelago. Armed with rusty garbage for boat supplies — engine, fishing rod, lights, and hull — you are initially tasked with paying off our debt to the town’s mayor. After quickly accomplishing this mission, you continue to collect fish and dredge up trash so that you can sell your findings and use said trash to improve your ship. By upgrading your rods, you can fish more quickly and pull fish from different kinds of waters, and upgrading your engine helps you venture out of your immediate area to new locales. But what’s this? That fish doesn’t look right. It’s glowing. And this one has too many teeth. Is it grinning?
Yes, you soon realize that Dredge is more than a mere fishing-economy game, but not by much. Fishmongers and other odd individuals prefer the unusual fish, but they all sell. Once the you venture out, you discover little towns and huts that offer core missions and side quests. You are pushed in a central direction, but Dredge spiders out into all sorts of quests. These quests seem like side affairs, but they may actually lead to a different ending and new information.
The game loop is clear: collect fish, sell fish, and spend money on boat upgrades so that you can collect more fish and sell more fish. On and on we go. But Dredge offers more. While this is the central driving force of the game, you are tasked to discover new locations, solve mysteries, and complete several quests over the course of this 10-hour game. Quests vary from fetch quests to finding unique places to figuring out how to satisfy what an altar demands. Remember, fishing is the core mechanic here.
Fishing is a simple enough task. When you find bubbles in the water and fish darting around just underneath the surface in third-person view, you can begin fishing. Time presses when the slider moves over the green area, and, voila, fish is caught. There’s not much more to it than that; some fish require different kinds of timed presses, but they’re all simple and not worth discussing. The real meat is in exploration, the writing, and solving mysteries.
Dredge’s map cuts the archipelago into distinct quadrants with the starting area falling at the center. While four labeled sections exist with their own land formations and characteristics, little islands are peppered here and there, often with unique spots of interest like abandoned camps, hermits, or altars.
Early on, you are led from one quadrant to the next in a progression that makes sense from a design perspective. You can certainly go wherever you want, but you can’t expect to catch many fish with just a starter rod or to have an easy time getting anywhere with a weak engine. Anyone with some video gaming years under their belt knows that while a literal wall doesn’t block your path, the gating is clear.
Upon completing quests and dredging up trash, you collect research components that can upgrade fishing rods, engines, and so on. This is your skill tree, though, again, the progression here is clear. Don’t know where volcanic fish are? Probably shouldn’t waste hard-earned research on a rod that can exclusively collect fish from this biome. Tired of not being able to hook oceanic fish? Maybe go for that one. Wasting too much time slowly meandering around before night falls? Upgrade that engine. For the love of God — or whatever ancient being you worship — make sure you have some decent lights.
Night plays a big role in Dredge. All sorts of eerie events occur at night, such as psychedelic fog that causes the protagonist to panic at sea, seeing all sorts of monstrosities or rocks where they shouldn’t be. Maybe a fishing boat appears out of nowhere that — wait, is that a fishing boat? Why is it speeding at me? Okay, maybe don’t stay out at night so much, but some fish can only be discovered at night. While risky, nighttime fishing can be good for not only the wallet, but your fishing journal.
For those who want to just enjoy Dredge as a collect-‘em-all fishing game, well over a hundred normal and freakishly abnormal fish are waiting to be discovered, though this isn’t at all necessary for the core experience. I enjoyed doing a little extra fishing just because I enjoyed the artistry and wondering what new Lovecraftian sea creatures were waiting to be discovered if I should get lucky. As far as fishing games go, I’m not a huge fan, but the presentation and overall atmosphere make the experience more enticing than I expected.
Musically and visually, Dredge isn’t the gloomiest and grittiest Lovecraftian title out there, but it scratches the itch. People in town have a blurry, oil-painting-esque quality, and no one looks 100% right. Everyone — including the seemingly sane people — has an odd edge to them, as if they’re slowly being shaped by this region of the world. Something’s not right here, and if the visuals won’t do it for you, the unsettlingly somber horns and strings at sea will drive the message.
While not a hardcore gaming experience, Dredge certainly sates the thirst for Lovecraftian vibes. Though the game can get a bit repetitive by the end, the majority of Dredge is enjoyable enough to warrant a purchase. I left a few mysteries unsolved in my playthrough, and I may jump back in to check those off in hopes that I can hit “snooze” on the elder gods’ alarm clock.