Dredge review: spooky ocean thrills that reel you in for more
A mast have
Something terrible lurks beneath the waves in Dredge. Actually, scratch that. There are a lot of terrible things that call the oceans of The Marrows home in this melancholy fishing adventure, but what they are, I couldn't possibly tell you. In all my hours sailing these cursed waters, I've only ever seen brief flashes of them - their ungodly, slippery masses, long spiny fins, and a dozen different combinations of glowing eyes, teeth and tentacles. They're forever fading in and out of view, cloaked by the thick fog that blankets the sea every evening. Sometimes your ship lights will catch them for a split second before they slip away, or maybe you'll only hear them hurtling toward you, with a scream of a jet engine and a maw that's white hot, ready for gnashing your flimsy wooden carcass into sawdust.
It's unnerving, being out at sea after dark, but that's the time when the rarest and most vile catches raise their scaly heads. So the question becomes: are you willing to risk your own sanity for the sake of a quick buck? Or are you too afraid of what you'll find in Davy Jones' locker? In Dredge, the answer is always yes. Yes, you will be frightened of what's out there, whether it's real or born from your own fearful imaginings, but you'll sputter out into the darkness regardless, because the allure of this supernatural fishing sim is just too good to resist.
Dredge is a game that thrives on its superbly crafted atmosphere. You begin your ill-fated adventure washed up on the shores of the Greater Marrow fishing village. A freak accident with some rocks has destroyed your boat beyond repair, but the local mayor promptly supplies you with a new one after mistaking you for their new resident fisherman. He won't tell you what happened to the last one - the less said about that, the better - but in order to pay off this sudden and unexpected gift, you'll need to get out there again and make a living. Be sure you're back by nightfall, though, he warns, and keep an eye on the time. You don't want to get caught out.
Before you can ask what the hell he means, you're thrust out onto the ocean, your tiny trawler put-put-putting around the shallows. Eye-catching splashes and ripples punctuate the waters before you, making it easy to grasp where you'll need to cast your rod. So far, so good. Everything seems hunky dory in this picturesque little cove, but the plainful soundtrack immediately sets you on edge. This is no Moonglow Bay or 3D, waterborne Stardew Valley. This is something else. Something cursed, and perhaps distantly related to Failbetter Games' Sunless Sea - but already, you feel something's lodged in your flesh. A seed - a hook - of ghoulish delight and curiosity.
The actual act of fishing is relatively simple in Dredge. All catches will be reeled in automatically over time, but you can speed things up with timed, rhythmic taps and button presses, such as hitting moving dials in the right segments, or matching overlapping shapes that spiral into view. You'll want to be quick about it, too, because time moves forward at quite a clip when you're out fishing and sailing. It will freeze when you stop or come to rest at a harbour, giving you valuable breathing space and make decisions about where you want to head to next without fear of the fog rolling in, but time is ultimately your enemy here - perhaps even more so than the terrors that wait for you beneath the waves.
You'll eventually do everything you can to stay out for as long as possible, upgrading your boat with the proceeds of your catches to install more powerful engines, brighter lamps, and different kinds of rods, trawlers and nets. You'll also be able to scavenge driftwood, cloth and machine parts from other sorry shipwrecks who weren't so lucky as you, kitting out your tug with ever larger cargo grids to house bigger fish, as well as additional rod and engine space to accommodate those larger, more powerful upgrade units. Rarer research parts also let you put time and effort into creating more versatile equipment on the side, too, allowing you to fish at new depths and in different types of water for larger prizes.
It's a compelling upgrade curve that Dredge sustains brilliantly for the length of its 12-odd hour run-time. Partly because the outer reaches of The Marrows practically demand it, with their distinct, far-flung archipelagos requiring faster, nippier sailing times if you want to get there in a single day, but also because the sight of a new silhouette billowing beneath the surface never fails to draw the eye. This is especially true at night, when the dreaded 'aberrations' start to emerge. The regular fish are pretty enough to look at during the day, but these three-eyed, two-headed, bulbous-bellied monstrosities are truly fascinating, their car-crash designs impossible to look away from. Heck, one looks like it's flopped straight out of Alien, which I'll never be able to unsee for the rest of my life. They cast a spell over you the moment you pull one of them up: the twang of the soundtrack lilting into a minor key, their startling pink inventory grid staring back at you from your cargo hold, and their heinous, beautiful artwork. All tiny details in isolation, but together they form an intoxicating current you can't break free from. Something in the air has shifted, and you will not rest until you get to the bottom of it.
Stay out too long, though, and your sailor will start to panic - represented by a nervous, twitchy eye in the game's clock. The longer you stay awake, the stranger things get, your raw, shredded nerves conjuring other ethereal ships on the horizon that turn out to be enormous anglerfish looking for a meal, or hungry, supernatural spirits with a terribly real set of chompers on them. These tricks work once, but other details creep in to complete the picture. Rot and other slithering unmentionables will gradually seep into your cargo hold, infecting your catches and decreasing their value, and swarms of crows might suddenly swoop down and lift them clean off the deck. Together, it creates an eerily gripping feeling of risk and reward that's just oozing with dread and disquiet. You'll want to keep going, just to see what other weird sight might be waiting round the next rockface, but you'll also heave sighs of relief when you finally catch sight of a town or travelling merchant in the distance where you can catch some shut eye, reset and drive away the terror.
Fuelling all this is a quest to find five ancient relics that will - well, that would be telling. Like the best open world games, Dredge's watery dome is a feast for the senses, it's strange landmarks and eye-catching visuals naturally drawing your eye to different corners of its map. But you'll quickly happen upon the small island of Blackstone - a mere stone's throw from Greater Marrow - where a mysterious man known only as The Collector sets you on a quest to retrieve these strange artifacts - one for each of the region's five island clusters, and the narrative hooks on which you'll pin its underlying thrum of fishing, selling and upgrading your ship in order to get to them.
They all have their own local mysteries you'll need to solve (and their own watery beasts to slay, overcome or just plain outwit), and each feels just as captivating and fully-realised as the islands that populate Failbetter's Fallen London. There is an unknowable sadness that permeates every character you meet in Dredge, but its script dangles just enough morsels in front of you to keep you guessing about where their forlorn melancholy might originate from. It's strangely hypnotic, and will power you right through to the end and its dual finales, the last of which (I think, at least) can only be unlocked once you complete the first.
And that's the great thing about Dredge. Long after you complete every last quest, or pursuit in the game's parlance, this is a world that still feels like there are mysteries to solve and questions left to answer. It's a place that doesn't give up its secrets easily, and the creatures that live within it (human or aquatic) soak into the fabric of your day to day thoughts. I was convinced for quite a while there was a third, happier ending out there somewhere (until a kindly email from the developers confirmed that alas, it was just the two), but even now I'm left wondering what really happened to down all those fighter planes in the Twisted Strand? Why are there campsites littered with strange runes and rotting fish spikes everywhere? Who are those hooded figures who demand you catch their dinner and then gobble them whole with the quick splice of a knife? And where did the villagers in the Stellar Basin flee to when that large, luminous kraken with its enormous, bullet-like tentacles came on the scene? Answers won't be forthcoming, but hot damn if Dredge doesn't give you the fuel to imagine them anyway.
I love a game that can get under my skin like this, but ultimately it's the steady hand that developers Black Salt Games apply to the rest of this ship that makes Dredge such a tantalising prospect. It casts a wide net, but in the process catches the best and most accessible bits of survival horror, management and exploration games and serves them all up on a glowing, eldritch platter that's simply too good, and too moreish, to ignore. It's a special game, old Dredge, so whatever horrible nasties you might find out there, don't let this be the one that got away.