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Review

Dredge Review

Coming in like western wind

I want to live in Dredge’s title screen. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I want to dream of Dredge’s title screen. Owing in large part to the game’s outstanding art direction and vibe work, Dredge captures the feeling of a space you’ve never been to but are somehow nostalgic for. A lighthouse, older, its red and white stripes faded by weather and time. It’s perched above a small cove at dusk, its golden rays lazily spinning off into the encroaching dark of night. The water is calm, equally disinterested in haste as it pools around the jagged rocks that dare to pierce its surface below. A melancholy tune keeps pace with both. You’re unmoored here, out of time and place, content to just watch the light turn in perpetuity.

If only it were so simple. Dredge is a fascinating little creature of a game, the sleeper hit of last year’s PAX Australia, nobody quite expected “oh that fishing game” to be the one to impress on this scale. Coming from just across the water, New Zealand-based developer Black Salt Games has crafted a unique experience in Dredge. A small-scale fishing-sim that trades on the best micro-economy loops of the genre while spinning a cosmic horror tale worthy of a shanty retold over a few too many beers, Dredge strikes a perfect tonal and mechanical balance.

Dredge’s lighthouse is one of the few “comforts” in the dark

In it, you play the role of a gruff, silent fisherman whose boat finds itself in a disagreement with those jagged rocks I mentioned earlier. In the wake of the destruction, the fisherman becomes indebted to the mayor of Greater Marrow, who has taken it upon himself to give you an old boat and stick you with the bill. To pay him back, you must venture out into open waters and do what you do best. A portion of your profits will be shaved off and given back to the mayor, who in turn uses the funds to better the community (somehow the least believable thing in a game with sea monsters). As the town expands, new services become available, like a dry dock for ship upgrades and eventually new residents to offer side quests and progress the overarching story.

Thus the core loop of Dredge kicks off, a deceptively addictive little day/night cycle of setting out, dropping a line, selling your pull and taking a well-earned rest. Time only passes while your boat is actively moving, or while you’re engaged in the prompt-timed minigames that occur during fishing and, eventually, dredging. This turns every expedition into a small game of roulette, especially in the early hours as even short journeys put you at risk of being out after dark, something most of the locals warn you against. But the fishmonger, dude knows what’s good, and will soon prompt you to head out into the dark to find rarer fish for better rewards.

Dredge’s nights are a dangerous but bountiful time, offering up the chance of mutated, highly sought after fish but in turn causing our wayward fisherman to, well, lose his mind a little. At the top of the screen, incorporated into your compass, is a fear meter represented by an eye that grows wider and more erratic the longer you spend adrift in the dark. The worse his mental state, the more likely he is to run into monstrous creatures and spectral rocks that will utterly wreck the ship, inflicting damage to your hull and equipment that can be repaired at certain docks. Eventually you’ll be given tools to somewhat mitigate this fear but you’re never truly safe while pushing the fisherman this hard. There’s a semi-decent labour metaphor floating around in there, as most of Dredge’s characters are disenfranchised, working-class folk, but this is subtext to the game’s major threat.

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The locals will often need your help to move about between islands and complete tasks

The humble collection of islands and landmarks that comprise Dredge’s open ocean are plagued by cosmic horrors from the deep. What began as small fish mutations and eerie lights in the sky has escalated and now whole portions of the map are uninhabitable, guarded by monstrous creatures and home only to shipwrecks and ghosts. As you work along the upgrade path for your ship, which uses a small pool of crafting resources gathered by dredging and merchant bartering, you’ll be able to venture out into these places to try and restore some semblance of normalcy. This overarching quest will take you to all corners of the world, each new location sporting gorgeous, distinctive looks and a new tune for the already amazing score.

These destinations often play host to one of the game’s quirky characters who will rope you into quest-specific mechanics and also highlight Dredge’s storytelling. For all the expressive art direction and tone work, your adventures are frequently told through words, with each location having a dock you pull into before a series of text boxes appears and your imagination does the rest. It has the same energy as a dungeon master describing a place to you and, paired with some terrific character portraits, manages to tell a compelling and strange tale.

In addition to ship upgrades and new fishing tools, you’ll also be unlocking special abilities gifted to you by a mysterious local who asks you to bring him specific pieces of water-logged treasure. Returning to him is part of the core loop, and while the unique gifts he bestows on you make the game all the more fun, the homoromantic undertones and eventual reveal of these exchanges solidified Dredge’s writing as some of the most interesting I’ve seen this year. Smaller side quests can also be completed for cash, ranging from simple fish delivery to assisting stranded members of a local cult. There are time restraints on some of these though and I would have appreciated a more explicit heads up as occasionally I would fail a quest for mistaking how long I would have to complete it.

A gorgeous blend of art direction and lighting make Dredge a constant delight to look at

While I’m grumbling like a salt-lashed islander, I’ll also say that the damage inflicted on your ship can sometimes veer into feeling unfair. Upgrade paths will make your ship faster and stronger, strapping more lights and complicated fishing contraptions to it, but in doing so your ability to navigate tight corners becomes unwieldy. For the most part this is clearly an authored bit of tension, but even the slightest nudge against a surface can cause catastrophic damage to your gear and the constant repair costs felt like a knee-capping of hard-earned bounty. Fortunately, the dangers of Dredge’s world are so goddamn cool it’s hard to ever be truly mad at it. Spectral ships blare their sirens at you from the fog, giving chase so you panic and veer wildly off into the night and toward certain danger. Then there’s that damn lighthouse, visible from almost every corner of the map, its methodical, rotating beams both assuring and disarming to the last.

Final Thoughts

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Dredge emerges from the mist as a near-perfect foray into cosmic horror and fish mongering. Some minor quibbles with balancing and quest info are surface-level dings against an otherwise water-tight vessel. Refined, approachable fishing and dredging mechanics form the backbone of a tight core loop that rewards investment in your boat with unspeakably cool upgrades and satisfying progression. All of this against an expertly paced open world and gorgeous art make Dredge an absolute catch.

Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by the publisher

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Dredge Review
Old man and the sea
Dredge blends cosmic horror and local fishing economies into a robust but expertly paced adventure that rewards your investment with a strange tale, engaging mechanics and a unique, wonderful vibe.
The Good
Approachable and compelling core fishing-sim
Expanded lore and horror elements feed into mechanics
Gorgeous art direction and music
Perfectly sized open-ocean map
Great storytelling and writing
The Bad
Hull and equipment damage is occasionally too punishing
Quest time limits could be clearer
9
bloody ripper
  • Black Salt Games
  • Team17
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / Switch / PC / Mac / Linux
  • March 30, 2023

Dredge Review
Old man and the sea
Dredge blends cosmic horror and local fishing economies into a robust but expertly paced adventure that rewards your investment with a strange tale, engaging mechanics and a unique, wonderful vibe.
The Good
Approachable and compelling core fishing-sim
Expanded lore and horror elements feed into mechanics
Gorgeous art direction and music
Perfectly sized open-ocean map
Great storytelling and writing
The Bad
Hull and equipment damage is occasionally too punishing
Quest time limits could be clearer
9
bloody ripper
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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