Dredge Review – Sea is a Harsh Mistress
Dredging is the excavation of material from a water environment, usually the removal of sediments and debris from the bottom of lakes, rivers, harbors, and other water bodies. Every once in a while, in the pile of dredged rubble, a shiny bauble grabs your attention. That’s Dredge for me – a sparkling indie game in the mass of trash appearing on Steam daily.
Dredge is a fishing/dredging action-adventure game with Lovecraftian overtones. It combines fishing and fact-finding, sailing, and sorcery, offering both tranquility and tension in equal measure. It’s also heavy on exploration and beautifully unpretentious. The perfect comedown game to sample after completing a sweaty blockbuster behemoth such as (in my case), Resident Evil 4.
„The fog’s just lifting. Throw off your bow line; throw off your stern. You head out to South channel, past Rocky Neck, Ten Pound Island… The sun hits ya – head North. Open up to 12 – steamin’ now. The guys are busy; you’re in charge. Ya know what? You’re a goddam swordboat captain! Is there any thing better in the world?”.
Sorry for the long quote. This was George Clooney as captain Billy Tyne in The Perfect Storm (2000), a pretty solid movie about the plight of a small fishing vessel. The quote perfectly encapsulates the joy of seamanship when the sun shines and everything works. Its cheerful optimism is, of course, a portent of the horrible things to come.
Dredge wastes no time in that regard. The wave that struck and sank Billy’s boat at the end of the movie rolls over you and your ship at the very beginning. Your vessel promptly goes under, but you survive to sail another day. Dragged out of the water by the people of the small archipelago, you even get a serviceable ship as a loan from the local mayor. It turns out, they need another fishing captain as the previous one vanished under mysterious circumstances.
Thus starts your adventure of sailing, fishing, dredging, trading, and mystery-solving. In the first few days at sea, you’ll work to pay off the loan, learning about various fishing techniques, boat upgrades, and maintenance. Before the inevitable investments in new hull and equipment, you’ll be confined to coastal waters, catching low-tier fish and dredging for planks, metal, cloth, and occasional pieces of jewelry. Locals will warn you not to sail too far from the harbor, especially during the night, as it could have detrimental effects on your health.
Fishing, sailing, and dealing with corruption of the mind
But there’s no avoiding the night. Some fish can be caught only after sunset, and long treks between island chains will take the better part of the day. In Dredge, time flows only when sailing or fishing – staying put effectively pauses the game, even if you still can consult the map or rearrange the inventory. With basic equipment, every activity takes more time, so the influx of sellable bounty is quite slow. You will be compelled to take greater risks and venture to the open sea in search of a more valuable catch.
So, what happens at night? Your anxiety, represented as a twitching eye on the top of the interface, starts to rise and you begin to experience hallucinations. But those aren’t mind/mood-altering mirages, as in Sunless Sea. In Dredge, manifestations of your mind will damage and eventually sink your little ship. Prolonged sailing in the pitch-black seas will gradually make things worse. Dangerous rocks will appear out of nowhere, a flock of black birds with burning eyes will pluck the bounty from your cargo hold, ghost ship will relentlessly chase you… As the story progresses, more otherworldy horrors will emerge from the depths, even during the day, rushing to ruin you and stop your prodding.
Thou shalt inflict no harm
Getting to the bottom of things is the core objective here. Although Dredge is a free-form game with open seas, the narrative is fixed and gradually unveils the dark secrets of the archipelago and its inhabitants. The game never reveals all the cards though, staying vague in some important respects until the very end. You will deal with the supernatural, even working for an individual that clearly dabbles in forbidden knowledge.
But paranormal sleuthing won’t spare you from everyday economics. Every ship improvement is a quality-of-life upgrade. Some, such as new fishing rods, dredging hooks, and trawling nets are essential. The sea of this there archipelago is divided into several different classes, which affects the catchable fish. There are coastal, oceanic, abyssal, mangrove, hadal, and volcanic waters, each requiring specialized fishing equipment. You will need to obtain research tokens to unlock it and earn money to buy the more complex machinery. Luckily, advanced fishing apparatus is universal, covering multiple types of waters, so there’s minimal redundancy in the late game.
Dredge is a game devoid of shooting and other destructive mechanics, so you’ll mostly run away from danger. Apart from maneuvering through low and high seas, any other actions you’ll perform are related to pulling things from the depths. Fishing and dredging are simulated as reflex-based mini-games. They are short and simple enough that you won’t get bored or intimidated. Failure often means trying again until you get it right, the game never aggressively penalizes you.
Shame about the weather
Even if Dredge is quite good in everything it attempts to do, it could have been soo much better with a bit more tension-inducing complexity. Bad weather, for example, doesn’t affect you in the slightest. There are no gales to worry about, no rogue waves that could smash your tiny ship into rocks, and the fog doesn’t really count as a navigation detriment due to the mini-map. Rainy days on Dredge’s seas are just for show. They are here to set the mood and convey a sense of melancholy. What a missed opportunity this is!
Still, Dredge is a solid little gizmo. It’s reasonably priced, fun while it lasts, and offers simple but very chillin’ gameplay. The game slithers its way over your skin like those non-copyrighted Lovecraftian tentacles everyone is talking about.
- Interesting mix of sailing, fishing, exploration, and problem-solving.
- Retro aesthetic that shuns pixelation for almost water-colored beauty.
- The game cleverly balances between being relaxing and tension-inducing.
- Bad weather doesn’t affect you at all, which is super-weird for a seafaring game.
- A bit of a disappointing ending.