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Dredge Review – A Trophy Catch

Catch ‘em all in a cruel, cruel sea…

If a game offers a fishing mini-game, I tend to seek it out. Ever since Ocarina of Time introduced me to the concept of the trophy catch, games have been a convenient avenue to take part in a pastime I’ve never gravitated towards despite my late-grandad’s wishes. The exception is Dredge. It’s all fishing and dragging the waters in search of secrets that lurk in the undercurrent. And quite frankly, it’s a bloody riveting video game. 

Something that’s inevitable every calendar year is the handful of independent games that come as if from nowhere and ultimately feature heavily during end-year commendations. Celeste, Hades, Disco Elysium, and even last year’s Cult of the Lamb. All of these went on to transform the teams behind them into household names overnight.

I feel that Dredge has that special something that might see it cause ripples for the team at Black Salt Games across the pond in New Zealand.

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Dredge is a pretty simple sell in terms of its darkly spun story, as you’re cast ashore by a fierce storm and come to capsize in the quaint, seaside village of Greater Marrow, the nucleus in this particular archipelago. You trade favours for a replacement vessel to get your sea legs back under you, only to discover the islands—as well as those who dwell there mostly in isolation—harbour some twisted, nasty surprises.

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One way you pick yourself up by your bootstraps is to ply your trade as a fisherman, collecting all manner of ocean life and selling it back to the town fishmonger for the right price, throughout your travels you’ll be able to dredge the sea floor for both trinkets and salvageable materials that, in turn, can be used to refine your boat like the Ship of Theseus—until its every part, from the lantern to trawl net, is better than before. There are several little systems at play that all interlink to make Dredge a surprisingly complete, and fun, fishing game. 

Rather than struggling against a tense line by mashing buttons, fishing in Dredge is a mostly peaceful test of timing. Depending on the magnitude of the catch, you’ll either deal with up to a couple of spinning rings with broken paths that you’ll hop between or a singular ring peppered with prompts to speed up the angling. Time is of the essence after all, as the clock ticks over quicker when you’re luring a shoal and you don’t want to get caught out at night—at least at first. 

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Another of the game’s mild challenges come with its Resident Evil-like inventory management. Everything consumes space, from your boat’s components—although they become more compact the more you spend on refinements—to the fish you haul in. It’s a game within a game as each catch has a peculiar shape, it almost becomes a game of Tetris trying to wedge that last cod onboard. 

Whether it’s recovering mysterious artefacts for an enigmatic “collector” or assembling a mortar to help a marooned pilot, you’re given a lot of varied objectives to keep you occupied throughout the game’s ten hour story. Dredge’s showpiece, however, is absolutely the fishing. Mastering the day and night conditions and acquiring the perfect equipment depending on where you’re dropping a line are two key pieces of the puzzle when it comes to filling out your journal like it’s a National Geographic guide for the cruellest of seas. 

I’m delighted at just how much Dredge feels like a Pokémon game at times, and how much joy I felt trying to catch them all.

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Aside from the regular cod, mackerel, eels, and sharks, nightfall brings a particularly macabre twist as aberrations of these fish are pulled up from the briny depths. I kind of see this as the Dredge equivalent of shiny Pokémon, even if they’re eye-catching in a different way. Slick with grime rather than a glittering sheen, the distorted monstrosities are the prize catches that’ll net you both renown and a handsome payday.

Nighttime fishing is a perilous endeavour however, as the untameable beasts of the deep tend to wreak havoc if you stay out after sundown. This is wonderfully juxtaposed by how peaceful fishing can be under the safeguard of the sun’s rays, although the tension and danger is ultimately undercut by the game’s end as you’re granted protection spells from the aforementioned “collector” that’ll let you temporarily ward off any danger, overload the boat’s engines with a burst of speed, or even simply instantly transmit yourself back to the safety of his manor-side dock.

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In certain areas of the archipelago, these spells are a must. Frustratingly, and perhaps it’s an effort to not directly gate progress, if you find yourself in the Twisted Strand early on, you’ll quickly find it was a journey wasted—and it is a good day’s trip with an undercooked vessel. It’s commendable that the entire map is open from the jump, but discovering through sheer trial and error that the road through lies elsewhere can be a drag.

Dredge’s presentation is absolutely lovely, from its simple and readable UI to the game’s positively eldritch art direction that truly encapsulates the sinister scariness of the unknown that comes with a vast, open ocean. While it is a strong direction, certain things are clearly hampered by a shoestring budget—although none ultimately hamper the fun.

Character’s avatars are voiceless drawn stills and the comical animation of the truck-sized angler fish that can wreck your boat undercuts the terror to a degree, but it matters not when you’re teetering on sanity’s edge after a dangerous, sleepless night at sea and your mind plays spectacular tricks on you. Beautiful waves of light dance atop the still water, stunningly destructive whirlwinds blow through, and woes of fog cover cause jagged rocks to appear out of nowhere.

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Dredge is a fresh take on the collect ‘em all trope and I particularly adore its eldritch dressing. I’m one who’s particularly petrified of the unknown, with the ocean and outer space being specific triggers of this in different ways. While not as infinitely vast as space, a fine case for the crushing scariness of the ocean is made by Dredge and you’ll long for the warm-glowing lantern, dangling like a beacon for safety on the dock in the distance.

Dredge will be a contender this year. And that’s not limited to the indie scene either, as I expect it’ll make waves and be Game of the Year bait in its own right.

Dredge is out on March 30th for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Switch and PC.

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Conclusion
To use fishing terms, Dredge isn’t one you’d kiss and throw back. It’s the definition of a trophy catch. Its series of elegantly simple systems interplay nicely, blending seamlessly with an eerily stunning eldritch style and a moreish checklist of sea life to catch.
Positives
The fishing is elegantly simple
The creepy eldritch setting really makes this ocean terrifying
It’s basically a Pokémon game in open water
I love the game within a game so far as inventory management goes
Negatives
The open world is somewhat defied by ability-gated progress
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