Article Top

Coming out of PaxAus 2022, DREDGE was clearly my game of the show. I remember the first question I had for the developers when I finished the demo was “when does this game come out?” because I wanted to immediately keep playing. I was a little worried that the magic of being at a pax for the first time in years had me spellbound, and when I would be playing the full game, it wouldn’t have been quite so captivating. Fortunately, less than an hour into DREDGE, that concern dissipated, like mist over the endless sea.

All the towns are fish puns!

You might even say, DREDGE has me hooked.

That’s a fish pun; this game is about fish. 

…we can start there.

In DREDGE, you are the captain of a fishing vessel. The game has you helm this ship out into the high seas, which is full of unusual characters and Lovecraftian monsters. Every action in DREDGE moves the in-game clock forward, which means if you are out fishing for too long, the sun will set, and panic will literally creep in. The higher your panic, the more unexplainable danger you are in (more on that later). This can be averted by resting at the various docks around the oceanic world, and by attaching floodlights in your ship’s grid-based inventory which wouldn’t look out of place in a Resident Evil game. Once you’re out in the ocean, caught fish and trinkets, rods and engines, and any other upgrade materials you bring up all share this space. Make it fit, or get rid of it.

The simple act of fishing is not something that got old at any point. Which (spoilers for the rest of the review) means the game is a success in my books. Congratulations DREDGE, the fishing is good! I joke, but also, if it didn’t work, the whole game would have felt like a chore. Thankfully, anytime I saw some submerged shadows and their accompanying bubbles, there was a small part of me that got excited at the potential catch. Will it be a new record? Will it sell for enough so that I can upgrade my reels? Will it be infested with some dimensional horror? These are all questions that I enjoyed answering every time I landed a fishy friend.

I found the gameplay loop so engaging and rewarding that at times it can become weirdly distracting. There were quite a few instances when, seemingly in the blink of an eye, it was nighttime and I had a full cargo of fish just because I couldn’t help myself. It never felt like a waste, because selling the shipment for cash is very important for things like upgrading gear, but I often needed to reel? (hehe) myself in while out on the ocean.

All times of day are beautiful in DREDGE

This all highlights that the day-night cycle is a real standout for DREDGE. Traversing the high seas during the day was pleasant and calming, as I chased the endless promise of a great catch, just beyond the horizon. Nighttime, however, felt dangerous and downright deadly. Evil boats, killer fish, and phantom rocks are all leading cast members of the ocean at night. Bumping into any of these evil-doers will cause slots in your hull to be damaged, which will lead to lost cargo and eventually, destruction. That said,  nighttime forces you to ‘come home’ to the nearest dock, to sell and store all your finds that outing. Exploring with a full inventory is not something you’ll want to be doing much, so I appreciated the nudge to take a break from fishing.

DREDGE, is a game that adapts the concept of fishy cosmic-horror, and it does so without trapping itself in outdated worldviews and offensive language of the original text. For example, the ‘Panic’ mechanic (which is also the name of my new indie band) is a much more tasteful noun that describes the effects that cosmic horror has on the mind than the usually insensitive and ableist language oft-used in Cthulhuian tales. The term Panic works so well here and is also, genuinely, a much more accurate description of experiencing a frighting unknown.

Oh, the places you’ll see…

The visuals of DREDGE are also absolutely stunning. The character portraits have this wonderful painted style, using wide brushstrokes to great effect, capturing craggy faces that look like they’ve been at sea for too long. The style of painting evokes what I imagine the dominant art movement would have been at the point in history in which the game is set. The water shader too is excellent, conveying the incomprehensible depth and breadth of the sea, while also very clearly revealing points of interest like fishing spots, and messages in bottles.

All of this lives in a very well-considered world that has been delightfully put together. The seas feel huge when you start your journey, and while it does fell smaller later on as you use  a faster engine, each region of the map feels distinct and natural. There’s a storied history in this world, which is there to be learned about if you’d like, but works as an excellent set dressing if you don’t.

Gotta Fish ’em All!

Another aspect worth mentioning is that the fish designs are good! I mean, they’re all real fish…(i think!) but they’re illustrated in the same style as the NPCs, which imbues the fish with characters while making everything feel cohesive. Also, every fish has a hellish (pop culture word of the day incoming:) variant to catch. These variants are more twisted, demonic and cosmically angry versions of their real-life counterparts, and are always a joy to discover, even if it’s just so I can put them in my scrapbook of “horrors beyond my comprehension I sold to the fishmonger”

Once you do come up against these abnormalities in the world, there will be times they’ll get a good hit in that will cripple your ship, which usually leads you to inescapable destruction at the hands of a sea villain. Unfortunately, player death is not something the game engages with thematically. Allowing the player to continue onwards after the destruction of the ship, perhaps with an empty hull, would be much more interesting than the “game over” screen I became quite familiar with before loading my latest autosave. It’s not a deal breaker, but the acknowledgement of “wow last night I got panicked and lost a bunch of fish” would have allowed me to have an emotional reaction to it, as opposed to just going back to the last saved state like it never happened.

…dad?

To help even the odds a little, your ship does gain a few unnatural abilities, which are conveniently located on a little radial wheel. These Eldritch powers are awarded to you at a steady pace, with the speed boost named “haste” definitely being the most useful. This ability allows you to cut through the waves at a pretty remarkable pace, with the trade-off being that if used for too long at once, it will blow out your engines and increase your panic.

My favourite, however, was the ability that allows you to teleport back to the home base at the press of a button. Not just because it can save a few days of travel time, but because the description implies it isn’t a teleport at all, but rather a self-imposed trance, allowing the captain to conveniently “not remember” the journey home so that the travel time feels instantaneous. Great world-building there.

DREDGE does unfortunately fall a bit flat when it comes to its main story. It does a decent job of scene-setting at the beginning, with an interesting mystery surrounding the main character’s backstory, as well as the previous fisherman that’s gone missing. But once the game reaches the point where you’re asked to venture out into the distant corners of the world, that story takes a major backseat, basically until the very end. It’s a bit disappointing, especially because in each of the different zones, you’re beginning and then resolving stories relatively quickly. By the time we finally return to the ‘main’ plot, it’s over before you remember what it even was.

Plot Island

The side plots are much stronger, and where a majority of the characterisation happens. Inside of your ship lives a pinboard that tracks each of the smaller stories, called ‘pursuits’. These side plots have a funny sense of importance, as they range from “a woman from the starting town wants to move to a neighbouring island” to “the time traveller from ancient Rome needs the stone tablets from the volcano because he wants to summon ancient terrors”.

There’s no hierarchy of importance here, and this (combined with just how quickly some of these tales get resolved) made me wish these pursuits either had more time to breathe, or less importance relative to the main story. DREDGE‘s lack of prioritisation can at times leave you with the classic feeling of open-world decision paralysis.

DREDGE‘s narrative shortcomings don’t get in the way of it being an overall excellent experience. There’s something appealing about the tone of DREDGE. It occupies the same space in my brain as the feeling of spending a Sunday afternoon indoors, under a blanket while it storms outside. In nearly every aspect, it feels like quite a personal game, and across the characters, art, mechanics, and more, it feels very consistent and cohesive with what it sets out to do. DREDGE works, not just because its direction is strong, but because it sticks the landing with the game’s rock-solid gameplay and tremendous world. I’d love to return to the world of DREDGE, if I don’t get lost in the fog on the way.

Xbox Review Copy Provided by Team17

Article Bottom
REVIEW OVERVIEW
Dredge Review - Ship's Good
9
VIAImages Via Team17 + Jeremy Bratetich
Managing Editor of MiniMap. Contact me: Jeremy(at)minimap.com.au
dredge-review-ships-goodDREDGE works, not just because its direction is strong, but because it sticks the landing with it's rock-solid gameplay, and stunning and creative visuals.