What is it about the depths of the ocean that invokes so much fear? And it's not just in video games; I remember one situation when I was a teen on vacation in Panama City Beach. I had rented one of those wave runners with a friend, and we were riding on it together in the Gulf of Mexico when we took a hard turn, and got launched off of it into the water. The very moment I came up for air, every single water-based horror movie memory came flooding back all at once. I tell you this - I never swam so fast in my life. Fear of the dark is another fun one. I always started sweating when my parents asked me at night to take the garbage out to the cans in the alley. Even though it was a short walk (or run, in my case), it was always a frightful chore – and making it back to the light of the house brought such a welcome relief.
Why do I mention this? Well, because playing Dredge brought back all these feelings, and then some. And even though I never got a major payoff in the fear department, the constant feeling of dread coupled with an intriguing story made this game memorable in so many ways.
In Dredge, you play as a fisherman who has recently accepted a job at the small island village of Greater Marrow. The game picks up as you are making your way to your new home. Just as you see your destination in the distance, your boat crashes into the rocks and runs ashore. It is there that you meet the residents of the small community, and begin your fishing career. Luckily the mayor provides you with a new boat – which of course must be paid off. From there, you spend your days on the open water, catching fish to sell in order to pay off your debt and make a living.
Your nights, however, are much different.
One of the first warnings you get from the mayor is to make sure you make it back to the dock before it gets too dark out, as a mysterious fog envelops the sea at night. There are many who have ventured out at night, never to return. Rumor has it that this fog has an adverse effect on the mind, and has driven people mad. Some have even said that rocks appear out of thin air, as if the fog itself is trying to exact its vengeance upon their boats. And if dealing with the fog and the treacherous rocks weren't enough, you will want to be especially wary of what lurks beneath the waves.
As you continue on in your fishing journey, you will come across various characters. Some will have stories; others warnings. Many will have quests and challenges for you to complete. And one in particular has some very specific items that you must locate as part of the game’s main story. You will visit different islands throughout the game, catch over 100 species of fish, and unravel the mystery behind the ominous fog that appears at night. I’m going to say this right off the bat: I love the writing in Dredge. The narrative element is just phenomenal. When you interact with the different characters, you aren’t just treated to their dialogue. Their actions, demeanors, and moods are all described with the utmost detail. The writing is so well done that, although these interactions are all using static images, I get a deeper visualization in my mind’s eye. This cannot be stressed enough; the story in Dredge is awesome. It kept me intrigued and yearning to get to the end as soon as I could. Yes, I fell into the “just five more minutes” trap that so many of us get into when playing an engaging title. It’s not just the main story that holds your attention, too. Meeting some of the side quest characters breathes life into the rather empty sea, and many of them are just as fascinating as those that you’re required to deal with. Throughout these quests, you’ll be finding homes for lost animals, repairing familial relationships, and helping strange cultists with their everlasting hunger. One character in particular, a researcher, has such an interesting backstory that she could star in her own Dredge spin-off. And just like the day/night cycle in the game itself, the stories get pretty dark pretty fast. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s some things that happened to some of the characters that made me sit back and say “yikes.” While playing the game, I never felt like any aspects of the stories, main or side, were “fluff.” At no point did I feel like things started getting too long-winded. And although I was left a tad disappointed that the ending was abrupt and didn’t have the same level of literary attention that the main story did, the 10-ish hours to get through the adventure was a perfect amount of time to keep my attention without ever feeling bored.
Dredge is, in its most basic form, a fishing game. You’ll never control your character outside of the boat, as the entire gameplay aspect takes place on the water. You’ll start each day by hitting the waves and looking for little “disturbance pools” in the water. From there, you’ll see what kind of fish are schooling around in that area. Once you drop your line, you’ll engage in one of a series of mini fishing games. The fishing can be pretty easy; you just need to watch the moving green items and hit the X button when they line up with your “zone.” Then you just reel in your catch and try to fit it in your ship’s storage. The storage itself is a bit of a mini-game as well, as you’ll be twisting and maneuvering all your items to maximize your empty space. Think of it like the attache case inventory system in Resident Evil 4. Once you’re loaded up with fish, you’ll make your way back to one of the docks that has a merchant and sell your catches. You’ll use the funds you earn to upgrade your boat, purchase larger hulls to open up more cargo space, and obtain new fishing equipment. You can purchase motors to increase your boat speed, trawl nets and crab pots for passive catching, and lighting equipment to better navigate through the treacherous fog. You can also obtain different fishing equipment which allows you catch different fish in different areas. For example, you can’t catch the large, oceanic fish with a basic, shallow rod and reel. You’re going to need the good stuff! In addition to fishing, you’ll also dredge the ocean floor for materials. You’ll find wood, cloth and metal, all used to improve your boat. You’ll want to upgrade your hull as much as possible, because every time you come into contact with a rock (or are attacked), your boat sustains damage. A stronger hull means the boat can take more damage before sinking. Luckily, you can also pay to have the boat repaired while docked. Dredging the floor sometimes yields treasures, which can be sold for additional money. Finally, some of the fish you catch have “aberration” versions; that is, super-creepy mutant fish that are rare – and valuable. The game takes place on a day-to-night cycle. You are free to roam anywhere at any time, but be aware that when the sun goes down, things start getting scary. Being out on the open water can be frightening enough, but add in the monsters that only appear at night and things get real terrifying real fast. Not only that, but the longer you are out at night without sleep, the more you lose your grip on sanity. You’ll start seeing things that aren’t there, and the things that are there start to get pretty aggressive. My anxiety levels went through the roof when I started to venture too far from my home and the sun started setting. Cue the mad rush back to town, and I’m feeling like a kid taking out the garbage at night again.. So you’ll not only want to manage your inventory, but also manage your time. The creative twist on time management, however, is that the clock only moves when you are active. If you are just sitting in your boat, time stands still. When you start moving, fishing, dredging, or even installing equipment, then the clock starts ticking. This is a very welcome feature, as it gives me a moment of tranquility when I want to sit back, check out the map, and work on my next steps. My recommendation, though? Upgrade your motor as soon as possible – you’re gonna need that speed when the sun sets… As you proceed through the story, you’ll also earn abilities to help you in your quests. Some of which includes a foghorn that alerts others to your presence, and a supercharge that temporarily speeds up your boat (at the risk of overheating). I’ll be honest – I mostly used two of the abilities, and only one other one when it was necessary. I also barely used the trawl net. To me, it wasn’t nearly as effective as regular fishing, and the rewards were not worth the time. Again, I only used those items when it was required as part of the story or side quest. I was also a bit disappointed that not all of the monsters could be killed. It would have been so exhilarating to run scared from a creature, only to come back later in the game and just lay waste to it. But all in all, the game controls well, plays great, and has a lot of variety. Oh, and make sure you turn up the sound and turn off the lights if you try to travel to the end of the map.
Dredge has a distinct art style which is accurate to the setting in which it takes place. There’s something old-fashioned and yes, a little dank, about a coastal town, and Dredge embodies this feeling very well. The characters, although just static images, have a lot of life in them when supplemented by the strong writing. Music also fits each setting and situation; whether you’re exploring the sea or speaking with the locals. And the silence at night, coupled with the distant roar of something unseen, is enough to send a chill down your spine. The game moves at a smooth framerate, and I came across no hiccups or glitches. The fish are well-designed, and the aberrations are just plain creepy.
Dredge packs together so many elements and emotions – the calm of being in an open area, the desolation and loneliness that comes with it, the anxiousness of the unfamiliar, and the fear that slowly builds to outright terror – and blends it all perfectly. The gameplay has the potential to get stale, but the engaging story and challenging side-quests are enough to keep your interest and want to keep going. I put in about 10 hours for the full story, and I hadn’t completed all my quests, nor have I completed my fishing encyclopedia – so there’s a good 20+ hours in Dredge if you’re a completionist. This is one of the best games I’ve played this year, and I highly recommend picking it up. Dredge is definitely a game to keep on your radar. Or, in this case, sonar.
Final Score: A