Dredge begins with a shipwreck, your unseen fisherman player-character forced to alight on the shores of the island town of Greater Marrow, unable to get home. They’re made to loan a boat from the shady mayor, and work the local shallows to pay off the debt. And yet this is Dredge’s least unsettling section.
The bones of Dredge are those of a gentle fishing sim – you pilot a pretty, almost cel-shaded boat around calm waters, playing an almost rhythm-action minigame to reel in catches, found in burbling schools around the initial island. Trade in enough fish to the local fishmonger, and you can use your payments to buy upgrades from the shipwright – extra outboard engines, stronger rods for larger species (there are 128 entries in the game’s catalog), crab pots to drop off and come back to later.
There are less expected mechanics too, like selecting a book to read, which sets off a timer whenever you’re on the water, eventually offering you permanent stat buffs. Your boat’s stock is organised like Resident Evil’s inventory Tetris. There’s a day-night cycle, too, with different species emerging at night – but going out after dark comes with the risk of hitting rocks you can’t see, and damaging parts of your inventory, sending engines offline, or catches slipping overboard. It’s a satisfying pace of progress from the off, and even in an hour of play I’d made several meaningful changes to my vessel.
But soon after you start, you hit day 5, and things begin to get… odd. The people of Greater Marrow – and the other little settlements you find on surrounding islands – already seem a little off. But when you pull your first Aberration from the waves, everything gets much more sinister. Something is wrong with the fish in these seas – mackerel are growing distended and aggressive-looking, cod can evolve one enormous eye. The fishmonger cuts a perfectly preserved antique handkerchief out of one speciman, and treats it like a prize rather than a worry – and then you meet the Collector, and you begin to see there’s a dark story hidden under Dredge’s surf.
The Collector, an ex-fisherman who has taken up ‘other pursuits’, sets you off on your main quest, asking you to find unusual, possibly magical artifacts from notable shipwrecks in the area. He equips you with the eponymous dredging apparatus, and suddenly you’re playing a different minigame to pull up everything from scrap metal to a shape-changing key, and learning hints of the bizarre, possibly Lovecraftian stories that preceded your arrival.
You’ll need to begin going on longer voyages to other biomes, but piloting your ship at night increases your character’s panic level. The higher your panic, the stranger things get – you begin to see places you can’t see during the day, and sinister murders of ravens begin to follow your boat and steal your stock if you’re out too long. You’ll begin to get side quests from islanders too, who want you to find a sign of their drowned child, or ask for building materials, seeming a little too keen to leave their home and live elsewhere.
Much of what I learn feels pieced together – the hints of a sunken story, rather than the tale itself – but the developers from Black Salt Games hint that my travels may lead me into having to panic my character to discover hidden locations, and say that there will be monsters far worse than sharks to contend with out there, all on the search for answers to the questions I have.
It’s a magical set-up – the kind of compelling, acquisitive management game that can accidentally hold attention for hours, but intrinsically tied to a much stranger storyline, that promises to lead us into truly unknown waters. Dredge is holding secrets, and I very much want to work out what they are.