New Zealand indie studio Black Salt’s Dredge surfaced in a highly mysterious trailer in 2022. All we saw was a small boat chugging around torrid seas, terrorised by Lovecraftian looming skies and giant, tentacled monsters. A later trailer showed a fisherman catching ever larger fish, selling them for ever larger amounts of money, and upgrading his boat as he went. Those ideas together sum up Dredge: a fish-sell-upgrade loop in a foreboding horror-mystery setting. It’s the latest thing to be washed up on the shores of iconic indie publisher Team17 – but is it just tragic flotsam, or is it some kind of cool mutant merman thing?
We’re happy to report that it’s very much the latter. Although the core loop is not the most original, the set dressing of cosmic fear, ferocious monsters and terrifyingly plumbable depths make all the difference. The story begins with a fisherman running afoul of jagged rocks. Despite being at the foot of a lighthouse, the rocks seem to appear from nowhere. The mayor of the nearby town loans the fisherman a boat and introduces him to the local fish market and shipyard. And here you take the helm. Controlling your little vessel with left-stick tank controls, you seek out bubbling spots on the water's surface. A brief action sub-mini-game moment catches fish, and then you can pootle on back to the dock to sell your haul of tiddlers. Upgrading at the shipyard gets new rods for catching more varied fishies from further afield and all in all it’s a jolly old time in the salty sun on the ocean wave. Until nighttime.
Sunset arrives suddenly and night lasts from 6pm to 6am, and that's when things are very different. As tiredness sets in, a glowering, frenzied eyeball appears at the top of the screen, representing your growing panic. As that happens, supernatural hazards start arriving more aggressively. The impulse to race back to the shore is powerful and the hurried voyage thrilling as you egg your boat on futilely wishing it was faster as the moon climbs and the darkness gathers.
This is where Dredge’s strongest card is played: there are species of fish you must catch that only come out at night. However horrid the dark skies and seas are, you must venture out during this time. Ship upgrades are suddenly all about having one extra notch of robustness against accident or attack and not just about having enough space to fit in a funny octopus. The story relentlessly sends you out of your comfort zone, out among treacherous cliffs or bobbing vulnerably atop sickeningly deep, dark waters.
The story does just enough to keep you going along for the ride: hints at a mysterious ritual, sunken relics with supernatural auras, a shadowy figure whose obsession with them is not explained… it’s dark and creepy stuff – and all that on top of the fact that sea creatures are all freaky as heck already when you think about it. But as surely as the story and the night are ridden with horror, the brightness of the morning always comes, with the joy of catching more exotic fish with your slick, spacious trawler as the occasionally soothing or triumphant orchestral score resounds over the swishing spume and crashing surf. It sometimes stirred faint memories of Wind Waker, crossed with the quirky, shady characters and location of something like last year's Strange Horticulture.
Related to the terror-fuelled gameplay, there is a little bit of a barrier to getting into the game. Tough challenges are thrust upon you very early, and it wasn’t clear to us if we should be focusing on upgrading our craft – which required quite arduous trekking back and forth between fishing trips and hunts for materials – or on progressing the story, which was quite opaque and blocked by a difficulty spike. More than once we knew what we were supposed to do but had no idea how to do it. A more generous helping hand from a hint-dropping NPC wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Ultimately, there is a sense of tension in what Dredge asks you to do. On the one hand, there is a mystery story unfolding, on the other hand, side quests, then on yet another hand, the core loop of catch-fish-better-boat. That tension is sometimes motivating but sometimes frustrating, as the different moving parts of the game seem to have their own separate agendas rather than linking up and augmenting one another. For at least a couple of hours, it felt in turns like a story tacked on to a numbers-based action RPG mechanic, or the RPG mechanic tacked onto the story. Once things clicked, however, they really clicked, and we were happily caught in the strong currents of mystery and exploration.
With its encyclopaedia of over 125 fish, Dredge’s bounty is a boundless as the sea, its action RPG upgrade compulsion loop as deep. That said, you get out what you put in – during the first couple of hours, anyway. Once you achieve the sweet spot of an upgraded boat, manageable difficulty and a story in full flow, it’s magical. The excellent presentation of a terrifying ocean really hits home. The need to stretch the limits of safety to reach your next catch leads to edge-of-the-seat moments, while the slapping rain and eerie creaks of the sound design hardly help you to peace out. Interspersed with confidence-building angling in the sunshine and the fun of slotting oddly shaped creatures into your tight inventory, there’s just enough encouragement to keep enjoying the horrors. A wonderful first effort from Black Salt, Dredge is absolutely the kind of game you mount over the mantelpiece rather than throw back into the water.