(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in April 2023)
As an older gamer, the spirit is all too willing, but the flesh is weak. The evenings of merrily gloating over my bullet-ridden friends in 4-player split screen Halo are distant memories, and long gone are the days where I could hold my own in an online multiplayer first person shooter. Having had my parentage and/or sexuality called into question through tinny headphones by an eleven year American one too many times as his on-screen persona performs squat-thrusts atop my downed soldier, my gaming tastes are now much more sedate.
So, “Dredge” – released on the 30th of March by Team17 games (better known for their countless “Worms” games) seemed like an ideal pursuit. Essentially, it’s a game about fishing – a pursuit even gentler than Golf – and your time will be spent taking your tiny ship onto the open waves and catching from a smorgasbord of fish varieties.
And a horror fishing game, you say? Count me in.
Playing as an unnamed fisherman who finds himself capsizing his vessel in the worst possible place, you wake up – sans ship – on the small island of Greater Marrow. The overly cheery mayor sets you to fishing in the tranquil waters around the island to pay for the diminutive new schooner they’ve graciously provided you with – a nominal sum, quickly paid off – and life seems good.
What could be better? A relaxing life on the ocean waves, fresh air in your lungs and time to catch up with a bit of reading. Just try not to think too hard about the mysterious fishmonger who takes to bolting up his shop at the oddest of times and the sounds of violent struggle from within, or the odd damp packages you’re sometimes called upon to deliver; less brown paper packages, more brine paper.
Only missing a plaque that marks the town of Greater Marrow as being twinned with Innsmouth, this town – and its archipelago neighbours – are far from what they seem. No sooner have you made this tiny little seaside town your (temporary) home when the Mayor seems especially keen to warn you not to fish at night, but the sinister Fishmonger insists that the best fish only come out during the hours of darkness, notably by their ominous glow.
As an elegant piece of game design, “Dredge” hangs together so well. The constant drip-feed of rewards encourages that “just ten more minutes” style of gameplay, and the at first seemingly disparate elements mesh together perfectly. From the brevity (and subsequent variety) of the little mini-games that accompany each bout of fishing or dredging resources, to the Tetris-style minigame with you finding the best arrangement of rotation and placement of odd-shaped fish to maximise the layout of your tiny cargo hold, it’s a constant delight.
But they’re all just components of where “Dredge” really shines - the time-management meta game that has the player constantly weighing up risk versus reward. Like with the superlative (and delightfully cunning) first person shooter “Superhot” life on the ocean waves is a tranquil and relaxing one, time virtually frozen in place.
Until you do something, that is.
Set sail, and the remaining hours of daylight will pass in minutes. A few minutes fishing, and the sky will have faded from the cloudy blues of daylight to the ominous purples and reds of dusk. The day/night cycle is preternaturally fast, and this is one game where you don’t want to still be out fishing at night. Apart from those things you must catch for a big bounty which only come out at night, remember?
Bobby Vee sung of The Night Having a Thousand Eyes yet “Dredge” has just the one; a Sauron-esque red orb that will taunt you from the clock which is showing a way later time than you’re comfortable with. Your piddling little front mounted light has little effect on the encroaching darkness, and there’s something glowing red on the horizon, drawing closer. The ordinarily peacefully delightful ambient soundtrack warps and crackles like a discordant fairground calliope. Your ship is already badly damaged and you’re floating on an infinite black abyss with the lighthouse of the Marrows a tiny pinprick on the distance – can you risk being out for just a few more minutes to catch that one that keeps getting away, even though those whispers are growing ever closer?
Night is a terrifying place in “Dredge” and it’s too easy to get stuck out in the middle of the ocean late at night. With only the simplest of maps at your disposal, the darkness masks all the familiar landmarks you’ve been using to navigate. The (upgradable) illumination on your boat will keep your sanity in check, but for only so long – and you’ll be racing home, risking your engines and hull to get you back beneath the glow of Greater Marrow’s welcoming Lighthouse.
It shares a similar mechanic with the excellent “Subnautica” and “Subnautica: Below Zero”, both games based around the open sea – albeit the latter more concerned about travelling under it. As the game starts, the islands on the distant horizon appear defiantly out of reach – misty mountain peaks, tropical islands, and silhouettes of sinister titanic temples. The profits from fish selling, treasure hunting (or other more insalubrious deals) can be invested back into your vessel allowing you to travel further afield, but with every nautical mile you venture away from safety, the longer it will take you to get back – and the greater the risk of being trapped at night, hunted by the denizens of the waters. The sea is littered with salvageable wrecks, barnacle and seaweed encrusted evidence of the last fate of the foolhardy or overconfident.
“Dredge” is a game unashamed to wear its independent credentials. It might not have the flashy visuals and voice acting of some bigger titles, but it has a unique look and feel all to itself. Every character you’ll meet on your travels is drawn with a very distinctive abstract style, giving them an otherworldly feel. The world feels appropriately huge, with beautiful environmental and water effects to accompany your treacherous navigations across its vast swathes.
It's not perfect – the game does tend towards a bit of a grind during the last act, and it’s not much of a spoiler to say that your ship gains abilities during the game, and that one such ability is effectively a “get out of trouble instantly” button which diminishes a lot of the risk posed by the things in the night. Also, because the game does very little in the way of holding your hand, there are a few areas early in the game where a chance visit pretty much guarantees the destruction of your boat, thanks to some overpowered threats. Familiarity also does bring contempt, and you’ll find yourself less and less afraid of the things that lurk beyond twilight as the tricks of the game become more apparent as you gain power and confidence.
The term Lovecraftian is overused, but – other than FromSoftware’s “Bloodborne” – I’d struggle to think of a game that evokes the eldritch source material so well. No pun intended, but there’s a lovely undercurrent of menace to the entire proceedings – from the unusual mutations and aberrations of fish that’ll start appearing in your catch, down to the thoroughly weird and untrustworthy bunch of characters you’ll meet enroute. My first playthrough – an intended quick test – lasted half a day, so one can’t deny – no pun intended – the game’s hook.
Dredge is available on pretty much every platform except the Oric Atmos and the Texas Instruments TI99/4A, and is well worth the meagre asking price. You’ll never have so much fun being lost at sea.