Dredge, the horror fishing RPG for Switch and Steam, is captivating

The sky adopts an orangish hue as the world’s favorite fire giant awakens from its slumber, arcing towards the heavens until it looms over you, large and lustrous. A brisk breeze carries the refreshing waft of sea air directly toward and through your nostrils, as the wind ruffles your hair and the cold clings to your cheeks. On every side, the waves shimmer, textured by silvery tides of salt and foam.

With the above description in mind, it’s no wonder that people often associate fishing with peace and quiet — which is precisely why fishing towns are, somewhat ironically, a perfect locus for eldritch horror.

Dredge is described to me by three of the four team members from Black Salt Games as a “Lovecraftian fishing RPG,” which is a concept that, when you stop to think about it, feels like it should have been done by now. Much of Lovecraft’s work is concerned with the abyssal depths of the ocean, as opposed to the endless expanses of the universe that are more often considered by modern science fiction authors — one of his most famous stories, The Shadow Over Innsmouthis a testament to this.

While there have been games like Call of Cthulhu and The Sinking City — hell, even Bloodborne‘s The Old Hunters DLC incorporates a location called the Fishing Hamlet — Dredge is different. It specifically opts to acknowledge Lovecraftian tropes and ideas, but implements them in its own unique way. Of the dozen or so games I saw at Gamescom 2022, this was by far my favorite.

Dredge begins as you, a lone fisherman lost at sea, stumbles across a small maritime village. You’re greeted by the local mayor and the pair of you strike a deal: You are allowed to stay here on the condition that you provide for the town, and you can take out a loan to purchase a basic boat that will enable you to do so. A couple of days pass, during which you catch simple fish like cod and mackerel, both of which can be sold for decent money.

Image: Black Salt Games/Team17

You do this via a simple yet elegant fishing minigame that employs light rhythm mechanics, while your inventory is managed in a similar fashion to a Tetris grid, with fish, boat parts, and other cargo taking on various shapes and sizes. On one occasion, I spent 10 minutes trying to rearrange all of the fish I’d caught to fit one more cod on board — it was very satisfying.

On another, I spent even longer trying to make space for a castaway. This was less satisfying, but not because of the game’s technical systems — I was just annoyed that morality demanded I sacrifice half my haul. In hindsight, it was probably the right thing to do.

Throughout the whole game, there are roughly 125 different creatures to catch, as well as a host of treasures and trinkets to dredge up from the depths of the ocean. As you become acquainted with all of this, everything seems to be going well — perhaps a little too well.

It quickly becomes apparent that not everything at the village is as it seems. The mayor is shady, evading questions and insisting you focus on your work. The local trader is also a little odd, although it’s initially difficult to nail down why, let alone articulate it. It isn’t until you start adventuring at nighttime that you begin to understand that something definitely isn’t right.

A fishing boat sails away from a giant, one-eyed fish monster at nighttime in a screenshot from Dredge

Image: Black Salt Games/Team17

After exploring the archipelago during the day, it’s only natural for you to be curious about what happens after the sun goes down. Once evening comes, the types of fish you can catch change, meaning there will occasionally be certain requests that demand you to venture out in the dark. But alongside fish, there are also monsters lurking beneath the waves. Some of these slither on board and infect your haul. Other, larger creatures will simply try to smash up your hull, which not only damages your boat and causes you to lose cargo, but increases how panicked you are.

When your panic level in Dredge rises, you become far more prone to being boarded by monsters. Rocks will also randomly start to appear as you sail, with the explanation being that because it’s dark and you’re not thinking straight, you can’t see them until the last minute. You can mitigate this by turning your boat lights on, but obviously that also makes you more visible to the monsters. All of these minor systems are smartly interconnected to craft an experience that rapidly oscillates between calmness and chaos, fluttering from tranquility to terror as if it’s nobody’s business.

The safest bet is to avoid nighttime entirely — but as you start to meet characters who are also suspicious of the town’s relationship with the monsters, you no longer have much of a choice. As you progress through the game, you’ll start to catch messed-up fish that have clearly been mutated by some kind of eldritch power. Despite how disgusting it looks (most fish rots if you don’t sell it reasonably soon after catching it, but this corrupted fish keeps indefinitely), the local trader will pay top dollar for it. It was around this time that I was able to pinpoint how I knew he was such a weirdo earlier.

All of this is baked into the game’s mechanics, which is very intriguing from a narrative perspective. Sure, you have the main quest to follow and a bunch of side quests to experiment with — but it feels like you organically encounter the mystery attached to this place once you start to catch funky fish and dredge up mysterious trinkets, especially because the game refuses to explain why this is happening. It informs you that your suspicions aren’t misguided, that you’re right to pay attention to the fact there’s something sinister at play — but it’s handled with enough brevity that it doesn’t deride the pacing of repeatedly going out every day, fishing up some cod, selling your haul, catching some Z’s, and doing it all over again.

An interface screen from Dredge, in which a shipwright speaks to the player, with inventory interfaces for items on the lift and a cargo of fish on the right.

Image: Black Salt Games/Team17

This is why Dredge‘s mystery is so compelling: It’s slow-burning, centering on incomprehensible instances of strangeness tied to weird fish, weirder strangers, and a lingering sense of slowly debilitating dread. Its intensity often only increases at a glacial pace, although that has the potential to be far more effective than something more rapid or readily discernible — as Margaret Atwood once wrote, “In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

Dredgein development for Nintendo Switch and Windows PC, is by far one of the most fascinating games on the horizon right now. It has gorgeous art, thoughtful systems, and a fascinating premise that feels like it should have been done years ago — at least it’s finally being done now.

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