It's almost a little too easy to become comfortable with Dredge. I've been sailing all night long in my wee fishing boat, Tetrissing all manner of fish inside my inventory Resident Evil-style. I'm so engrossed I've failed to notice the rocks that are desperate for me to crash and the mysterious critters that are slithering their way into my meticulously organised vessel.
Dredge isn't the usual fish-and-chill game I've become so accustomed to playing. It's a mysterious, sinister survival game dressed up in wellies. The premise is simple enough: after totalling your old boat and ending up on a strange island, the mayor generously gifts you a rickety hand-me-down craft and a small debt. That debt, of course, is repaid in sea creatures. There's not much I'm able to grab at first—maybe a flounder, mostly carp, easy enough to slot into my inventory and go about my day. But after paying off my initial debt and performing some nice upgrades, my fishing horizons broaden massively.
Larger fish start appearing, along with more complex shapes to slot into the cargo hold. While eels are simple three-tile straight lines, fish like the bronze whaler are annoying bastards with one-tile prongs sticking out at diagonally opposite ends of its long body. Couple that with the fact that fishing rods, engines, reels and other trawling tools also take up space and it becomes a game of strategy. Instead of diving in head-first, I was having to take the time to think about which tools were right for the job. I'm not usually great at planning ahead, but quests handed out by NPCs generally help steer me in the right direction of what to bring out with me.
As I set out to sail, the mayor warns me to come back as the sun sets and the fog thickens. Pfft, I'm a fishing pro. I have a lantern, a rod and my wits about me. A little bit of darkness isn't going to scare me. Except it absolutely is. The Black Salt Games team lets me know that while I've been happily fishing away without a care in the world, my poor little fisherman has been in a deep-set panic for a hot minute. Those rocks I've been dodging, seemingly appearing out of nowhere? I've been hallucinating them, my anxiety willing them into existence.
A sinister plaice
An eye indicator at the top of the screen dictates the panic meter—now staring at me, fiery red, its pupil moving erratically. Certain things, like not sleeping or fishing too long in the thick night fog, will propel the panic meter to the top. Small solutions like keeping a lantern on or getting some shuteye can alleviate the problem somewhat, with even more options to save your sanity unlocking later on.
I quickly hurry back to my home island, helpfully directed by an ever-present lighthouse. It's a small touch my directionally challenged self is grateful for. I haven't ventured out very far, but sailing further out will open up all manner of biomes. Ancient ruins and twisting, dense submerged forests await me beyond the horizon as I unravel the stories each area has to offer.
My little fisherman friend awakes, the panic meter's eye finally soothed and my screen no longer tinged red. As is usually the case, though, the problems aren't over. I open my cargo to find one of my catches covered in purple blotches, infected from whatever slimy evildoer my brain conjured up the night before. It seems imagination is a pretty powerful thing because here I am, faced with a sickly sea critter that's about to infect all my other goods.
I should discard it, but curiosity gets the better of me. I leave it, along with one other fish and get ready to set sail. This is when I discover another one of Dredge's quirks. Most of this game's sea creatures are real, with a nice little encyclopaedia recording each catch. But underneath each log lies a few variants, and while their shapes are currently cloaked behind shadow it's clear they're out of the ordinary.
As I'm fishing along the same waters I've frequented the past few in-game days, I'm grabbing a few L-shaped carp. But I reel one in that's not like the others, as a three-eyed bright yellow creature stares back at me. Not long after that, my infected fish has latched onto the other regular catch I'd left next to it. That one too has become a three-eyed monstrosity. The team tells me it's actually quite rare to have a newly-infected fish mutate, and yet here we are.
I'm already gearing up to discover more weird and wonderful variations, but my time with Dredge is up. I wasn't sure what to expect when I walked in—"fishing horror" seems to be solidifying itself as an actual genre, which is wild, but Dredge proves how damn well it works. An hour in and I feel like I've only entered the shallow end of what the game has to offer. At risk of being fired for another fishing pun, Dredge really does have me hook, line and sinker. I can't wait to discover what lies in its depths.
Dredge is set to release on Steam in 2023.