I've barely stopped thinking about Dredge since I played an hour of it at Gamescom (opens in new tab)last year. The Lovecraftian fishing RPG has been one of my most anticipated games in a hot sec, and I've been desperate to hop back in and uncover the secrets that 60 minutes of play in a stuffy German business hall can't unveil. But like sharks, sinister thoughts have been circling the back of my mind—you know how they say to never meet your idols? What if my reunion with Dredge revealed that the game couldn't maintain its joy of discovery beyond its early hours?
Last year, I'd only really had the opportunity to tinker around in Dredge's starting area of Greater Marrow. This time, I spent a significant number of hours with its other four main islands, each with its own unique quirks, quests and fish to catch—some critters more ugly and mutated than others.
The deep below
It turns out Greater Marrow really eases you into the game gently. It gives you several in-game days to become accustomed to the loop of setting sail to fishing spots, catching very normal sea critters and tetrising them into your tiled inventory around your rods, engines and other bits you've fished up. Moving around and fishing causes the time to tick along, while docking at ports or staying still stops the minutes from flowing. The days do move frighteningly fast out on the water, though, and sometimes it felt like I'd barely experienced sunlight before the terrors of nighttime were already upon me.
Once those first few days are up, the darkness becomes a terrifying foe. A panic meter slowly increases during the later hours, made worse by poor lighting or dreamt-up delusions that plague my poor fisherman. Shadowy boats begin barreling towards me at breakneck speed, rocks manifest out of nowhere, and tentacles rise from the depths below to drag me down. Being in a highly panicked state is a dangerous game in Dredge—but the rewards for staying out after dark are all-too tempting.
Fish that don't appear during the daytime are up for grabs, some of them worth a pretty penny. Money is a vital part of Dredge, and it's something I struggled for in the early hours of the game. Your inventory has various slots that can be held by fish or dedicated to different bits of boating equipment. Rods, engines, lighting and nets will all cost you, with different rods and nets capable of catching different types of fish. If you're accident-prone and constantly damaging your boat, you'll need money to fix that up too.
New equipment isn't just bought, though. It has to be earned. Research parts can be fished up or given through completing quests which are then pumped into unlocking new bits of gear. There are also materials like cloth, wood and metal to find that can be used to increase inventory size and unlock more slots for each fishing tool. I really enjoyed the process of upgrading my vessel and sailing around to find materials. Most of it I was able to do naturally as I hunted out fish or explored shipwrecks, rarely having to go out of my way to grind for resources.
But why even do all this? What's the point of it all, to fish and be haunted by your own thoughts? Thankfully, I was able to get a better grasp on the narrative and the mysteries that lie within. The bulk of Dredge's narrative centres around obtaining relics for a rather shady-looking collector, a quest which points me in the direction of the game's different zones. I would often end up sailing to a new area, completing quests that would help me obtain the relic, to then return.
Finding a relic imbues me with new and useful abilities, but using them has a price.They do a decent amount of damage to my panic meter, slowly stripping away at my poor fisherman's emotional state. Some, like the ability to make your ship zoom ahead at a faster speed, also affect your ship by making the engine overheat.
Despite their downsides, these abilities come in real handy as I'm exploring Dredge's other islands for the first time. I've set sail for Gale Cliffs, the second area in the game. I have my haste ability to hand which I use to quickly traverse the waters. It's relatively safe to use in the daytime, bar having to mind my engine's temperature. It's also rather helpful for the zone's biggest roadblock, a giant pain-in-the-ass monster with red eyes that emerges between the cliff's pathways. He's fast and doesn't leave you alone until he's either hit you—damaging your hull and equipment, causing you to lose items—or until you're safely out of the winding maze of the cliffs.
I actually became quite frustrated with Gale Cliffs in the end. While haste helped, it made my attempts to explore really annoying. Each island has its own foes and problems to deal with, but this awful slithering monster often felt more unfair than the other hazards. There are abilities that can help deal with him, but they're not handed to you until after you've had to spend a good chunk of time being bothered by them. I began to get stuck in the loop of exploring a very small area, returning to the safety of a dock before nightfall and sleeping through the dark. It became a little repetitive, but I found once I reached other islands I fared much better.
Annoying giant monsters aren't the only otherworldly creatures you have to deal with, either. Not every fish you'll reel up from the waters is of your standard variety. Twisted aberrations occasionally emerge with freakish alterations to the real-world critters we know and love. Mackerels with several glassy eyes that stare into my soul. Perch with no eyes at all, instead baring teeth through rotting scales. The designs are unsettling in the way watching someone pop a pimple is—I hate it, but I can't look away. Filling out my encyclopedia with each fish and its mutations was something I really took to, occasionally forgoing my quests altogether just to find the next weirdest thing in the sea.
Exploring around for these strange critters alerted me to how many neat things Dredge has stuffed into its various corners. Shipwrecks and bottle messages scatter the seas, each telling a tale. The wrecks often have items or remnants that further feed into the narrative and some of the bottle messages are truly unnerving bits of world-building. I even came across a dog looking for a home, and some strange cultists that demanded I bring them different types of fish.
I'm about 15 hours in and I'm still tinkering around in Dredge's final area. I even started a new playthrough to see how quickly I could get around again, finding a weird desire to replay from the beginning and do things more efficiently. That doesn't even particularly matter—as far as I'm aware, Dredge has no time limit. I'm on day 64 on my original playthrough and there's been nothing to indicate that I'm doing it wrong by taking my time. But it's such a simple game to begin sinking time into that it lends itself to replayability, doing things faster and better than before.
Dredge is a near-perfect blend of spooky happenings and chilled-out fishing. It's gorgeous to boot, and even if you're not particularly horror-inclined like me, its sinister undercurrent is so much fun to delve deeper into. I can't wait to finish putting together the pieces of its mysterious narrative and uncover more weird secrets stuffed into every cove, island and canal.