Developer: Black Salt Games
Reviewed On: PlayStation 5
Also Available For: PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
In my opinion, dear reader, the ideal difficulty for games is one wherein you constantly feel as though you are on the cusp of a failstate while rarely, if ever, actually achieving one. You see this in a broad variety of genres: in survival horror games, where health and ammo are so scarce you always feel like you’re about to run out, but a competent player almost never actually will, or a stealth game where the slightest miscalculation sends you scrambling to avoid being seen/caught. Even in TTRPGs, this phenomenon can occur with skilled dungeon masters who design encounters such that the party feels like they’re constantly having their ass handed to them but always manage to scrape by. DREDGE is an excellent example of this ideal difficulty level.
Which is impressive, considering it’s a fishing game.
It does help, I think, that horror is generally well suited for this kind of difficulty, predicated as it often is on instilling a sense of helplessness in the player, and thus DREDGE is at an advantage simply by virtue of its genre.
“But wait,” you may be saying to yourself, “I thought she just said it was a fishing game?” Well, yeah, it’s both.
Let me start over: DREDGE is a fishing game that takes advantage of the terror innate to not knowing what ancient and unfathomable things lurk in the depths of the great blue sea. The player fills the waterlogged shoes of the new angler for a classic sleepy coastal hamlet known as Greater Marrow, starting off with a shitty little dinghy loaned to you by the mayor after you wreck your own boat on the rocks thanks to some unnatural fog. After a brief introduction to the key merchants of Greater Marrow, you’re plopped into the open ocean with complete freedom to do as you see fit… no matter how inadvisable your chosen course of action may end up being.
Before you read any further though, let me just say this: ONE OF THE BEST THINGS ABOUT DREDGE IS HOW MUCH IT LEAVES FOR THE PLAYER TO FIGURE OUT AND DISCOVER ON THEIR OWN. I’m going to try to keep my discussion of this game to the very basics but consider yourself forewarned nevertheless.
The core of DREDGE’s gameplay is all about sailing between fishing spots and seeing what you can reel in before heading back to port to sell the catch of the day. It feels odd to call the mechanic by which fish are caught a “minigame” when the game is about that first and foremost, but I think you’ll take my meaning nonetheless. When reeling something in, the player is given one of a few variants of timed prompts that make the process go along a little faster – and, occasionally, provides a chance to pull in a “trophy” that is larger and worth more at market. Alternatively, you can just not press anything, let the fish get reeled in at a slower but perfectly steady pace and not risk setting progress back by missing, which I thought was a nice accommodational feature for those who are perhaps not so inclined to timing-based minigames.
Once you catch a fish, you have to find space for it in your cargo hold, which is its own minigame a la Resident Evil 4’s inventory management system – something I was unreasonably excited by when we received the review code for DREDGE just a few days before the release of the remake, at which time I was going insane with waiting. Various species of fish vary not only in size but also in shape, and some varieties take up cargo space in some truly weird ways, forcing you to get creative if you want them to fit. Naturally, you can upgrade your ship – which is a quest in and of itself – over the course of the game to have more space, but as you do you have to balance that space with getting better equipment, such as engines, nets, rods, and even headlights also take up room in your inventory. On top of all that, each time you take damage renders a spot in your cargo hold unusable, and if something happens to occupy that spot, even partially, you’ll either lose it (if it’s an item) or have it disabled (if it’s equipment).
This brings me to my next point, which is the various horrors of the sea. DREDGE operates on a day-night cycle which for the most part only advances when moving or fishing. Night, as one might expect, has more dangers – not only that, it also increases the player’s stress stat, which can “summon” other, greater threats even during the day. In addition, each of the game’s areas has its own unique monster to contend with, and neither these nor the common things will wait for the clock to move. Staying in one spot when an enormous beast with too many teeth shows up may keep time from advancing, but you’ll have far greater problems on your hands if you try it. Overall, it’s a very effective system for establishing tension – nothing makes fishing stressful quite like knowing that the longer you’re out on the water, the more you’re tempting fate.
Just like real life, albeit with more supernatural abominations! Probably.
If I have one complaint with the game, it would be that later on you gain an ability that can banish threats temporarily and buy you some breathing room. It has a rather significant cooldown, and using it comes at a cost, but even so it kind of made me feel like I was suddenly free to roam and do whatever I wanted with impunity. It didn’t kill my enthusiasm completely – I still had trouble putting it down, because the fishing aspect is just that addicting – but I didn’t love how it diffused that lovely sense of helplessness I mentioned earlier.
In the absence of a better transition into my conclusion, allow me to sum up: DREDGE is an addicting and compelling fusion of a genre I love and a genre I’ve never cared about at all, with a surprisingly thrilling level of difficulty, an unsettling if perhaps not the most original (when it comes to its approach to cosmic horror) story, and it single-handedly ruined my sleep schedule again. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered any other game that manages to both keep the player on the edge of their seat and be good for just vibing to at the same time and for that alone, DREDGE is well worth picking up.
Even once the novelty of the game's premise wears off, DREDGE will have you telling yourself you'll leave the waves behind in just another ten minutes, in perpetuum.