Dredge PS5 review – fishing for Cthulhu03/30/2023
An indie adventure that mixes Lovecraftian intrigue with a fishing sim is a peculiar idea for a video game but does the combination work?
It’s often said that Lovecraftian style horror is impossible to film and so far cinema has proven that largely correct. Lovecraft wrote many kinds of stories and while films like Alien and The Thing are reminiscent of some of his simpler tales it’s only more obscure titles, like the wonderful Annihilation, that come close to the sort of abstract weirdness he’s best known for. Games have generally fared better though, with Bloodborne being the high watermark for interactive cosmic horror. The question here is whether Dredge can match it, in terms of atmosphere if not action.
Considering Dredge is at heart a fishing boat simulator it obviously has little in common with Bloodborne, or any other action game, beyond the same literary inspirations. The backstory is interesting though, as you play the role of a trawlerman, encouraged to move to a lonely island community in order to restart their fishing industry.
That’s not the typical starting point for a video game but it only takes the opening cut scene for your boat to be sunk by a mysterious rock that seems to appear literally out of nowhere. The villagers are so keen to have you fishing though that they immediately furnish you with a new boat and encourage you to get to work as soon as possible.
For the first hour or so Dredge really is just a fishing simulator. All the villagers and other people you meet are a bit weird but, at least during the daytime, everything seems surprisingly idyllic, as you chug around the coast, admiring the scenery and looking for little bubbles rising up from the waters below, indicating that there are fish below or… other things.
You need specialised equipment for fishing in different depths, and for pulling up non-fish related items, but the central fishing mechanic is a simple mini-game where you have to press a button as a dial moves around a circular display.
Different equipment and types of fish work in slightly different ways – the crane has you navigating a little cursor around a circular maze – but mechanically Dredge is very straightforward. Especially as you can’t fail when catching normal fish, as all the mini-game does is speed up how quickly you land them.
When you collect something you have to store it in your hold, which involves you arranging fish and collectibles in a manner that’s reminiscent of the attaché case from Resident Evil 4. No matter what else happens in the game fishing always remains important, not only as the main gameplay mechanic but as a means to keep yourself furnished with enough money to pay for upgrades, which range from a new fishing rod to better night lights.
Dredging up lost treasures, like gold doubloons and other more mysterious treasures, is more lucrative than fishing but is more difficult to find than just reeling in some salmon and selling them back at a friendly port. Resources, used to upgrade your boat size and capacity, are also useful to recover from the depths but they don’t necessarily earn you any money either.
Where the Lovecraftian angle comes into things, apart from all the teleporting rocks, is that as soon as it starts to get dark strange lights can be seen in the distance and a peculiar fog rolls in from nowhere. Unseen creatures can suddenly jump aboard and infect your cargo, as your sanity begins to slip and you start seeing Sauron-like eyeballs everywhere. Although the simple remedy to this, at least in the beginning, is to just make sure you don’t stay out late.
Soon enough though you’re talked into performing a number of special tasks for various people and so you’re given excuses to visit all the other nearby islands and start dredging some of the nearby wrecks and landmarks. Many fish only come out at night and so the game sets up a neat little risk and reward system where you want to stay out as late as possible but don’t want to end up pranging your boat or losing your catch to evil looking birds that suddenly appear out of nowhere.
Dredge is a great idea for a game, the sort of concept that is only possible as a low budget indie title but has the potential to be much more interesting and innovative than most AAA games. The problem is, though, that it doesn’t really work. As you might guess from the 12 age rating, at no point is the game remotely scary or even all that atmospheric.
It’s not that the graphics are bad, but the concept is so abstract, especially the fact that you basically are the boat – since you never see your in-game self except in the occasional 2D cut scene – that you never feel grounded in the game world and everything ends up feeling very disconnected and distant.
The script is fine and the story quite intriguing, but the open world approach works against it, as you pootle about without being in any real danger. In the opening hours there’s nothing that will do you any serious damage and while the stakes are raised the further you get into the story that gap between the game and player is never really bridged.
Crucially, this isn’t a horror game, despite the developer suddenly deciding otherwise literally minutes before the end. Prior to that, everything is left just that bit too vague and understated. While there’s a surprising amount of variety in the locations you visit, and how the fishing mechanic is repurposed in different ways, at the end of the day (and night) you’re just going out on fetch quests and playing Game & Watch level mini-games.
The underdeveloped horror elements begin to feel like an encumbrance, and you start to get the feeling that the game probably would’ve been better off as a straight fishing sim, with no Lovecraftian elements. It definitely needed to be one or the other though as trying to play it both ways leaves the game unable to satisfy on either level. There’re some interesting ideas in Dredge but they’re never taken full advantage of and while it reels you in at first the game begins to flounder long before the end.
Dredge PS5 review summary
In Short: Part fishing simulator and part Lovecraftian adventure but while the two concepts work together surprisingly well, they both feel disappointingly undercooked.
Pros: An interestingly unusual mix of gameplay elements means you’re never quite sure what’s going on, especially at night. The fishing sim side of things is surprisingly engrossing.
Cons: The game’s not scary and the fishing is very simplistic. The game’s good at obscuring the fact but the structure is just an endless series of fetch quests.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Developer: Black Salt Games
Release Date: 30th March 2023
Age Rating: 12
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