Catching eldritch horrors in fishing sim Dredge has fed my morbid curiosity for what lies beneath
A reel catch
It’s the dead of night. I’m in my little tugboat out on open waters. I can barely see three feet in front of my nose because of the thick blanket of fog, but I'm trying my hand at night fishing, hoping to hook something really good. I find a squid spot and start to fish, reeling in one or two fine-looking catches. The third one, however, is monstrous, a mess of jagged teeth and sickly pale flesh. Yes, this should make for a fine amount of cash. The more morbid it is, the more money I get. Suddenly there’s a deep rumbling in the ocean and panic starts to creep in. I chuck my prize into my cargo and speed back to town, the phrase ‘fuck round, find out’ circling my brain.
I’ve not been playing Dredge long, but I’m calling it one of my favourite games of the year, right now, in February. Black Salt Games' sinister fishing RPG is gripping and enchanting in a way I didn’t anticipate. I’ve spent hours exploring its murky waters and my constant shock at what unsettling creatures my hook brings in is seemingly never-ending. Its eldritch world keeps pulling me back with its mystery and malevolent horror, and its sense of atmosphere and tension is incredible. Basically, I'm completely enraptured, hook, line, sinker. Dredge already feels like one of this year’s greatest indie horrors and all this, from a fishing game of all things.
I mean, fishing is supposed to be relaxing! It's meditative and laid-back and its interpretation in games has followed suit (not you, Stardew Valley, never you). Usually, fishing is a light mini-game in life sims like Disney Dreamlight Valley and Spiritfarer. Occasionally, it gets more of the spotlight like Bunnyhug's lo-fi fishing RPG Moonglow Bay, but anything more and you're often looking at full-blown sim games like last year’s Call of the Wild: The Angler, or 1977’s Sega Bass Fishing - what a classic.
Dredge is a world away from all that. Actually, scratch that, it's basically in another dimension. It all begins with your nameless character washing up on the shores of Great Marrow, a grotty fishing town in the middle of an archipelago. You’ve arrived to be the town's new fisherman, but your boat got caught
in the clutches of a monstrous creature in a storm as you were coming into the dock. After being greeted by the mayor and introduced to other town locals, it's not long before things start to get… a little fishy. What happened to the previous fisherman? What's with the ominous, looming vibe coming from the lighthouse? And why does everyone keep telling you to get back to shore before sundown? There’s something serisouly sinister going on in this archipelago.
To start earning money, out on the waters I go in my little tugboat. My first outing is actually pretty laid-back. The sun is shining, the water is glistening, and there's a lovely breeze. Perfect weather for some fishing. Dredge’s fishing works as a combination of a timed mini-game together with block puzzle elements. Circular spots of swimming fish on the ocean's surface let you know where to stop your boat, and after pressing F to start fishing you need to stop a spinning arrow in the green areas of a doughnut. You don’t need to do especially well, but each target you hit successfully helps you catch fish faster, and time really is of the essence. After a successful catch you then need to neatly fit your fish into your inventory grid, which represents your cargo. The more fish you catch, the more you’ll need to move them around to efficiently use up your ship’s space.
There’s a timer at the top of the screen letting you know what time of day it is, and during my first couple of trips, I heeded the mayor’s warning and always made sure to make it back before sundown. But a nice, lovely fishing sim is not why I’m playing Dredge, so one day I wait for nightfall and head out. A thick fog blocks your view of any ripe fishing spots, so you have to search for them as your travel through the murky waters, your flickering lamp the only guiding light. It's unnerving at first. The fish you catch all start out quite normal, but slowly you begin to discover more monstrous creatures. Fish with giant toothy maws, bulbous eyes streaked with red veins, bones breaking through scales and skin - it’s messed up.
Being out on the water too long and exposing yourself to these fucked up fish affects an eyeball-shaped panic meter on top of your screen - which, let me just say, is very unnerving when its pupil starts to dart around at a furious pace the more panicked you get. But that's precisely the point. Bright lights and sleeping will reduce your sense of panic, but if you take on too much during the night, it will spill into the next day - the eye remaining at the top of your screen, the fear lingering from the night before.
"The local fishmonger will pay a pretty penny for the eldritch creatures you find, egging you on to get more."
The panic, however unsettling, is worth it though, as the local fishmonger will pay a pretty penny for the eldritch creatures you find, egging you on to get more. I get that bigger fish means more money, but there’s something creepy about his keen interest in your nighttime fishing. What is he doing with all the cursed fish I have brought him? Surely, he's not selling them for people to eat? Outside of the goulish fishmonger, there’s more going on in this town. A dubious collector who lives on a solitary island gifts me an actual dredge so that I can unearth artifacts and treasures found on the ocean floor. A lighthouse keeper whose sunken eyes never leave the sea tells me tales of shadows she’s seen in the ocean's dark waters.
I seemingly have an entire shopping list of reasons why I should stop, but I don't. I have a strange fascination with what I've found in the deep and I want to find more. Dredge has taken a big chomp out of me and now I am riddled with curiosity. The game becomes incredibly moreish as it dangles different rod types to buy, boat parts to upgrade, and better equipment in front of you. I want them all, and to sail further into the seas and explore the islands of this strange world. Dredge is just as much a mystery game as it is a horror fishing sim.
Dredge certainly taps into that fear of the deep, but there’s something more going on here. Each outing feels like I’m pushing further and further into its world in a way I’ve not felt in games for a hot minute. At one point during a nighttime escapade, as I ventured the furthest I had ever gone into open waters, a giant, hulking creature slammed into my boat and swam away as quickly as it had appeared. It didn't shock me as much as thrilled me, and even as I'm writing this preview I’m itching to get back to sailing on Dredge's abyssal waters.
And to top everything off, it looks like I've only skimmed Dredge's surface. Trailers have shown encounters with colossal monsters that are easily ten times the size of my boat. There are teases of giant fins skirting the water’s surface, long, twisted shadows beneath the ocean’s sheen, and giant red eyes peering out from thick mists. I need to play the rest of this game, like, right now.