Dredge (Switch) Review
You can’t say dredge without also saying dread, which must surely be deliberate nomenclature, for dread is the caulking ingredient of this nautical adventure. It exists primarily in the constantly ticking clock, which portends approaching night and the sanity-draining effect of maritime darkness. There’s also the literal meaning of the word – to dig or drag something up from the bottom of a body of water. Although much of your time in Dredge is focused on accruing money by fishing, it’s not long before it becomes clear that something more worrying is going on, and for strange artifacts and sea life to appear at the end of your line. Cosmic dread, then, the dredging up of things lost, forgotten and corrupted.
As the captain of a rickety fishing boat in Dredge, you start off with the simple task of paying off the debt of a new vessel, having been rescued from a prior wreck and taken in by the local mayor as a replacement fisherman to service a series of sparsely populated islands. In typical videogame fashion, you don’t seem to have much of an option in the matter, unless you want to sleep with the fishes. The first hour or so of Dredge is a pleasant learning of the ropes, putt-putting about a rocky bay, catching fish, selling them, and chatting to dour locals, all of whom are as sharply hewn as the craggy islands they occupy. Everyone has a story, a dark past, a family tragedy. But they’ll ask you to help them out, perhaps to find the remains of a wreck that claimed the life or livelihood of a family member, or to simply catch specific types of fish, some of which may only come out at night. They’ll also fix your boat and sell you upgrades, and purchase from you any trinkets you may dredge up.
Gameplay is a combination of directly navigating your boat to fishing spots or points of interest and then entering into mini games to fish or scour wrecks. These games feature timed inputs, and each species of fish has a different slant on the idea, while dredging sunken treasures takes the form of jumping between circular lanes to avoid black bars, which push your line back down if hit and thus make more time pass. Time itself is the key scarce resource in Dredge. It passes whenever you move, fish, dredge and so on, but not when you stop to look through your journal, task list or map, nor when you speak to locals, upgrade, repair or buy and sell. Even so, it is a commodity that slips by extremely quickly, and you can only carry out a handful of actions before darkness encroaches.
Why is darkness bad? For starters, your lights barely penetrate the sable veil, making it both difficult and dangerous to navigate the waters. Any knock against rocky outcrops or the shore can damage your boat substantially, resulting in costly repairs. Secondly, there’s something a bit off about night in Dredge’s world. There’s a strange watching eye that will start flitting around at the top of your screen, focusing on you if you stay out late, reducing your sanity and creating extra water hazards that pop up right before you where normally there would be nothing. Go without sleep for too long, and weird red lights will seek you out at night, resulting in monster apparitions that will sweep through your boat, damaging or destroying you.
The middle gameplay loop thus becomes about gaining brighter lights and more efficient engines, so that you can travel farther in daylight hours, hopping between docks, catching fish, fulfilling side missions, dredging treasures and upgrading your boat, generally feeling just a little bit faster, stronger and more able to tackle these strange moorings. If you do happen to be caught out in the dark, higher luminosity helps stay madness, allowing you to reach safe harbour or, in moments of brave gambling, seek out mysterious night catches.
While these loops are inherently pleasant and settle in the shores of you would expect from an indie game of this type, it’s the overall package that impresses. From the clean art style and impressive water effects to an ethereal soundtrack that meanders between melody and discord. Other audio effects stand out here, creating a sense of cold isolation. Whatever activity you are doing, it’s accompanied by jangling chains, creaking wood, cawing gulls, the echoes of deep water fishing, and the gentle lapping of waves. It’s enough to cause you to shiver and feel a desire for a warm cup of home-cooked soup and a rug over your shoulders.
The writing is simple yet effective. Characters feel standoffish yet lonely, and curious enough to accept your help, be it to dredge up a family heirloom to convince an angry brother to forgive his sibling and allow him to move back to an island, or the fishmonger curious to cut open any corrupted, mutated fish you might find to see what happens if they are eaten. Other mysterious figures abound, such as a collector who tasks you with finding lost artifacts and carries out book-related incantations to imbue you with new abilities such as a boost of speed that runs the risk of driving you mad or possibly damaging your engines if it runs too hot. Other upgrades await if you dare to risk them.
To say more about what follows would spoil things. And while this is a bit of a review-writing cop-out, it is deeply true that the less you know about Dredge going in, the more you will enjoy it and the more it will sink its hooks in. As you gain more engine power, the possibility of pushing from one side of the map to another inside one full day becomes a thrill. Yet there’s no sense of urgency to explore everywhere too early. In fact, it’s entirely possible to stay and grind away for as many upgrades as possible. Fishing spots ostensibly run out of fish if you hammer them too much, but I never found this to be an issue, as resting at a port always resulted in many new spots spawning.
Dredge does not outstay its welcome, with four main island chains housing a series of side quests and main collectible missions. My total play time at credits was just over ten hours, at which point I had upgraded everything, researched most engines, nets, and fishing lines, yet still had a handful of esoteric side quests to finish. Each island chain features a new environment, which of course means a different kind of fishing contraption needed, and thus a pleasant upgrade loop keeps you playing. Inventory management can feel a little frustrating, especially if you start catching larger oceanic fish. Towards the end game, my storage area was often completely full, which caused me to either sell or discard the least valuable items. Nevertheless, once you have upgraded your engine to be quite fast, it’s not too much of an effort to zip to a nearby port and offload your catch.
Dredge is a dark, engaging Switch experience that, unlike some of the three-eyed creatures you may pull up from the depths, feels perfectly sized. It balances serenity with risk, exploration with accumulation. A dreadfully good experience that cements Black Salt Games as a developer to watch in future.
+ Strong gameplay loop
+ Excellent art and sound design
+ Allows you to approach everything at your own pace
- Inventory Tetris may annoy until you upgrade a few times