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annapirie
28th April 2023

Dredge: Euphoric short excitement

Deep, dark and dreadful. Black Salt Games’ debut, Dredge, delivers a delightful dunk, with some short lacking narratives.
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Dredge: Euphoric short excitement
Photo: Dredge @ Black Salt Games

Black Salt Games’ debut release, Dredge, will satisfy fans of cosmic horror and exploration games alike. Although, it is not without shortcomings.

Each morning I wake and set off in the golden glow of the quickly rising sun. The day passes swiftly as I work, hauling in the fish in great numbers. One squirms against my arms, mashing its too-many teeth: The deep faces its own consequences of creation. In the darkness, brutality becomes the ultimate filter.”

As dusk sweeps in, I dutifully make my way back to the lights and safety of the port. I sell my daily catches to the fishmonger, including the aberration. Even in death, it refuses to stay still. Across the darkened seas, distant forms of- well, something, roll across the waves. Laying down to sleep in the cabin, I catch a glimpse of the sickly red lights that emanate in the sky at night.

I think I was always going to enjoy Dredge. Being a cosmic horror fan with mild thalassophobia, it felt, at times, tailored to suit my tastes. I don’t mean this to deny the work of Black Salt Games. A great deal of time and effort has plainly gone into refining their debut title to excellent effect.

Dredge is, by all accounts, a tight little game, boasting good mechanics and better exploration. Yet, at times, I can’t help but wonder if my predisposition was what ended up carrying me through the game. Dredge’s general gestures towards cosmic horror were enough for me, but the cracks in its hull did inevitably begin to show towards the game’s final hours.

Let’s rewind a bit. Dredge positions you as the new fisherman for an archipelago spread across swathes of the seemingly harmless sea. The game largely plays out through exploration and various fishing minigames, with a healthy dose of inventory management and minor survival mechanics to boot. All the while, Black Salt Games filter this gameplay through the eldritch atmosphere of Lovecraft.

The most obvious comparison to make here would be against Failbetter Games’ 2015 release Sunless Sea, which, similarly to Dredge, entices with oceanic mystery and cosmic terrors. Dredge even borrows Sunless Sea’s mechanic of tracking the player’s fear as though it were a health bar of sorts. Yet the comparison mostly ends there. Sunless Sea focuses intensely on its writing and worldbuilding. Dredge, meanwhile, focuses on the tension of adventuring across the seas, and discovering increasingly disturbing fish species. Oh, and being harassed by forces beyond your comprehension.

Photo: Black Salt Games @ IGN

While this may seem simple, the very act of adventuring is made deeply enjoyable. The controls are tight and responsive, and the upgrades you’ll make to your gear yield substantive results in sailing. While simplistic, the gameplay loop is wildly effective at reeling you in, particularly in the game’s honeymoon period in its early hours. Each day cycle I played began with setting off early, excitedly anticipating new sights and more expensive fish to catch and sell. Yet, inevitably, each day ended with a panicked rush through the purple haze of dusk to find a nearby port. It’s compelling stuff. 

It is, of course, helpful that Dredge is a visual delight. Bright arrays of colours, striking landscape design, and distinctly hand-illustrated characters are all large contributors to the euphoria of experiencing Dredge.

Indeed, this euphoria is nothing short of intoxicating at first. As mentioned, the early hours of the game are undeniably its strongest. Most potent here is that sparkling veneer of mystery and danger to the unexplored lands (and seas) around you. Yet, as time passes, this veneer inevitably fades away. Ultimately, Dredge’s largest issue is its failure to maintain that initial excitement. In time, I discovered that the world around me, and the stories it contained were a little more toothless than originally anticipated. 

These rougher edges largely manifest across the game’s writing. The narrative is not particularly a heavy focus across Dredge but is still a feature. Much of the game’s plot is conveyed either through short conversations with various characters or, more passively, through text logs spread across the map. Yet, each encounter left me wishing there was just a bit more narrative meat for me to dig my teeth into.

Similar issues arose with the various side-quests where most were disappointingly simple. At times, they felt unfinished. My dissatisfaction only grew after discovering that side-quests were largely rewarded with loot rather than snatches of story.

Dredge isn’t poorly written, rather that this writing felt uncharacteristically thin on the ground for a game that seemed to have so much to say. Some may even argue that this sparse storytelling is appropriate; the cosmic horror genre found success in being disturbingly vague in its writing. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Dredge was just holding something back.

Photo: Black Salt Games @ IGN

Even in the absence of explicit narrative, Black Salt have been meticulous in crafting an atmospheric title. The musical motif you would normally get when catching a fish is twisted into something more sinister-sounding as you yank out a horror from the deep. There is the occasional deep, otherworldly groan that echoes across the map and shakes your hull with sheer force. The bright, inviting colours of the day inevitably fade to the blues, purples, and blood-reds of the nighttime.

Dredge can only be called an undeniable success. For an independent studio’s debut release, it is stunningly well refined and shows a commitment to their craft that can only bode well for any future releases. Yes, there are a few rough edges to it, but nothing was ever enough to stop me from deeply enjoying myself across its ten-hour playtime.

4/5.

Anna Pirie

Anna Pirie

she/her games editor for The Mancunion, literature student, and professional olive eater

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