The sea is dark.
Being hours before dawn, no light penetrates the gathering clouds. I’ve know for some time now, even if I didn’t want to admit it, that I’m doing something wrong — something evil. But it’s too late to turn back. The storm grows worse, as if the very depths are trying to hold me back. But I cut a path to my inevitable destination. Our fates are sealed.
If you start Dredge expecting a breezy indie fishing game, you’ll be in for a hell of a surprise. A sublimely Lovecraftian atmosphere hangs over the most innocent task like an unnatural fog. But Black Salt Games’ aquatic tale boasts more than a finely crafted tone. Its narrative is irresistible, its design is finely tuned, and its gameplay is spellbinding.
Before the dramatic events detailed above begin to unfold, I’m nothing more than a humble fisherman looking for work. I find it in a place called Greater Marrow. The last fisherman for this down-on-its-luck seaside settlement stopped showing up some time ago, lucky for me, and the town desperately needs a replacement.
The story kicks off with a bang, as I don’t simply sail into a safe harbor. My boat is dashed to pieces by a nighttime squall, throwing me ashore. The game does a wonderful job of motivating to make money fast in two ways.
One, I’m essentially pressed into service by the town’s mayor and only released when I’ve made a certain, but reasonable, amount of money. And two, bringing in valuable fish helps revitalize the town. As the economy expands, so too does the number of helpful services the inhabitants offer. A dry dock where I can upgrade my ship with wood, metal, and other materials, for example, opens later in the game. It makes sailing the seas easier and catching fish more lucrative.
Fishing is cleverly designed to keep the could-be repetitive pursuit from growing stale. Anytime I spot an area of disturbed water, I can stop off to cast my line — given that I’ve acquired the needed equipment in town. Once cast, I tackle one of a series of different mini games to nab my target. These usually involve hitting a button at the right time.
Simply getting my haul back to shore is its own challenge, as the hull of my ship only holds so much and the fish are twisted into Tetris-like shapes. And the clock is always ticking. My fish grow less appetizing as the hours pass and subsequently bring in less revenue the longer they stay in my cargo.
Time is important for other reasons. When the sun sets on the waves, my mind becomes increasingly unsettled. Staying out after dark results in increasingly unnerving phenomena. In the early stages of paranoia, rocks appear out of nowhere to damage my boat — which will cost money to fix and might cause me to lose the cargo where my hull is damaged. But pushing myself through the night can cause ghostly monsters to ascend from the depths to smash my vessel entirely. It’s a wonderfully tense system that forces me to constantly weigh the benefits of one more catch against the possible catastrophic consequences.
A fan of tabletop role-playing games, I find Dredge’s narrative structure particularly compelling. Exploring the world leads to various points of interest, all fantastically described in subtle but evocative language, new characters, and fresh quests. Nothing is overly explained, though clues abound to help me decipher what’s going on.
Letting me put the pieces together makes me feel like I’m unraveling a mystery on my own, which I always appreciate. It also allows for different interpretations, which instantly made me want to others about what they believe is going on.
Dredge‘s ending, like the rest of the game, succeeds in marrying bewilderment and satisfaction. The title is, simply put, a must-play. Every element — atmospheric mystery, engaging moment-to-moment action, and brilliant storytelling earns it the top spot in my favorite games of the year so far.