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7.5
                         

Developer

Black Salt Games

Genre

Adventure

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DREDGE (XS)

By Lee Mehr 10th May 2023 | 3,630 views 

Despite some nasty snags on the line, DREDGE is nevertheless a rare catch.

I'll admit, the idea of trekking across the deep blue sea, hoisting whatever I find beneath the foamy brine, isn't my first choice for a game; even real-life fishing is a rarity for me.  Sure, fishing mini-games have always been a pleasant staple, but as a side platter to an action-adventure entrée.  Where others sea distraction Black Salt Games seas possibility.  By refashioning the tempo of a laidback boating & fishing sim into an eldritch adventure, DREDGE consistently finds a way to keep you hooked.

The tale starts simple enough: you step into the rugged overalls of an unnamed fisherman who's crash-landed near a local seaside town.  Greater Marrow's mayor is welcoming to afford you a new vessel – in exchange for a modest loan, of course.  His troubled stare and cryptic words suggest there are dark secrets hidden beneath the water.  As you begin to venture further out, likely staying out past sunset before reaching the dock, you understand why: unbeknownst horrors are lurking out there.


Said mayor is emblematic of DREDGE's interesting fusion: the tempo of working to accomplish an honest day's work a la Animal Crossing (this mayor you’re indebted to isn’t a shifty raccoon though) and the Lovecraftian seaside populated with saturnine characters. 

As you exit any port and begin scootering across the ocean, the goal is to venture towards visible disturbances on the water's surface and reel in fish.  Your player-character pulling the line is automatic; however, the process can speed up or slow down depending on if you hit the highlighted targets on time.  Too many mistakes can net an escaped fish, but most players likely won’t see that fail state.  And since the in-game clock ticks at such a rapid pace, it's rewarding to see successful skill-checks saving daylight.  The same principle applies to dredging for sunken treasures or material found from bubbling shipwrecks.  The skill-check is akin to fishing but different in its design: your marker will have to hop between two tracks and avoid gaps on a spinning circle. 

Whatever's successfully hauled in (live or otherwise) goes into your grid-based cargo hold.  Given some of the Tetris shapes you'll eventually uncover, there's a fun little challenge in maximizing storage space around other necessary items: engine block, fishing poles, nets, and boat light.  Given how delicate your skiff is and the potential dangers lurking around the corner, any sustained damage can result in lost cargo or damaged tools.  It taps into that OCD-driven satisfaction of your fattened hull coming to shore and emptying everything to the appropriate trader.  There are a couple qualms with it, namely swapping out upgrades or manually shuffling through for specific quest items, but it's nonetheless a fitting and rewarding mechanic.


From a distance, DREDGE taps into that type of engaging & chill middle ground with ease.  The main rhythm of accomplishing "x" to continually improve at "x" feels tangible.  It starts off simple with a slightly faster engine or new special lines to catch a wider variety of fish; eventually, you're transforming into a one-man business with a trawling net, crab pots, and even better fishing lines all housed in a bigger boat with increased storage space.  Everything pulled onboard (including 100+ different species of fish) feeds into improving your station too, be it through raw materials or money.  Put simply, it's a hermetically-sealed feedback loop.

But it's that sinking feeling of the unknown – the trepidation that awakens at night – which gives this adventure a different atmosphere.  It starts out small with an evolutionary dead-end of a fish species flopping into your cargo hold; maybe it's a three-headed cod or a grotesque eel with fangs.  Even reading the terse description of these monstrosities can give you goosebumps.  Weirder still, the local fishmonger promises a higher price for them (like with trophy fish), as they're considered a delicacy by the townsfolk.  It incentivizes nighttime fishing, but that poses a danger when your sanity meter comes into play. 

The reason daylight is so important is because you're meant to sleep like a regular person.  Foregoing that affects your panicked state, which is also visually reinforced by a darting red eye at the top of your screen.  Outside otherworldly fish, creepy nighttime phenomena like colored light sources, boats that'll disappear once inside your light's vision cone, and more will cause you to question what’s there and what's not.  More tangible effects from lowered sanity come in the shape of leviathans damaging your hull or crows swooping in to steal loot.  It’s a nice blend of mechanics and atmosphere: affording players the freedom to wade through nighttime's tenebrous fog but with a layer of cruelty from the game's systems.


In a sense, the idea of acclimatizing oneself to a Lovecraftian world cuts against that overarching horror of the unknowable.  Almost like Cthulhu becomes more akin to a scarier Sasquatch.  I can track the argument, but still think it misses the point.  Taking a step past that critique, you can also realize that once-incomprehensible horrors have become part and parcel of the day-to-day routine.  Imagine ranting at the local pub over Shalu'nusthra The Unceasing Blight wrecking your new engine and then hearing someone respond with "oof… yep, I’ve been there, buddy."  There are no pubs nor bars here (sadly), but it's that sensation of how subtly this creepy world grows on you that makes it special.

The golden path deserves credit for its simplicity: the enigmatic "Collector" plops one main item across each of the map's five archipelagoes.  You go there, dredge up the treasure, return to him with it, and receive a cool new power, such as a temporary speed boost.  Although only being able to fast travel to his island in exchange for sanity is… less-than-ideal, I understand establishing in-universe rules to emphasize potential side-quests and other distractions.  Because uncovering things heuristically, like handling a monster or avoiding sea serpents, is part of how you'll sometimes have to plan out what items to use for the right occasion.

DREDGE has all of its design ducks in a row, but occasionally flounders its execution.  While the last two main archipelagoes have character, they rely on gimmicks which dramatically slow the pacing.  Granted, there are some shortcuts to blow open with explosives, but depending on your circumstances you can be a full in-game day away from a trader’s outpost just to go back to make the precious shortcut you’ll only use once or twice.  The final level adds another layer on top by including pseudo-stealth: keeping distance from nettlesome "alarm fish" while slipping around tight spaces – any one bump likely causing hull damage.  The wrong kind of complexity can be like tossing an anchor overboard at full speed. 


It's surprising to say that given Black Salt's succinctness with its narrative and presentation.  Were you to assess the overarching story after The Collector asks you to retrieve those particular items, it doesn't take long to mentally map the Lovecraftian avenues.  But it's more about the subtle world-building, atmosphere, and vibe (as the cool kids say).  One of my favorite touches is the fisherman's encyclopedia; not voluminous in detail, but punchy and effective – especially the macabre descriptions for the aberrations.  That same tastefulness is true for the modest roster of side characters.  They’ll speak their mind when needed, but never to drag out the point.

Matching that is a clean and colorful art design for this array of fish and townsfolk.  Most technical achievements overall are quite basic; as a matter of fact, I felt it better to toggle performance mode so I wouldn’t have to deal with the odd framerate dip.  Its merits lie with the details, such as watching your catch subtly wobble and hearing the light thwack when placing it in the cargo hold.  There are also nice touches to the dredging/fishing UI that effectively communicate what to do and your expected haul.  All of this is complimented by David Mason’s soundscape, which successfully captures the sinister and serene of these strange waters.


Think of DREDGE’s success like consecutively catching a school of sunfish rather than one marlin.  Initially wading into its waters suggests a more casual fishing sim with inventory management; then, its Lovecraftian elements take shape, making you reconsider what sort of dangers lie beneath.  That careful fusion informs the atmosphere and drip-feeds its more intricate elements over time.  Every few minutes feels like a new oppor-tuna-ty to uncover something new and intriguing – regardless of size or extent.  Although the second half tarnishes the e-fish-ent story & gameplay pacing of before, Black Salt’s nautical adventure is still a rare catch.


Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.


VGChartz Verdict


7.5
Good

This review is based on a digital copy of DREDGE for the XS, provided by the publisher.


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