In an already packed field for 2023 indie titles, you’d be forgiven for overlooking Dredge. Its understated visuals, slow storytelling, and cheerless name may make you think it’s more of a drudge. Thankfully, in a matter of minutes, Dredge proves that appearances can be deceiving–and over time, it makes an excellent case for a place on this year’s independent game of the year shortlist.
After a hit-and-miss couple of years for Team17, the publisher has returned to form by giving another outstanding debut a platform–this time, the first title from New Zealand studio Black Salt Games. This four-strong Kiwi outfit may have created something just like its homeland: something small but near-perfectly formed, where the people are interesting, fishing is central to the economy, and exploration is as exciting as it is rewarding.
Dredge starts slowly in more ways than one. You’re washed up on the island of Great Morrow, at the heart of the game’s square map–a point you can see from anywhere you sail, thanks to its iconic lighthouse. You’re loaned a simple boat apparently powered by a leaf blower, which you need to use to catch fish and pay off your debt. From there, it’s entirely up to you what you choose to do across its open world.
You’re initially encouraged to explore Dredge’s diminutive, cheery archipelago, but not to stray too far from it. With a simple rod, you can only fish in shallow waters, but that’s OK. You’re given missions from the local mayor, fishmonger, and trader to keep you busy. Soon, you begin to discover more than just underwater wildlife, a rather eyebrow-raising collector helps the story unfurl into something deeper and darker than the oceans that surround you.
In Dredge, time only moves when you do. Sailing, fishing, dredging, and equipment installation can see the daylight hours of 6am to 6pm fly by, especially with your crappy outboard motor. You’re allowed to keep exploring once the sun sets, but there be monsters out there–both in the sea and in your mind.
It’s not initially made clear why it’s the case, but Dredge’s lurking darkness takes on a feeling of Lovecraft for Beginners, where a fear mechanic similar to Amnesia sees you increasingly panic after the sun goes down. Trepidation defines the waves, eyes surround your boat, and you’re left to wonder if the dangers are real or in your head. A lot of the time, the biggest threat is the land itself; it only takes a minor bump to damage your vessel.
However, risk equals reward, especially when you begin to improve your boat and abilities. Scrap and trinkets can be dredged, giving you access to upgrades to make you fitter, happier, and more productive.
Soon, you find yourself traveling further and faster, fishing for more diverse cat catches in mangroves, volcanic waters, and the abyss, as well as with pots and nets, unlocking more of the game’s hidden delights. Dredge becomes compelling on an almost exponential curve–sure, you may spend a few days only fishing to fill your coffers, but you’ll then go and blow it all on new equipment that allows you to explore even more.
Mechanics are diverse, especially when fishing; you won’t have to do the same minigame to catch your prey. They’re not always easy, either, especially if you want a trophy fish or some spectacular loot.
Progression underpins Dredge but doesn’t define it. Upgrades, buff-developing books, new fish (and their freaky aberrations), different islands, and a handful of weird, idiosyncratic characters give you purpose depending on your mood. Your missions are scattered across post-it notes–a delightfully fitting means of documenting an experience that regularly goes off the rails due to your scatterbrained approach, an intriguing segue, or a massive baddie that completely ruins your day.
To give Dredge’s wider storyline and discoveries away does it a huge injustice–more reason for you to find out for yourself–but it’s difficult to find anything genuinely wrong with the game, given what it Black Salt Games has clearly set out to achieve. Every corner of the map, every island, and every person you meet is intriguing and often underpinned by the silent threat of malice, whether it’s there or not. Anything you might initially deem to be a fetch quest still demands careful thought and intelligent planning.
Add in a beautiful soundtrack, gorgeously smooth visuals, and dependable movement, and Dredge feels like it has it all. It’s not a quick experience (even if it has its fair share of heartpounding moments), and those who don’t want to spend in-game days embroiled in asset management may feel turned off by its unique MO. Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a game that makes every new day feel like a whole new challenge, even if you’ve spent a full week achieving next to nothing.
For all its hidden delights, its strengths shine brightest when you just want to stare into the distance, admiring a beautiful view. When these moments inevitably occur, time stops. There’s no rush. But you will need to carry on, you’ll check your map, and find something else to explore–and you’ll feel rewarded once again.
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