Dredge is one of those games that comes along that almost defies conventional description. It’s a trading and exploration sim like Elite, but with a tropical Wind Waker aesthetic, and a page-turning horror story told in the style of a visual novel. It’s all of those things, and yet, nothing you can compare it to really does it justice, because it’s really about the atmosphere.
Each component part of Dredge is highly competent in its own right: the bulk of the minute to minute gameplay is concerned with you operating as a jobbing fisherman. You fish, you earn money for ship upgrades, you fish more. Then there are special contracts and sidequests concerned with obtaining items of note from the depths, which could be a rare type of corrupted or mutated fish (more on that later), or a piece of treasure from a sunken galleon – the titular activity coming into play.
This all feeds into a fascinating main quest concerning the hunting of artefacts, which gives you cause to venture further and further from the tiny vestiges of civilisation that cling to this doomed region, to explore the outer reaches of the five island groups. The more you travel, the more exotic the plunder, and more specialised the equipment needed to harvest it.
It is, if you’ll pardon the pun, deeply compelling. The allure of the mystery, the source of the sheer dread that permeates every aspect of life here, would be enough to pull you through even if the mechanics of the base game weren’t entirely moreish by themselves. You get glimpses and flickers of it early on. A misspoke word. A cagey employer taking delivery of a squelchy package whose contents you are not allowed to pry into. A fishmonger who disappears for days behind a bolted door after buying a grotesque, mutated squid from you, which is never spoke about after he re-emerges, but there remains something… off about him.
Then there’s the goings on at night. Though it’s not always practical, and you’ll have to frequently risk breaking this rule if you want to progress through the story, it’s generally advised to be back in port by 9pm. Because there are… things out there. Weird stuff. Foghorns that sound from nowhere. Clouds of dread manifesting as shimmering, purple clouds.
And the eyes.
The terror of night, and the sea, go hand in hand: there’s something primal about the sense of dread that the ocean can evoke. A family legend has it that my great grandfather, a Cypriot Greek with seafaring blood, was in the merchant navy during the first world war, and that his ship was sunk somewhere up near the arctic circle, leading to an eight, sixteen, or 48 hour ordeal (the details changed slightly with every telling) bobbing about in freezing cold water before being rescued by the Brits. This is why, we were told, Bampi would never, for the rest of his days, use the cold tap.
Hardly a ghostly tale, but it illustrates that the sea doesn’t need supernatural monsters to be terrifying: it’s an impossibly huge mass of angry, writhing, salted water, in which Things live. It is not to be trusted, and we don’t belong in it. Or on it. And yet, it’s necessary for civilisation to operate; humans need to trade, to travel, to work. And so, we bob about on it. Harvesting it for bounty. Swimming in it, would you believe, for fun.
Dredge taps into that incongruity to fuel an immense undercurrent of foreboding that saturates and enriches the entire experience. The sea is terrifying, and yet, you must venture forth. You must steal its riches. You must find its secrets. You must dare it to dash you against the rocks.
Dredge releases March 30th on all major platforms.
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