In Dredge, the fisherperson’s days are calm and predictable. You leave safe harbor, pass the hours filling your hold with the fruits of your labor, then return home as the sun sinks behind the idyllic port town of Greater Marrow. But beyond these halcyon days lies paranoia. The folks in town are cagey about the fate of the previous fisherman. Things only get weirder when you reel in your first mutant fish… And then there are the nights.
In the real world, fishing at night is unsettling at the best of times. Every burble of the water and rustle of the mangroves cuts through the stillness like a clarion. Here in the Australian tropics, it breeds fear of saltwater crocodiles lurking just below the surface, an invisible, silent apex predator.
Dredge is clever in the way it taps into that primal fear to gate content. You start off in the center of an open-water archipelago with a glorified dinghy. A putt-putt engine is enough to get you from one side of the bay to the other and back before sunset, but not much beyond that. Meanwhile, your running lights are about as effective as a match in a storm, only illuminating rocks after it’s too late to avoid slamming into them. This setup makes setting out after nightfall a daunting task.
For a while, that’s enough to keep you content to motor about the central islands, helping stranded boaters and making strange deliveries to stranger people. But it’s not long before seeing the same sights and catching the same fish starts to chafe. On top of that, the intrinsic lure of wanderlust is strong, with surrounding island groups called Gale Cliffs, Twisted Strand, and Devil’s Spine: monikers that repel and attract in equal measure. Danger on the one hand and adventure on the other. The only thing standing in your way is the open sea.
You may be tempted to set out for those rocks rising in the distance, but be warned if you do that the ocean can imperil as readily as embrace. The day/night cycle of Dredge is a tricksome thing. It moves only as you do. Because of this, one day can seem to last forever and the next mere minutes. Therein sits the danger of hoisting anchor for distant shores. Improperly equipped and with an imprecise map, there’s no way of telling how long you will sail. And if night falls before you reach the safety of civilization, then woe betide you, for as the quote goes, “The night is dark and full of terrors.”
You’ll quickly learn that there’s more to fear than unseen rocks and the potential to lose your way. Out there, curtains of light dance upon the water like some aberrant mockery of the Aurora Australis. There’s spectral waterspouts, too. Both tend to move unpredictably, and if their shimmering colors fall across your boat, it becomes a test of your fisher’s mental resolve. They amplify the panic effect of simply being out after dark, and if you reach your limits… strange things happen.
It never ceases to be unnerving to see the ocean blanketed by winking eyes. It gives the sense that something waits and watches in the deep, a feeling reinforced by the story and the characters that vary from fearful to resolute to morbidly curious. Equally unsettling is that your boat is anything but a safe haven. At times, things will slither aboard. Maybe it’s an aberrant denizen of the deep, or maybe it’s a parasite that will infest your cargo. At least in my time with the game, Dredge didn’t provide answers to the questions raised by these abnormal occurrences, and that may be the most disturbing thing of all.
They play at the back of my mind. It makes me wonder if there will be long-term consequences to these short-term follies. That’s enough to make you wonder if it’s worthwhile, or if it’s better to wait.
To wait for the day, when the waterspouts are just waterspouts and the ghost ships no longer beckon with their will-o’-the-wisp lights. To wait for the day when the simple act of exploration is just that, and not a test of endurance in the face of untold spookies.
But what is your reward if you set out and make it across the straits in one piece, before or maybe through the night? To meet another strange stranger who’ll send you once more into the night to test your mettle against elements beyond human ken, hopefully this time with some meaningful upgrades that will make surviving — nay, persevering — that little bit easier.
Based on our time with this preview, Dredge is going to be a smart, compelling, and unique RPG when it launches on March 30 on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X | S.