Suddenly, my boat crashes. When I wake up, wet on a wooden dock in a town I don’t know, the lighthouse above doesn’t look like it’s pointing toward salvation. But I’m playing the disquieting new fishing sim Dredge, and I eventually learn that feeling out of my depth—subject to the changing waters’ depths—is the point.
Dredge is most successful when it’s working to unmoor you, surprising you with elegant horrors that descend when fog creeps in, and it smartly uses your previous experience with fishing minigames (which are usually calming, methodical, found in inoffensive farming and life sims like Disney Dreamlight Valley) against you.
Unfortunately, in my five hours with Dredge—the debut title from New Zealand-based studio Black Salt Games—I don’t always feel like it’s succeeding. After sitting up, sopping, from where I was spilled in Greater Marrow, the main cluster of buildings in the small archipelago my character now calls home, I’m approached by its paunchy, overly-familiar mayor. Following in the footsteps of other life simulation games including Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley, the mayor introduces my fisherman character to the town, loans me a boat, and, less expectedly, issues a cryptic warning—come back before the fog rolls in.
Though the daylight doesn’t last long—time moves only when you’re fishing or boating, but it moves fast—everything is fine when you’re in it. The game’s art style, with its sharp-edged, geometrically shaded cartoons, issues the water as robin’s egg blue, matching the sky until the sun lowers and stains the edges of it in pomegranate.
In these safe hours between morning and dinnertime, I ride my boat out over bubbles in the water, which show fishing spots, or dredging zones bogged down by things like scrap metal, bolts of cloth, and lost treasure. The water is shallow enough that you can see the shape of a fish or an item before you yank it out, which is useful when Greater Marrow’s sunspotted fishmonger starts asking you to fulfill specific orders for cash, or when you need to start collecting raw materials to craft boat improvements at the dry dock.
Neither of those things are particularly frightening during the comfortable day, which sometimes has unpleasant weather, like clouds or wind, but otherwise marks you as safe. I can tell, because the darting, glowing eyeball that appears at the top of my Switch screen when my character starts to panic is nowhere to be found.
I perform the simple quicktime events that make up both fishing and dredging (in the former’s case, you usually have to click Y when a cursor is properly within a green bar, and in the latter, you click Y to avoid hitting black squares in a rotating circle), unless I’ve damaged my equipment, which removes quicktime events and instead lifts things automatically and haltingly. This happens more often than I’d like to admit, since my boat’s starting engine is unbearably slow, and it responds to my left-stick inputs like it’s a dog toiling through mud. Sticky and delayed. I just crashed into an obvious piece of rock. Shit.
Luckily, repairs are usually inexpensive—around $90 while selling the fish I collect after a few minutes usually nets me around $100. I don’t necessarily feel held back by repairs, but I do start to think of them and Dredge’s other standard life sim chores, like collecting items for boat upgrades, filling orders, and chatting with all of the Marrows’ remarkably abstruse inhabitants as barriers to the good stuff, the spooky stuff.
So I start ignoring characters’ urges to go to sleep at night and avoid the fog. I fish until the sky turns orange, then soupy gray, and I ride my tricky boat to distant island formations looking for a scare. I succeed.
My character’s panic increases, and a ring of sharp rocks materializes out of nowhere, damaging my hull. Red open eyes start clustering around me in the water. A leviathan tentacle reaches up and smacks me away, and I think I see a boat, its light shining through the impenetrable mist, until it gets closer and turns out to be a monster, with jaws snapping at my feeble boat. I turn on a Nicole Dollanganger album to enhance the mood.
I truly relish this part of Dredge, the mysterious part, which points to a dark secret heart beating beneath the Marrows. These ghostly game mechanics make me confident that Dredge is singular, a game with a unique mission to turn “cozy” elements into something sinister. That’s fun, and it’s woven into the game seamlessly. But I don’t understand why it spends so much time avoiding it.
While performing the game’s seemingly endless list of errands, I occasionally acquire monstrous fish like a Snag Squid beset with “yellowed, crooked teeth” or a “spine broken” Barbed Eel. I find an engraved belt buckle that points to a hidden story, an older shipwreck, something exciting. But when I give these ominous items to characters, I don’t get much back.
Most characters are written like horror Hallmark cards; I feel like the Lighthouse Keeper, for example, is described from the perspective of a gothic novel generator—“A hunched woman approaches you from the steps to the lighthouse. She stops some distance away and looks at you with concern…” I get tired of their patronizing reminders to sleep, and their unwillingness to share much of any backstory even hours into the game other than obscure references to old friends and dead sons. Because of this, fishing and errands, the game’s primary activities, don’t chill me, they feel overwhelmingly like errands. I could go to another life simulator for that.
When I finally dock my boat, I wish I was as panicked as my fisherman. I’ll likely continue playing Dredge—its art and monsters are a gracefully melancholy refuge, and I really don’t think there’s anything else like it. I only want it to push me further into the water, allow me to actually get scared.