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Thursday, February 16, 2023

‘DREDGE’ Preview – Eldritch Horror Fishing Game May Be One of the Year’s Most Enthralling Titles

While the Marrow archipelago is hospitable enough by day, local mariners know that it’s unsafe to veer from shore after dusk.

These waters are already treacherous at the best of times and tonight happens to be particularly foggy. With such restricted levels of visibility, it’d be all too easy to run afoul of some hidden rock formation or to accidentally beach on a stray island.

Yet, as we approach dry land, it’s not these unfavourable weather conditions that worry us. They can be overcome by just taking things a bit slower and keeping our eyes peeled for potential hazards.

What is troubling our mind presently, however, is the knowledge that we’re not alone out here. We’ve seen what is lurking in the stygian depths and have no intention of staying out at sea any longer than necessary.

As a matter of a fact, we’re pretty sure that eldritch horrors are closing in on us right now. We can tell because the waters have been disturbed by something gargantuan, unnatural noises are emanating from beneath the waves, and our sanity is eroding fast (a tell-tale sign that we are in the presence of an otherworldly beast). If we don’t make it to the coast soon, then our mind will be damaged beyond repair, or worse, we could be dragged down into that pitch-black abyss, like so many hapless sailors before us.

Gripped with fear, we push the engines of our modest trawler to their absolute breaking point, stopping just shy of overheating them. The ghastly calls from below are getting louder and louder, and any minute now we could be attacked. So, we can’t afford to dillydally.

Just then, the reassuring glow of a yellow beam penetrates through the mist and totally envelops our boat. At last! We’ve made it to the lighthouse. To sanctuary.

Drifting past flotsam and shipwreck detritus, we come to berth at the Greater Marrow pier, assured that the creatures never venture this close to land or bright lights. We cannot track their exact whereabouts through the fog embankment, but their appalling songs are getting ever fainter so they must be backing off. At least for the time being.

Before we get some much-needed rest, we decide to offload our haul at the fishmongers in order to prevent the catch-of-the-day from rotting below deck. Although the vendor will always snap up any cargo that we’re willing to sell, he has made an explicit request today and is offering a handsome reward if we’re able to deliver.

Specifically, he has asked us to fetch him one of the unholy aberrations (strange mutant variants of your average fish) that are unique to this territory. Hungry for the extra cash, we hand over a malformed cod that has three heads, all writhing together in unison with their mouths agape. This ought to suffice, we think to ourselves. Entranced by the macabre specimen, the shopkeeper wordlessly gifts us a bag of coins and then abruptly slams the door in our face. We knock again, eager to get rid of the other fish that are still clogging up our storage, but he doesn’t return. It’s unclear what he is doing in there, but we can only hope that it’s not too dangerous. He is our most reliable customer after all.

During our six-hour preview with DREDGE, there were many inexplicable moments just like this. Throughout the genre-blending title, you’ll have obtuse conversations with furtive weirdos, happen across mysterious artifacts that regale you with cryptic prophecies, and try in vain to decipher nonsensical lore. All in the hope that you will eventually deduce what on earth is going on in this Lovecraftian tale.

But the developers refuse to serve any of those answers up on a nice silver platter. Aside from a brief tutorial section, they do not once hold your hand or even indicate if you are going about things in the right way, which is precisely what makes puzzling it all out so damn rewarding.

Similar to Breath of the Wild, this is an open-world game that uses minimal signposting. Rather than cluttering your map with patronising quest markers or obtrusive icons, DREDGE forces you to independently chart your own path and make organic discoveries out in its rich world.

The supremely compelling end-result makes you feel like a true, seafaring adventurer and is already shaping up to be one of the year’s most enthralling titles.

Cozy Fishing Sim by Day, Horror Game by Night

Created by Black Salt Games (a team of 4 New Zealand-based developers), DREDGE mixes together a bunch of ideas that, on paper, shouldn’t coalesce.

Initially presenting itself as one of those cozy indie games that are so popular on Steam right now, it casts you in the role of an angler responding to a “help wanted” ad. Laying anchor at Greater Barrow (a remote coastal town in the middle of nowhere), you are promptly introduced to the friendly-seeming residents, all of whom offer different services and have various errands for you to run.

Your boat took a few knocks on the journey over here, and the mayor footed the bill for the repairs, so the first order of business is to repay the associated debt by heading out into the nearby shallows, catching some common fish, and then trading them at the local market. This is a pretty good primer for what you’ll be doing throughout the rest of the game, as you frequently get dispatched to reclaim lost trinkets, pillage shipwrecks, and bring townspeople their favourite seafoods.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re playing some kind of nautical-themed Animal Crossing spin-off. You’ve got the same laid-back atmosphere, the emphasis on ingratiating yourself within a close-knit community, the bright colour pallet, the peaceful jobs, and the gentle soundtrack.

Yet this smiley exterior belies a darker game hidden under the surface as, once night falls, things immediately take a sinister turn. You see, Barrow and its neighbouring island chains are home to nocturnal leviathans that will take down any crew foolish enough to undock after sundown.

There are prodigious sea serpents, enormous crabs, and immense krakens that will doggedly chase you across vast stretches of ocean. Not to mention, by being out on the cursed waters for too long you also risk exposing yourself to all manner of supernatural phenomena (including ghost ships) that can ultimately drive you insane if you’re not careful.

Managing the game’s day-night cycle is therefore every bit as integral to your survival as being able to dexterously steer your ship around obstacles or identify bountiful fishing spots. The way it works is that almost every single action in DREDGE has a corresponding time expenditure. For instance, reeling in carp might advance the clock by 15 minutes, while installing a new trawling net could skip things forward by up to 4 hours.

Even just sailing in a straight line will accelerate the passage of time somewhat and so it behooves you to always plan ahead with your voyages by consulting the map first. You’ll want to get a heading, chart the most efficient course, and make sure that there are plenty of harbours between where you are currently and your intended destination (just in case you need to make a pit stop). Ideally, you should aim to make an entire trip in the relative safety of broad daylight, when there are no monsters, no raging tempests, and no unsettling images to rattle your mind.

Alas, no matter how well you prepare, you’re going to have to brave the darkness at some point, either out of necessity or because you pushed your luck with an overly ambitious journey. When that happens, things can get rather stressful, with your field of view being totally engulfed by fog, eerie whispers overwhelming the audio mix, and ominous red lights heralding the approach of malevolent forces.

As soon as the creatures do emerge, the game effectively becomes a traditional survival-horror title, as you try to avoid detection in your flimsy little dinghy. Should you fail at the stealth (and need to make a quick getaway) then your only remaining option is to deploy the boost mechanic at the exact right moment and hope to God that it’s enough to outpace pursuers. Because, otherwise, the hull won’t be able to withstand more than a couple of hits.

On that note, despite its wholesome, pastel colour aesthetic, DREDGE can be unforgiving at times. Indeed, the prospect of fucking up is quite intimidating, given that misfortunes have a tendency to pile up on top of each other in a devastating chain reaction.

For example, blowing an engine severely limits your movement speed, leaving you vulnerable to monster attacks, which in turn take a toll on your sanity meter. Likewise, if you broadside against rocks then your exposed cargo might be susceptible to theft from above, courtesy of peckish gulls.

It’s surprising how fast these calamities can snowball and get out of hand. Worse still, if it’s been a while since you last moored at a port (which double as the game’s checkpoints), then you could find yourself losing a great deal of progress or a valuable item that only has a wafer-thin chance of spawning.

A Sailor’s Life

To help even the odds, you can visit shipwrights who (for a cost) will equip your boat with stronger gear and more useful equipment.

This is where the bulk of the DREDGE experience can be found, as you get into an addictive loop of acquiring resources to then fortify your vessel and improve its seaworthiness. In doing so, you can then embark on more distant voyages, loot better resources, and so on, until eventually you can go just about anywhere.

Booty takes several forms, with some items having good resale value, while others serve as essential crafting materials. You’ll need to collect everything from doubloons to timber, books and pieces of cloth if you want to max out all of the different upgrade paths on offer.

Irrespective of what you’re looking for though, the process for harvesting these supplies remains very much the same. You have to look out for salvage floating in the water — or that’s been washed ashore — approach it and then complete a rudimentary dredging minigame.

The latter is basically a rhythmic quick time event, in which you must keep a little arrow moving for as long as possible, by switching between two different lanes on a track (so that you never hit a dead end). Reeling in fish is performed through a similar QTE, although that one involves pressing the button when a rotating dial hits a certain sweet spot, with the potential for catching special trophies if you nail the most exacting prompts.

On the subject of catching fish, this mechanic is a little more involved than dredging, on account of every species having its own habitat and catching method. Garden variety mackerels are abundant in coastal waters, while stingrays reside in the shallows, sturgeon can be located further out in the ocean and, to hook a loosejaw, you’ll require a special instrument that reaches deep into the abyss.

Speaking of which, you’ll need to have the appropriate fishing line installed for each respective territory, as a barracuda (for instance) won’t bite if you’re using the wrong equipment. Nor will an eel, a trout, a reef shark or anything else for that matter.

This added wrinkle complicates things a fair bit, given that you only have a finite amount of storage space to play with. To help you optimise it, there is a surprisingly fun inventory management system, whereby the available room on your boat is visualised as a kind of Tetris grid. In a nutshell, you’ve got to rearrange and rotate objects (which all come in different shapes and sizes) to cram as much in as possible, similar to how the briefcase minigame worked in Resident Evil 4.

Yet even if you are the most efficient packer in the world, you will inevitably have to jettison cargo on occasion. After all, room must be set aside space for engines, headlights, multiple fishing lines, crab cages, trawling nets, key items and, of course, the lucrative treasure that you’ve dredged from the seabed.

The only long-term solution is to invest heavily in the aforementioned upgrade paths, so that you can expand the inventory grid and research multi-purpose tools. It takes a fair bit of effort — in terms of scavenging parts and committing to the fish market grind — but there’s something quite therapeutic about the whole routine. Like you are role-playing as a humble angler.

Freedom on the High Seas

It doesn’t hurt that the environs are so picturesque. Rendered in a pleasing matte art style with soft 3D textures, it’s a gorgeous world to lose yourself in, characterised by its crystal blue waters, paradisal desert islands and lush coves.

Even after dark, when danger rears its head, there is still beauty to appreciate in DREDGE, most notably in the areas rife with bioluminescent algae. Floating over turquoise reefs and weaving between pulsating red jellyfish, it’s honestly quite a relaxing experience. Until the giant monsters show up anyway.

Given that so much love and care was poured into crafting these alluring biomes, it makes sense that Black Salt would want to prioritise immersion above all else. To that end, they’ve wisely opted to not inundate you with objective markers or clutter your UI.

Shunning Ubisoft’s exhausting design philosophy, this open-world feels more akin to Elden Ring, in the sense that you explore without much direction and simply happen across interesting events. You could be sailing around an inlet, picking up discarded reams of cloth, when an ominous hooded figure beckons you over for a chat.

Maybe later on you come across a marooned sailor, looking for safe passage to the mainland, or get attacked by a towering hermit crab that’s disguised itself as a pirate galleon. Just partaking in the fishing minigame can sometimes yield unexpected consequences too, like when you catch a radiant squid creature that has a gelatinous ink sac.

There is a journal that keeps track of characters you’ve met and the vague tasks they’ve each assigned you, but it all feels properly organic. Adventures begin, not because a big splotch on the map has told you precisely where to go, but because you sparked an interesting conversation with a dockworker or found an intriguing message in a bottle. Granted, there is a main questline — involving a suspicious collector who tasks you with acquiring powerful relics in exchange for magical teachings — yet even that is relatively hands-off.

If DREDGE can maintain this joyful sense of discovery and adventurous tone for its entire playtime, then it could be a real gem. An unusual hybrid of maritime sim, cozy game, RPG and survival horror: it’ll certainly be a one-of-a-kind fishing trip that’s for sure.

DREDGE will be released on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and Nintendo Switch on March 30th. Preview code provided by publisher.

The post ‘DREDGE’ Preview – Eldritch Horror Fishing Game May Be One of the Year’s Most Enthralling Titles appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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