Hook, line and tinker
There haven’t been many fishing games with Lovecraftian horror themes. This is strange considering how several of H.P. Lovecraft’s popular stories involve coastal towns and ocean nightmares. Perhaps fishing games are too niche? Or maybe blending cosmic horror with simple fishing was not considered viable? In any case, Lovecraft’s works are no longer subject to copyright, allowing more to adapt his mythos. Indie developers Black Salt Games have taken a shot at this unique combination with their third-person fishing adventure title, DREDGE. It’s a game that has players controlling a boat, catching fish, hauling up relics, and improving their ship with upgrades. Although primarily a cathartic fishing expedition, the Lovecraftian style provides a dark undercurrent and some interesting quirks. DREDGE is enjoyable thanks to its predictable fishing gameplay, but it is also a skeleton of something great.
DREDGE begins with the unnamed player-character crashing their fishing vessel into rocks near a lighthouse that overlooks a group of islands. With the ship beyond repair, the mayor of the nearby port, Greater Marrow, gives you a loaner boat so you can start fishing immediately. As you bring in fish and sell them to the local fishmonger, the mayor takes a cut until you have paid him back. During one of the early fishing trips, you find a strange handkerchief inside a mutated fish. Immediately, a shadowy man requests to meet at a spooky mansion on a nearby island. He then asks you to recover four mysterious relics by dredging wrecks, each located in the archipelagos that surround Greater Marrow. In each corner of the sea, characters need your fishing expertise, and the central lighthouse will always guide you back home.
Fishing is as simple as piloting the boat over disturbed water, throwing in a line and waiting. You don’t actually need to do anything else, but the process can be sped up by pressing a button when a rotating indicator moves into a green zone, not unlike other fishing mini-games. A spyglass will help to locate fishing spots from a distance, even indicating the type that can be caught. Some types can only be caught at night, and there is a full day-night cycle but time only advances when actively fishing or moving the boat.
Dredging for treasures is a bit different. Once you find a dredge site, you must keep pressing a button, to alternate between two rotating channels that have obstructions, until the dredging is complete and the item is acquired. This is difficult at first but becomes trivial by game’s end. Both the fishing spots and dredging sites can be exhausted, but they eventually return after a few days of in-game time.
Two other devices can be used to catch fish and crustaceans passively. Nets can be purchased and dragged behind the boat, although the net itself takes up valuable space you might otherwise need for different rods. Crab pots can be dumped in the water to trap crustaceans over time. Both nets and pots have a limited lifespan and inventory size, so they must be emptied and repaired.
Aside from when using the nets, everything pulled from the sea must be placed into the cargo hold, which is harder than it sounds. The hold is a grid-based inventory that takes a strange diamond shape. It also contains vital gear, such as rods and the boat’s engine(s) that are locked to specific grid locations. Fish are not always simple shapes; eels are curled and sharks have protruding fins. So these odd shapes create headaches as you tinker with the layout and rotate items, trying to keep all aquatic creatures and retain any salvage.
The fishing gameplay loop is uncomplicated and enjoyable for most of the adventure. This is a calming game because of the continual rewards and steady progress. Spend your time drifting in the shallows to cycle through crab pots. Head out into the deep sea and catch a large valuable shark with an oceanic rod. Maybe you’ll help the locals deliver a package to another port and read messages you find in bottles floating out at sea. And then just sit back and relax as you drag a net around the jagged rocks while looking for shipwrecks containing booty.
Money and salvage can help you become an even better fisherman. The game features many small upgrade opportunities at the Greater Marrow port or via special pontoons that offer equivalent services. The hull can be strengthened by finding wood and metal. More space can be made for various rods or nets, which boosts fishing speed or lets you target a broader selection of aquatic life. Engines can be researched and bought to give the ship faster movement between points of interest. Nets and pots can be made stronger to last longer and catch more. Some parts of the hold can be expanded to equip more light, for night fishing.
Night is a bit different than the daytime. It is when the Lovecraftian themes come to the fore. Flickering red clouds hover on the waves and pursue you with their strange whispers. Ghost ships roam, blowing their foghorns before vanishing when you get close enough. Fake islands fade away into the mist and rocks that were not there during the day become new hazards. And, maybe, you will even see a large tentacle emerge from the deep to swing at your tiny boat. Most dangers can be outrun, if your little boat is fast enough. Spend enough time at night without sleeping and terror can manifest during the next day: ghost sharks pound the hull, scavenger birds pluck the catch of the day, and red tornadoes give chase.
Overall though, the night is not dangerous or scary enough. You can go for weeks without sleeping and there won’t be any serious consequences. The supernatural occurrences start to repeat which makes them tame and boring. And the most dangerous threats are actually present during both day and night, like the large serpent near a set of cliffs or the winding mangroves that punish a minor steering error. Any damage you take will, at a minimum, reduce cargo space, but can also disable engines and remove fish from the hold. These annoyances might require you to return to a previous fishing spot or potter along slowly as your engines are busted, but none of it causes great concern.
While the Lovecraft influence gives the game flavor, it is mostly implemented on a surface level. This is not a survival game or something that will make you tremble. You never get to visit the bottom of the ocean (you never leave the boat) or see dramatic change to the water’s surface. Storms never become intense enough; they only ruffle the waves. The ocean is not large enough to provide a sense of isolation or dread that was common in Lovecraft’s stories. Because fishing has been made the priority, the game remains enjoyable, but the superficial Lovecraftian horror is a missed chance.
Black Salt Games have certainly made a nice looking fishing adventure. Using low-poly world geometry, most of the islands, and buildings on them, appear to have solid colors rather than textures full of detail. The color palette is muted and the day-night cycle helps to give the world variety and atmosphere. Seeing the sun rise is a nice reward for those who get an early start. And although characters are not voiced or animated, their hand-drawn avatars match the art style and their text dialogue tells its story well.
DREDGE is an enjoyable fishing game that uses Lovecraftian themes to give it a refreshing allure. The fishing aspects are simple, allowing players to enjoy at their own pace for 7-10 hours. Spend your time dragging nets, laying crab pots, exploring archipelagos, helping strangers, or catching big sharks. Rearrange the cargo and sell your catch to unlock boat upgrades that let you carry more or travel quicker. Fishing at night comes with a spooky atmosphere and a few new threats, but it is not scary or challenging enough to make the most of the darker themes influenced by Lovecraft. The simple catch-and-sell gameplay loop definitely makes DREDGE easy to play and a good option for fishing fans. If only there was more below the surface.