Dredge Review – Nervous horror experience.

Do not stare too long into the abyss, for the abyss stares back into you. This is not only Nietzsche’s most famous aphorism: it is also the thrust of Dredge. Dredge is a simple fishing game one moment, but at the next it confronts you with elusive cosmic horrors. At the same time, it gives you the choice to give in to their appeal. As such, Dredge is entertainingly unsettling – despite the fact that for the bulk of the game you are happily trying to fish. That dichotomy makes this Lovecraftian adventure one of the most interesting games you’ll play this year.

Holding off the boat for a while

Unsuspecting, you follow the light from the lighthouse until your small fishing boat crashes rock hard against the rocks. Fortunately, the mayor of picturesque Great Marrow manages to rescue you. He even provides you with a new ship. You just have to pay off the cost. You do that the only way you know how: by fishing and catching crabs. You no longer have any idea who or where you are, but you feel right at home.

Once your boat is paid off, it’s yours. You can now equip ’em with a new engine for greater range, a fishing net, or better fishing rod. You even get a hoist to retrieve hidden treasures. With a better and better boat, you sail farther and farther from Greater Marrow and catch bigger and bigger fish that earn more and more money. With that money, you can improve the boat further – and so the circle is complete. Thus, at its core, Dredge is a simple simulation game with a heavy focus on resource management.

Lovecraftian fishing

There is, of course, a twist. The waters of Dredge are not entirely kosher. After catching your first few fish, you’ll find that they can mutate nastily here and there. You’ll catch a cod with 6 eyes, for example, or an eel whose midsection forms an infinite spiral. The cause of these mutations should be familiar to anyone who has ever read anything by Lovecraft: it is the influence of horrible, impervious ancient gods hiding deep in the sea.

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The combination of a fishing game and Lovecraftian horror sounds playful. At the same time, it works so well that I wonder why it hasn’t been done before. The sea and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror have always been intimately connected. If the Ancients don’t literally come crawling out of the sea like the “Deep Ones,” they do have fishy features, like Cthulhu with his tentacled tronies. Floating around above the depths where these Ancients reside is a logical and effective way to confront you with Lovecraft’s particular kind of horror.

All this got on my nerves so much that I barely dared to sail off Greater Marrow for the first two in-game weeks.

The game cleverly handles this, too. In addition to possible physical damage to your ship, your mental health can also take hits. This is communicated to the player via a panic meter. When you cruise at night or come into contact with the unintelligible, your panic level rises. Panic does no direct harm, but it does make your life a lot harder. The more panic you experience, the more powerful the monsters around you and the more you hallucinate. Do you go too long without sleeping? Then your screen turns red, you see loose eyes floating everywhere, or you see other ships sailing towards you and suddenly disappear. All this got on my nerves so much that I barely dared to sail off Greater Marrow for the first two in-game weeks.

From fear to irritation

Unfortunately, that fear is short-lived. When you learn to recognize the consequences of panic, and realize that going game-over is not such a disaster, you soon start experimenting. It is and always will be a game, so even the biggest monsters can eventually be reduced to game systems. That said, they are cleverly designed: one always seems to grab you when you’re standing still, and with the other it’s best not to move at all. They are also visually engaging. When you haven’t yet deciphered their puzzles, it makes them unnervingly scary. Afterwards, only mild irritation remains of that fear in some cases.

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What doesn’t help with that is that you unlock more and more powers that help you tame the sea. For every area you play out, you gain a cosmic power. That way you can make the ship sail a little faster, or even temporarily chase away hostile creatures – though at the cost of your sanity. Thematically, this works fine: you learn to conquer danger by giving in to it. In terms of gameplay, it takes away more and more of the initial tension.

Intriguing mystery

The plot brings handles this better. The characters you meet are each insane to varying degrees. In that madness, and in between your own delusions, more and more of your real life shines through. Of course, you are not just a fisherman: your character does have a personal connection to the world around him. That mystery is intriguing, and it unfolds in a subtle way that never disrupts gameplay or atmosphere. The only downside is the somewhat predictable ending. Despite the grand events, it felt somewhat anticlimactic as a result. The alternate ending isn’t much better in that regard either.

Fortunately, even after the initial angst has subsided and the story has concluded, there is still plenty of fun to be had from Dredge. Indeed, even without all the cosmic fuss, a fine simulation game remains. There are plenty of sidequests and mysteries to explore, and if there’s even a little bit of a completionist in you, you’ll gladly fill your fish encyclopedia – complete with all the hideous, anomalous shapes. You’ll only occasionally be disturbed by gruesome sea monsters.

It is precisely this dichotomy between the tranquility of fishing and the hunted feeling of cosmic horror that makes Dredge so successful. There are few games that manage to capture the essence of the Cthulhu mythos so well – and that without including all the issues of Lovecraft’s own stories. Of course, it is impossible to fully convey the fear of the inexplicable – in any medium. Especially within a game, it’s just a matter of time until the curtain falls and you see game systems for what they are. Fortunately, until then, Dredge absolutely manages to convince – and even after that, a very entertaining simulation game remains.

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