If you think big games are copying each other's homework a little too often nowadays, and that it's all about the live service palaver and multiplayer systems, then thankfully March offers a little gem fished out of the black depths. I'm talking, of course, about Dredge, the first game from small indie studio Black Salt Games, a studio made up of just four people from New Zealand.
But these four people have set their sights sky-high and thought outside the box, too. In Dredge, you are the captain of your own fishing boat, and you have to do business among the small The Marrows archipelago, while at the same time, like the rest of the island's diverse inhabitants, you are slightly puzzled by the enigmatic events in the waters. A heavy fog settles over the islands every night, and creates hallucinations and leads to dangerous madness, fish mutations, and mysterious figures that have been seen worshipping ancient monuments.
The idea is that you pilot your little fishing boat, earning and spending money and carrying out side missions for the various inhabitants of the archipelago, while a Cthulhu-like menace lurks in the black depths of the ocean. It's a kind of survival horror on the high seas. Four people in New Zealand have come up with this and are realising it quite successfully.
However, it's mainly the game's set-up and the curious mix of narrative elements that create entertainment, suspense and engagement, because Dredge lacks an organised narrative. Sure, one of the missions ends up being the centrepiece and leads to an actual conclusion, but steady beats that provide a sense of progression are somewhat conspicuous by their absence here. That said, Black Salt does try to pace itself a bit, so you visit new islands as you go. You also discover new details about the threats plaguing The Marrows as you upgrade your boat. For the most part, it works well, but the overall flow needs a bit of refinement.
The characters you meet are quirky, wacky, enigmatic and exciting in just the right way. And while Dredge isn't character driven, it gives off all the right Lovecraft vibes, which will no doubt please fans of that universe. The side missions usually involve you finding something or delivering special types of fish to a destination. Under normal circumstances this would be called repetitive, but here these sub-goals are so organically part of the overall flow that you are not ruffled by it. You are a fisherman, "and a fisherman's gotta fish."
As there's a day/night cycle here, time management is key. You dock in the morning, make the necessary repairs, upgrades and other general maintenance before you hit the water. You'll see the small boat from a third-person perspective, and if you have the right rods and tools installed, which take up limited inventory space, you'll catch fish to sell. At the same time, you'll unearth wreckage that can be used to upgrade the ship and other valuables. But if you haven't planned your journey properly, you could find yourself far from harbour when darkness falls and suddenly there are dangers looming in the fog. I don't want to spoil too much, but avoiding being out too often at night is part of the whole loop, and it's hugely satisfying.
It's all wrapped up in a sparse soundscape that suits the mood, and a semi-caricatured and cartoony visual design that really sells the game's edgy identity. It all looks brilliant, and Black Salt has made a game created by four people look like something designed by 40.
There are little frustrations here and there. Dredge is maybe 8-9 hours long, and while its entertaining all the way through, there are aspects that could have used an overhaul. It also lacks more customisation of your boat. Yes, you decide what tools you take with you, but you don't feel as attached to your ship as you might have hoped. Furthermore, the monsters, the fog, the hallucinations and the eeriness in general become simple, unavoidable gameplay elements that both you as a player and the characters around you consider trivial. Perhaps a slightly longer playtime and a more gradual reveal of the threats you face would have been better in the long run.
But Dredge is a resounding success, and is a game that is incredibly easy to recommend to all those with a penchant for quirky little experiences that can do more than you might think at first glance.