The coral grouper’s skin erodes like the living reefs it inhabits. Blue spots on vibrant orange skin are bleached white, decay rotting scales down to exposed bone. Dead-eyed and gaping, the fish, among others who’ve not yet festered, lurks in the shallow waters of Dredge‘s Stellar Basin. The ocean may as well be an alien world, a place that’s entirely uninhabitable to humans — and yet, it’s covering the majority of our earth, holding more mysteries and horrors than most can imagine.
In Dredgethe debut video game from developer Black Salt Games, those mysteries are starting to make themselves known. Dredge begins with a fisherman arriving at Greater Marrow, one island in an archipelago that interrupts a vast stretch of wine-dark sea, under peculiar circumstances. His ship was destroyed on the rocks that guard the coastline, so he’s quickly handed a new boat and some fishing line and sent on his way by the mayor; the people must have something to eat.
And so he fishes. Dredge is a fishing game, after all — albeit one that tugs on the idea of fishing rather than the reality of it. Playing as the fisherman, I take to the seas and cast out my line. During the 12 hours of sunlight, you can see where the fish are bubbling to the surface, their shadows dancing under the waves. When you cast off your line, a fish bites immediately; there’s no waiting patiently for a single nibble. Catching the fish requires a simple timing minigame, in which you have to hit a button at the exact right moment. But to keep the fish to later sell, you have to make space in your hull; each catch means rearranging the gridded cargo hold to optimize storage, a little game of Tetris with each new fish. Space and time management are essential to Dredge.
The more fish you catch, the more you can sell, and that leads to upgraded fishing poles, engines, and nets. The challenge, though, is that new equipment also takes up the same precious cargo space as your fresh (and rotting) catches. Fish for a few in-game hours and you’ll quickly realize that it may be easy to fill your vessel with mackerel, which take up two grid spaces, but much harder to organize rays and sharks, which quickly take up space in erratic ways. Through all this fishing, selling, and upgrading, you’ll find places to dock on other islands, one of which will set the fisherman off on a search for several artifacts that threaten to reveal more of the ocean’s secrets than, perhaps, he wants to see. It’s quickly understood that Dredge‘s ocean has plenty of mysteries — many of which arise at night.
It’s not only mackerel and coral grouper that swim in Dredge‘s seas; something’s rotting the fish and turning them into grotesque monsters. Fish for long enough at night, and they’ll reveal themselves more easily, bursting forth from the sea to tear your ship to shreds. In these moments Dredge slightly into horror. But it’s a soft psychological horror — almost gentle — that sneaks up on the fisherman in the dark and early hours of the morning. It’s one of those games whose meditative moments are all the more comforting for the shadows lurking around them; Dredge has a sharp edge, but it’s not holding it to my throat.
In many ways, Dredge evokes developer Adam Robinson-Yu’s A Short Hike. Dredgelike A Short Hike, forces me to consider why I’m playing a game. It’s not to win or to get some payoff as quickly as possible, but to stop and do nothing — to pay meaningful attention to the little details of the world. It’s in the way Dredge‘s sun hides behind the water as day turns to night, in the shocking horror of pulling out a fish that’s just a collection of eyes, or the way you dredge up a bolt of soaking cloth just when you need it for a new hull. The atmosphere says so much more about Dredge‘s world than any dialogue ever could. It’s a story composed of gentle nudges toward subtle pockets of beauty and terror.
Wandering is encouraged in Dredge; its map has to be pulled up and studied, because there are no waypoints to be placed. There’s no marker on screen guiding you toward the next quest; instead, you set out to the northwest, or far off to the east, looking for landmarks that match what you’ve seen on the map. And on the way, there’s certain to be some surprises: maybe the quiet swishing of a pod of dolphins before you see them, or the squawk of a murder of crows ready to poke out your eyes.
Dredge parses out these moments of rewarding exploration without losing focus on its core conceits of fishing and discovering new creatures. But it also masterfully balances two distinct tones. It comprehends the sort of dread and horror that sneaks in, eyes jittery, after too many nights with too little sleep. It’s not a boiling terror and panic, but more of a simmer. There’s enough daylight for something of a reprieve, but it never sticks around for too long. Dredge is the perfect sort of dark yet cozy game. It can be unsettling, yes, but it never swims too far into the abyss.
Dredge was released on March 30 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on Steam Deck using a pre-release download code provided by Team17. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.