A Sea Of Secrets
HIGH A magnificent application of Lovecraftian themes and concepts.
LOW The hidden time limit on a handful of sidequests.
WTF Why does the scientist only provide half the required gear?
Being a Lovecraft fan who wants cosmic horror in the world of videogames can be challenging. Developers exploring the material often end up doing first-person horror, and those are… fine? But honestly, I can only play so many before they start to blend together into a blurred mess of been-there tentacles, and done-that darkness. However, the material is bigger than just one genre, so when I come across a title that has fresh, new ideas for testing the limits of existential dread, I’m on board.
One such project is Dredge, created by Black Salt Games and published by Team 17. Not only is it an excellent use of the Lovecraft mythos, it’s a wildly different approach that is largely successful in every aspect. A rare treat, indeed!
Taking place in a patch of ocean dotted with a series of islands, the player begins as an unemployed fisherman who quickly finds himself a job at a small town perched on the edge of a cove. The local economy needs someone bringing in a catch, and the protagonist has a hook and line that need to get wet.
Interestingly, the player never gets out of their boat. The craft chugs around in the ocean as one would expect, but when they dock at any town or settlement, there are a series of menus used to interact with people at these locations. It’s a great system that cuts the unnecessary fat of clunky third-person character navigation or time spent walking to the same fish markets and boatwrights they will inevitably visit a hundred times over.
Whether talking to the sketchy Mayor, the Lighthouse Keeper who knows more than she’s telling, or the estranged brothers who live across from each other on the same small bay, the writing is excellent and exactly what I would want from a project like this. Not only does it understand the pervasively creepy vibes that help sell a Lovecraftian horror, the exchanges are smartly spare with how much text the player must get through. Every conversation is just enough to set the scene and suggest a few things, but it never drowns the player with paragraph after paragraph. Black Salt clearly understands that having the player engage in a mechanical way is more effective than having them churn through purple prose — the books still exist, so why recreate that method of storytelling?
After meeting the cast of characters that would seem at home in Innsmouth, the player sets out to earn money by catching fish which appear at various hotspots near the islands and in the open ocean.
Fishing is essentially a series of minigames, but it’s pulled off with panache because it forgoes the usual ‘line tension‘ and ‘keep the indicator in the green zone‘ reeling most commonly seen. Much like the good sense displayed in navigating towns, the devs know that the player is going to be doing this specific action quite a bit, so they make it quick and friction-free.
Over the player spots a hotspot on the water, they can see the shape of the fish present to help them decide whether to drop a line in, or not. It’s a brilliant move, saving hours of time when they’re after a specific species. Once fishing begins, there’s no waiting and no delay — they simply start a short rhythm minigame, one per fish, and they’ll have a full boat before they know it.
While out on the water, players will also find places to dredge up materials to improve their boat and gear, along with mysterious artifacts and treasures that can be sold for extra cash — and the economy in Dredge is excellent.
Of course, the player will have to devote a little time to catching fish and upgrading their fishing rods and nets and so forth, but it’s never arduous and resources are easy to come by. As a result, everything moves along briskly, and there is rarely a time when someone will feel stuck by a lack of cash or materials. This is an extremely clever setup because not only does it streamline every system and have an exceptionally smooth flow for something based on Lovecraft, but the real kicker is that there’s also never any combat.
Dredge certainly offers danger and scary moments but, true to form, most of the things creeping around in the deep are beyond a person’s ability to fight. As such, the only recourse is to be a bit clever, or failing that, simply motoring away at top speed. It’s a perfect fit for the material and makes sense thematically — and as someone who’s over the common Lovecraft fare, it’s delightful to never worry about guns or ammo.
One the player has their sea legs and become familiar with the setup, they’ll find five major sections to Dredge, each with a different environment and theme. One has abyssal depths which are home to something that doesn’t want to be disturbed, one offers volcanoes and mysterious ruins, one is a swamp where a survivor needs help, and more. Each area has a specific problem that must be solved in a different way, and each one could be the basis of its own short story. The player will, of course, constantly be fishing, but they’ll also be engaged in finding specific fish, looking for lost items, or trying to find a way around a fearsome beast, and all of it falls neatly within what one would rightly expect from a Lovecraftian tale, especially considering how many of the author’s famous stories have to do with the ocean or undersea horrors.
Complementing all of this is the way the devs have peppered psychological effects and madness into the proceedings. I won’t spoil too much, but I will say that it’s not safe to be out on the water when the player is tired, or when they’ve been exposed to things beyond the mortal ken. Certain pieces of gear may have unsettling qualities, and spending too much time in the dark is never good. Seeing these effects come into play is an absolutely brilliant implementation of what one would expect from cosmic horror. To think that this is housed in a fishing game is pretty incredible.
If I have any complaints about Dredge, know that they are minor.
One thing I would have liked would be more characters out on the water. That’s not to say that there aren’t any, but a couple more wouldn’t have hurt, and the player will often meet the same traveling merchant no matter which dock they tie up to, which felt like a missed opportunity to add variety.
I did appreciate the amenities provided to the player, such as important places being auto-marked on the map and crucial bits of info made readily available in the menu, but I was desperate for a way to put down my own markers on locations I wanted to come back to. Also, the player can take as much time as they want to fulfill most quests, but there are a few which have a hidden time limit. I would have prioritized them if I’d known, and failing those didn’t feel great.
The only other concern was that at one point I was supposed to fulfill a quest that required a specific fishing pole, but the questgiver only gave part of what I needed. That wouldn’t have been a problem except that I had already spent the resources needed for the rest of the gear, so I had to put everything on hold to go find resources elsewhere. It wasn’t a major roadblock, but a strange and obvious misstep for a game that glides along like the smoothest silk in every other respect.
After rolling credits and being pleased with nearly every minute of it, I found Dredge to be not only an extremely well-put-together and polished adventure, but also one of the best Lovecraftian experiences I’ve had in videogames. It effectively captures the mystery and fear of dealing with powers is that are beyond the understanding of humanity, and the finale is both satisfying and pitch-perfect.
As a long time Lovecraft fan and someone who appreciates a good cosmic horror, Dredge is top class.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Disclosures: This game is developed by Black Salt Games and published by Team 17. It is currently available on PC, PS, XB, SW. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10 and contains Animated Blood, Use of Tobacco, Mild Language and Fantasy Violence. The game is quite tame in all regards and should be safe for the majority. There is no sex and I don’t recall any of the mild language the ESRB mentions. There are a few frightening moments (it would be a poor cosmic horror if there weren’t!) but it’s all rather safe and harmless, and this is not a bad thing. This won’t give anyone nightmares.
Colorblind Modes: There are no official colorblind modes available in the options, but there are options to change the color of text and modify some effects.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled. text cannot be resized, although colors can be altered somewhat for keywords. (See above.) I played the entire game on mute and had no issues whatsoever, as any relevant information is relayed via text or visual cues. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
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