If you think big games these days often copy each other’s homework, and you think it’s all about live multiplayer and multiplayer systems, luckily March offers a little gem from the black depths. I’m talking about Dredge, the first game from small indie studio Black Salt Games, a four-man studio from New Zealand.
But these four have set their sights sky high and thought outside the box. In Dredge you are the captain of your own fishing boat and must trade between the tiny The Moros archipelago, while, like the various other inhabitants of the island, are somewhat confused by the disturbing events in the water. A thick fog moves over the islands every night, creating hallucinations and leading to dangerous madness, fish mutants and mysterious people who worship ancient relics.
The idea is that you operate your little fishing boat, earning and spending money and doing 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 ocean survival horror. Four people in New Zealand discovered it and realized it successfully.
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However, it’s mainly the game’s design and the curious mix of story elements that create entertainment, tension and engagement, as Dredge lacks an organized narrative. Of course, one of the missions eventually takes center stage and leads to a real conclusion, but the constant beats that give a sense of progress are somewhat evident here. Black Salt tries to pace itself a bit, so you’ll be visiting new islands as you go. As you upgrade your boat, you’ll also discover new details about the threats plaguing The Marros. For the most part it works well, but the overall flow needs a bit of refinement.
The characters you meet are quirky, crazy, intriguing and awesome in all the right ways. Although Dredge is not character driven, it gives off all the right Lovecraftian vibes, which should please fans of that universe. Side missions usually involve finding something or delivering a special type of fish to a location. Under normal circumstances this would be called repetition, but here these sub-goals are a natural part of the overall flow so you won’t be robbed by them. You are a fisherman And a fisherman must fish.
Since there is a day/night cycle here, time management is important. When you moor in the morning, do the necessary repairs, upgrades and other general maintenance before you hit the water. You see the small boat from a third-person perspective, and if you’ve installed the right rods and equipment that take up minimal cargo space, you can catch fish to sell. At the same time, you’ll dig up ruins that can be used to upgrade ships and other valuables. But if you don’t plan your trip well, you’ll be far from port when darkness falls and fog suddenly strikes. I don’t want to spoil too much, but avoiding being out too much at night is part of the whole loop, and it’s very satisfying.
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All of this is wrapped in a moodily sparse soundscape, and a semi-caricatured and cartoonish visual design really sells the game’s serious identity. Everything looks smart, and Black Salt makes a game made by four people look like it was designed by 40 people.
There are some disappointments here and there. Excavation can be 8-9 hours long, and while it’s purely recreational, there are aspects that could use modification. It’s not much customization from your boat. Yes, you decide what equipment you bring, but it’s not as attached to your ship as you might expect. Also, ghosts, fog, hallucinations, and creepiness in general become simple, unavoidable gameplay elements that both you as a player and the characters around you find trivial. Perhaps a slightly longer playtime and gradual exposure to the threats you face would have been better in the long run.
But Dredge is a resounding success, and an incredibly easy game that I can recommend to anyone interested in quirky little experiences.
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