A mysterious fog-covered town, a tropical paradise covering up something deadline in the great below, and vast ocean canyons that sailors rarely make it out from. Every section of Dredge’s sizable archipelago is full of secrets that could easily sink your fishing ship as soon as you slow down to investigate.
Except your ship never stays at the bottom of the salt for long. As soon as you die in Black Salt Games’ Dredge–a Lovecraftian horror adventure about a fisherman finding work in a mysterious archipelago–you find yourself right back in the nightmare once again. There is no escape, which works wonderfully as both a story and lore mechanic.
Dredge isn’t a horror game about survival or bloodthirsty creatures who are hunting you. It’s about a world that’s already miles deep and full of questions that will never have answers. Spending hours running and getting killed by sinister sealife isn’t nearly as compelling as simply spending more time near though. The questions slowly pile up, and it’s satisfying to just try and answer them.
These are similar to the questions brought up by the 2018 movie adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s book, Annihilation. A giant 1,500 pound bear with half a face and a human-like voice that cries for help isn’t scary just because it can tear you apart with ease; it’s terrifying because you have no idea what it is. What’s making its face fall off? What’s giving it the ability to emit human cries? Are its motivations the same now that it’s been mutated by some sort of alien presence? There are many questions and more come up for every proposed answer.
Dredge was initially revealed as a survival-horror fishing adventure where you travel from locale to locale while dredging up fish, escaping the jaws of gigantic beasts, and meeting odd individuals with peculiar motivations. You begin the game in a haze with few clues as to who you are or what you are doing on these islands. Few answers are received as the game progresses.
The first time you leave the game’s opening hub, The Marrows, it feels like you are on borrowed time, even more so as night begins to fall, the music picks up, and visibility becomes worse. My heart beat faster and faster the first time I was caught in the darkness. But that type of horror didn’t last long.
An eerie black ship appeared in the distance and gave chase. I was new to these waters, so I didn’t know where to head. It eventually sunk me, but I woke up, unharmed, shortly after.
One of the primary critiques Dredge received was that it was too easy. The sense of dread and danger fell away shortly after the first few expeditions out into the unknown. That’s somewhat true, but it’s far from the main horror of this fishing expedition. Every chapter offers new mysteries and new questions. It keeps reeling you in further with new twists.
Who is this mysterious man in a decrepit mansion on an island outside The Marrows? Who are these cultists that line the outskirts of almost every location on the map? Why are all these fish growing in grotesque and freakish ways?
The game’s mechanics are built around exploration. You travel around the various islands fishing and collecting resources that upgrade your fishing rod, ship speed, floodlight range, and other ship components that let you peer through the darkness a little longer.
Dying provides a necessary trade-off to those mechanics. Run your ship aground, get attacked by a giant piranha, or succumb to the reach of an evil ghost ship? You lose part or all of your cargo and will be sent back to the dock to regain your wits. It all fits within how Dredge is built.
The horror in Dredge isn’t like that of Resident Evil or Dead Space where you may need to replay the same segment over and over because Mr. X keeps curb stomping you on some side street in Raccoon City. That sort of difficulty can be enticing, but it also wears down the horror on its own. Mr. X is hardly scary once you learn how he works–or when he kills you a half dozen times.
Dredge, on the other hand, is always, at the very least, creepy. The sense of doom that fills every way from Gale Cliffs to Twisted Strand is always there. And that’s maintained when you revisit the game to play its latest expansive area, The Pale Reach.
Answers are never provided, even as you roll credits and experience one of Dredge’s multiple endings. It’s this type of horror and mystery that sits with you like a cold case from a decade ago that you came across in a true crime podcast. This sort of lore and unfathomableness is built on a world that’s a mile deep, instead of just a few feet of monsters that will drown you at a moment’s notice.
Whether it be Annihilation or Dredge, the core of Lovecraftian horror is the unknown. It’s about grappling with things that can’t be comprehended and could possibly be fatal. Dredge has both, and we’re lucky it’s just a game and not a real place.
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