For many, fishing is a serene, relaxing hobby. It's a playful, yet often deadly game, where typically the one holding the rod is in full control. Out on the open seas, this dynamic is often flipped. Manning a trawler for days on end, fighting devastating weather conditions, and drifting away from land for weeks at a time can take a toll on your body and mind. It's these sorts of conditions that Dredge so neatly encapsulates in a handful of smartly designed mechanics, but it's the sinister undertone seeping through every crack that makes its fishing expeditions that much more treacherous.
You begin Dredge arriving at a small fishing hamlet on an ever-so-slightly larger island. The town's mayor is in need of someone to supply its population with fish and loans you a small but capable boat to fulfill that. Fishing is what you'll do most in Dredge given that you'll never get the chance to set foot on land, so it's a blessing that it never feels tedious. Each battle with a creature beneath the crest of the waves plays out as a brief minigame focused on timed button presses. The format of each one changes depending on the class of fish you're trying to catch, but the basic premise and overall difficulty remains the same. Completing each one isn't even required for a successful catch. Instead, your ability in each minigame just speeds up the process, which can come in handy when you're trying to get back to shore before nightfall.
While the wide, sun-kissed ocean is inviting during the 12 hours of daylight you have during each day, it's an entirely different prospect at night. A thick fog settles in over the wide expanse, with your boat's lights often struggling to cut through them effectively for navigation. While out at night, your stress levels rise consistently (indicated by a Sauron-like eye that starts moving more erratically the higher the level goes), and with it, the chance for some surreal occurrences. Rocks that you might have been sure weren't on your path before suddenly appear, damaging your hull and potentially robbing you of some of your current haul. As you press on through the stress, your so-called delusions intensify, with anything from pitch-black ravens with glowing red eyes beginning to circle you to ghostly ships appearing in your periphery and setting themselves on a crash course with your vessel.
Dredge threads the needle of mystery by never explaining these events outright. Each time you dock after a long night out, citizens of the various islands you explore will comment on your tiredness and warn you of the dangers of sailing without sleep. Converse with them more and you'll likely find that everyone knows something strange is happening out on the water, but no one is willing to offer an explanation as to what. Small notes in bottles strewn across the open oceans suggest a past event that might explain the unexplainable occurrences you'll often witness, but even then, there's a delightful amount that's left for you to piece together. Dredge, with its eldritch horror inspirations, predictably doesn't give you a straightforward answer by the end, and also disappointingly saves its most grotesque imagery for the few seconds before credits roll. While its themes are pervasive enough throughout to give Dredge a distinctly Lovecraftian feel, there's no denying that its otherwise suitably vague ending would have been more impactful with a similar level of horror strewn throughout.
It might seem easy enough to just confine all of your fishing to the day time to avoid any unsettling encounters and potential inventory loss, but Dredge's systems are balanced in a way that routinely provokes you to take a risk. Time, for example, doesn't pass when you're stationary, but will rapidly fly by as you move and partake in fishing. It was common for me to try squeezing in one more fishing spot before returning to the harbor, only for one or two mishaps during the timing in the minigame to plunge the world around me into darkness and make the journey back all the more treacherous. Many species of fish are also only available to catch at night, and given their requirement in some quests, you're often given no choice but to brave the fog in search of the right shapes beneath the surface to pluck up and deliver to needy townsfolk. It's also just captivating to see how far you can push your sanity in Dredge at times, admiring how the world around you is twisted underneath oppressive red hues after days without a wink of sleep.
It's easy enough to want to explore the open waters that Dredge has to offer, but it's the adventure encapsulating its vague story that provides most of the impetus to visit its handful of distinct island clusters. You travel to each location in search of five innocuous objects for a shifty stranger, who bestows some mysterious powers upon you and your boat with each new delivery. One lets you add a boost to your boat's engines but elevates your stress level and risks full engine failure the more you use it. Another teleports you right back to the home of the stranger at the expense of even more sanity, although most of the time it was the most effective way of cutting out tedious backtracking. Those two, out of a possible four in total, were the most useful, and rarely seemed as exciting in practice as their sinister source suggested. While it was fun to rip an entire school of fish out of the water with the use of a power, it rarely became something that felt crucial in my repertoire of abilities, eventually fading from memory as I continued with regular fishing instead. It's a disappointing waste of a reward in this sense, making each required trip back to the stranger more menial than exciting.
While the conclusion of each stage of your adventure isn't always mechanically rewarding, each of the quests you undertake makes the journey worth taking. It's thanks in no small part to the variety of locales you visit, from a maze of caverns with a craggy town sprawled across its mountains, to waters laden with torn-apart scientific equipment (due to a monstrous, tentacled creature from the abyss), to an abandoned civilization around a dormant volcano with just a few fanatics left to tell their tales. Dredge's world is layered with these engaging biomes to visit, peppered with a variety of different fish to discover and catch with a host of different fishing rods, reels, and traps. Despite resting on the same underlying mechanics for each, it finds inventive ways of making most of its fetch quests exciting, either through routinely shuffled objectives that challenge you to rethink your equipment and pursue upgrades, or how to effectively survey the waters around you for the right shapes to hunt down.
The process of upgrading your ship is an engrossing one too, with a variety of items to unlock and enhancements to construct. Research points are used to unlock new items at merchants. Rods, reels, and trawling nets all have certain classifications, which determine where they can be used and what fish they can catch, and more expensive ones combine traits. This is important given that only a limited portion of your inventory can be assigned to equipment, with spaces for your boat's lights and engines being given their respective slots, too. Increasing your overall inventory space (which you have to manually rearrange like a small game of Tetris) is done by dredging parts from numerous other shipwrecks and using the parts to improve your vessel. Everything costs money, however, so while you're helping out townsfolk around each new hamlet, you'll need to be balancing that with a healthy supply of income from fishing to continually make progress. It's a satisfying loop that lets you catch a few fish in the early hours of a new day as a set off towards an objective, sometimes turning into full resource runs if you happen upon expensive catches or large deposits of resources that you don't want to risk on a journey back in the dark.
The constant threat of the night and the engaging balance of risk and rewards is ultimately what makes each of the hours spent with Dredge so rewarding. The manifestations of your stressed psyche are intelligently represented by varying degrees of oddities at sea, which instill an appropriate sense of unease that is supported by the uneasiness of all the other characters you meet sprawled across each of the game's wonderfully varied islands. There are instances where its eldritch themes could've been expanded on more, especially when taking into account how the otherworldly powers you're bestowed are the least interesting part of your repertoire. But Dredge does a lot with many small, simple mechanics, all of which coalesce into a satisfying system that makes the horrors of this maritime adventure a thrill to tackle bow-on.