Fishing is a fascinating attraction in video games. Back in the day, SEGA would really go out of their way with their arcade efforts, even designing a specific controller for their Dreamcast console. As a mini-game, fishing has been a favorite pastime in many a game. Think about the sheer addiction to capturing all kinds of aquatic life in Animal Crossing, or even the much-needed downtime fishing provided in between the enormous skirmishes in Fire Emblem. In fact, most people probably don't dislike Big the Cat as much as they let on, as he made a welcome return to Sonic Frontiers.
Fishing in real life often demands a great deal of preparation and even a license! But in a video game players can simply jump right in. Still, these are all representations of fishing as leisure, and that's different from fishing as a backbreaking occupation, and this is where Dredge differs from your typical fishing video game.
Fishing is the primary premise of Dredge, described as a "fishing adventure game" by New Zealand-based developer Black Salt Games. Their debut title seeks to create a role-playing adventure unlike anything else. It may be different from what most would expect, but this is an immersive adventure with plenty to discover.
Fishing may be at the heart of it all, but the actual fishing here doesn't involve the usual play mechanics. For one thing, the core mini-game is more of a lock-picking exercise, rather than simulating the feel of reeling a scaly creature in. Carefully timed button presses triggered when the moving cursor passes through the "green" area of the circle (sometimes in succession) will capture the prize. The operationalization of the actual fishing isn't remarkable. In fact, it's perhaps the most minor mechanic in the whole experience.
Dredge is about the adventure, as players embark on their fishing vessel in solitude, and find themselves as an unwanted stranger in most coastal towns. The map is sizeable with a variety of towns to visit and folks to get acquainted with. The story itself begins with a shipwreck, and unfortunately, the town doesn't provide hospitality out of the kindness of their heart. Instead, players must get to work immediately to sell fish, all in order to pay off their debt for post-wreck boat repairs.
This initial gameplay loop does a fantastic of gathering fish to sell and does a great job of acquainting players with the various systems. There are a lot of moving parts, but broadly speaking there are three key areas to manage: inventory, time, and most notable of all, mental health.
Inventory management is what will occupy most of the menu navigation and progression strategy, and although this doesn't seem too much of an issue at first, longer trips will mean that players must manage essential equipment along with their catches. This is done quite literally, as items need to be squeezed into a tile-shaped grid. It's almost exactly like the restricted inventory menu from classic Resident Evil games.
Planning trips around inventory restrictions consequently involves time management, as players need to balance fishing duties with much-needed downtime, and also being able to interact with the town. Daytime is usually the most productive period as business can be done with the townsfolk, additional favors can be completed, and more fishing spots are accessible. While most fishing trips are best done during daylight, rare catches are often discovered at night.
Working during the after-hours can be risky, as weather and other supernatural hazards pose dangers. These hazards, both real and perceived, can affect the mental psyche of our lonely fisher. Managing the mental health of our protagonist involves ensuring sufficient rest and not overtly provoking the dangers that lurk in the sea.
Dredge is less about the activity of fishing and more about the occupation of fishing. It's one thing to occasionally fish as a hobby, but in this game, players traverse in solitude as they try to simply get by and survive. The process of gathering fish to earn a living whilst sailing across to new towns can be cathartic, and yet it can all feel incredibly nihilistic too.
It can feel meaningless as various tasks are completed and catches are sold to earn a paltry living, but there is much to learn. Embarking on the sea allows for plenty of reading time, so players will be able to collect and digest books which grants some bonuses. There are treasures to discover too, but for most players, their Pokémon impulse will likely take over, as they will try to capture all 125 or so sea creatures to complete their fishing encyclopedia. It's not all sea critters, as there are plenty of treasures and other rare items too. That is if the unknown horrors lurking within the sea don't completely consume you first.
Dredge is both cathartic and harrowing. As a lone fisher with a vessel that quite literally serves as a mobile home, there is a sense of profound loneliness which comes with the apparent sense of freedom. You're free to explore the seas at your whim, and yet the game reminds us that although we may at times be able to physically go wherever our heart desires, we often forget that we must carry our mental state with us wherever we go. We can escape a lot of things, but our mind is one thing we simply cannot outrun, not even by escaping into the seas.
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