I’ve been trying to pinpoint why fishing video games feel so good. They dodge the wet wellies and long, boring days of real fishing, so there’s that. But it’s more than just recreating something from real life: there has to be a reason why virtually every RPG chooses to include a fishing minigame.
Having played DREDGE, I think that I’ve finally found my answer. Fishing is the acceptable lootbox. It distils everything that’s magical about opening a Magic: The Gathering booster, or ripping open a FUT pack, and strips it back to the basics. When the hook and line hit the water, you have very little idea of what’s waiting for you in the depths. Something bites on the line and you reel it in, but it could be anything. Sometimes you get a fish that you’ve never caught before. Other times, it’s so big you can barely carry it. These are the equivalent of rares and shinies, and the possibility of getting one, even if I didn’t get one this time round, triggers old Pokemon card reflexes.
Following this line of thought to the fish at the end of it, DREDGE is the absolute master of the ‘fishing lootbox’. We’ve rarely been so obsessed, Ahab-like, with fishing until the early morning. Not only are we completing our fishing Pokedex, trying to catch every last one, but we are finding fish for crazed villagers who promise big rewards if we snag them. Not only are we unclear of what we’ll get from any fishing spot, but there’s the chance that it will be a trophy fish, absolutely frigging massive and worth twice the value. But DREDGE doesn’t stop there. Because there’s also the chance that the fish that’s on the end of our line is a hideous monstrosity, corrupted and malformed, a Lovecraftian beast with tentacles out the wazoo. That’s what gets us the most excited. If we find one of them, we’ve struck gold.
This is the topsy-turvy way that DREDGE gets you thinking. We absolutely flipping Love(craft) it. Because in the early moments of DREDGE, we thought we knew what was going on. We followed all of the usual Lovecraftian signals: the villagers with sunken eyes, asking if we’d retrieve packages for them, only to find that the package was slimy and moving. We were the sensible fisherman, desperately holding onto our sanity while everyone else was losing theirs. We’ve played enough Arkham Horror to know that the fight of DREDGE’s protagonist was one fisherman against the unthinkable.
Close, but no cigar. Because DREDGE is about giving in to those impulses. By the end of DREDGE, we were those sunken-eyed villagers. We were fishing in the murkiest waters, hoping for the most rotten and bulbous of terrors to be on the end of our fishing line. Gollum-like, we were holding them aloft. Our precious.
This is how it plays out: you are a fisherman who has arrived in Greater Marrow, looking to make a living. But this is not Pontins. The last Mayor is thought to have been lost to some underwater horror, and the people are untrusting and hopeless, peeking their beady eyes through cracks in their door. The only people who really talk to you are the ones who want to make money from you: fishmongers and shipwrights.
So, you hop into your boat and begin DREDGE’s wondrous game loops. Splashy circles of fish can be found on your travels, and you can stop the boat above them to begin fishing. As long as you have the right fishing implement for that fish – and the further you travel from Greater Marrow’s radius, the less likely you will have one – then you can trigger the fishing minigame.
More often than not, this is a bit of a golf-swing minigame. A bead bounces back and forth on a track, and you have to tap a button when it’s in the right place. Miss and you’re stunned for a moment, and perhaps your progress is reset. Get enough of these done in succession, and the fish is yours. There are other minigames that are more rhythm-action, and there is literal dredging in the game, where you scrabble about for salvage on the sea floor, and that has a completely different feel too.
With the fish in your hands, your next job is some Resident Evil inventory management. The fish has a certain shape, with sharks being blooming huge, and snappers being a single square in size, so you have to Tetris them into the shape of the hull. If you’ve only got a few isolated squares left, you should probably head back home and sell your haul.
But each fish in your haul means so, so much. It’s what makes DREDGE so glorious. You might be fishing purely for cash, running your cargo back to the fishmonger so that you can save up for something vital. You might be looking to complete your collection for a region. You might be hunting for specific fish for a series of quests, or you might be hunting for the raw materials that make bait. There are so many overlapping objectives here that everything you catch means progress on a dozen different things.
On occasion, the fishing spot twinkles, or has a purple haze rising from it. On other occasions, the fishing minigame replaces the grey ‘bead’ with a glowing yellow one. Suddenly, you have the chance of getting something special. The fish might emerge with cankerous sores, a couple of heads, or some other hideous corruption. Not only are these rare, ticking off a hard-to-find page of your fish catalogue, but they are worth more. And they are gorgeously ugly, imaginative in fantastic new ways, so the simple act of finding them is a joy in itself. There are no ‘attractive’ fish in DREDGE. There are no Nemos or Dorys. Everything is beautifully horrific.
With the haul crawling with fish and netherworld monstrosities, you head to shore and progress on a multitude of different tracks. There’s money, obviously, which allows you to buy new motors, lights, lobster pots, nets and fishing rods. There’s a kind of skill tree at the floating dock, where you can unlock bigger boats, which effectively creates a bigger Resident Evil inventory to play around with. And you can complete quests, which are the prompts to explore the reasonably large world of DREDGE.
You don’t stay in Greater Marrow. You are soon heading to a mysterious gentleman who wants five relics from around the map. These relics take you to the four corners of the game map, where things go a little Metroidvania. Fishing spots in those areas need fishing rods and pots that you don’t have, and probably can’t afford yet. The relics are hidden behind walls that need upgrades that you haven’t gained, but will – as soon as you complete the area’s quests.
Each corner of the map has a different story to tell. Hulking leviathans and mind-flaying creatures add a bit of threat and, needless to say, the villagers of those regions need your help clearing them. Which is the one final feather in DREDGE’s cap. It may be a fishing game, with moments of zen-like bliss. But it’s also taut and tense, where failure is very much a possibility.
Because DREDGE is on a day-night cycle, and night is something to be truly feared. As soon as the hour hand passes six, the world shifts into Lovecraftian mode, and Eldritch horrors rise from the sea. Visibility is down, and too much exposure causes your sanity to fray, with hallucinations and tentacles looking to drag you to the depths.
Why bother venture out at these times? Because you have to. Sometimes it’s because a fish can only be found in those moments, or a particular action needs the cover of night. Other times, it’s simply because you weren’t checking the time, or got lost in some mangrove forests. Now, it’s extraction time: you’re trying to find your way back, without incurring so much damage that your engines get fried or your fish go overboard.
It’s the only major issue we have with DREDGE. Bookending the stupendous middle are a beginning and end that have their problems. The game’s opening has the ‘Alpha Protocol syndrome’: DREDGE is so determined to make its upgrades transformative and powerful, that the opening game can feel slow and clumsy to play. The boat moves at a stately pace, the hull can carry minimal fish, and any damage can wipe out your engine, leaving you effectively adrift, waiting for death (or a slow pootle back to shore). When you combine that with the first major location, Gale Cliffs, which is actually quite the challenge, it can become too much. But know that if you overcome this leviathan-sized hurdle, the game’s upgrades and following two (more tepid) locations make the game far more satisfying.
The final bookend is Devil’s Spine, where hazard awaits at every corner. It’s not necessarily difficult, it’s just frustratingly stop-start, and we enjoyed it far less than the other region. Too often, we found an ‘X’, indicating damage, on one of our motors, and issues compounded as the resulting slowness made us more of a target.
But we don’t care, because DREDGE is just that good. We felt digested whole by the game’s fishing loops, as we couldn’t escape the need to gather every fish, to complete every quest, and to upgrade our ship until we could fit a hammerhead or two in its majestic hull.
We want to play a double-bill of DREDGE and Moonglow Bay. Because while Moonglow Bay is the positive, life-affirming and wistful side of fishing, DREDGE is the opposite. It is monstrously gorgeous, hideously compelling, and has our fingernails down to bloody ends. We’re going to need to update that best fishing games list.
You can buy DREDGE from the Xbox Store