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Dredge: The Pale Reach begins with a scribbled red question mark beckoning you south into uncharted waters. A fresh call to adventure then, and another blind dash across horror-filled waters to find a safe dock before the sun plunges and panic sets in. The surfy fog clears, giving way to thick ice sheets cut through by impassable channels. The ominous squeals of a presumably monstrous creature echo muffled in the crisp, icy air, reminding us of Dredge’s capacity to conjure a simmering, disquieting dread.
And so starts the first Dredge expansion, aptly titled the Pale Reach. The conceit of the base game remains: fish, sell your catch, use the money to patch up and upgrade your tugboat, and then venture out a little further into the icy archipelago. Framing the loop is a freshly-inked story. It’s one of sailors drawn to the barren ice, an ill-fated adventure told through journals, sparse NPC interactions, and eerie abandoned camps. Signature Dredge then, allusive and dreary storytelling bolted to a simplistic but satisfying fishing game.
The Pale Reach taps into something I think made so many enamoured with the base game: it’s light on hand-holding, urging you to be inquisitive, to progress and complete a handful of quests by being mindful of subtle cues. A journal entry mentions a vague direction, or you spot a brief glint in the distance. All motivation to eek out answers from limited clues. None have map markers, and The Pale Reach never tells you explicitly where to go next. There are no tight linear constraints or oppressive objectives; it’s just you, the ice, and some sea stories to go on.
The Dredge: Pale Reach is a subtle departure from the base game in the quality of its threats. You’re bound to narrow channels and don’t have the option to make a swift escape to the relative safety of open seas. You have to worry about your ship hitting the ice, which could spell trouble if the impact bangs up your engines. Anxiety mounts as you fumble through the maze of ice to reach a dock before dusk. The area feels oppressive and claustrophobic, prowled by a hulking golden-horned narwhal only sated by an offering of fish. It’s all for the better, as Dredge’s horror often bordered on suggestive, eventually deadened by upgrades and a speedier, more resilient boat. Here, it feels real and near, actively dangerous, its very existence amplifying the appeal of those comforting, reflective moments of midday fishing.
Bundling in no more than three to five hours of playtime, depending on whether you fancy completing the encyclopaedia with 11 new fish and their sinister cousins, The Pale Reach is teasingly brief. Short and sweet, respectful of your time, and priced accordingly, yes, but quality always fuels an appetite for more, so take that as a complimentary grumble. Fortunately, there’s more expansions on the way. Moreover, Black Salt Games have padded out The Pale Reach with new rods and nets to unlock ice fishing. Ice blocks now mitigate the sometimes frustrating issue of decaying fish. And one of your first tasks is to equip your ship with an icebreaker. The satisfying crunch of carving shortcuts through the ice never gets old.
Dredge: The Pale Reach is a rewarding, albeit bite-sized expansion that taps into what made the base game one of this year’s most compelling indie efforts. For those after more of that unique, unsettling coziness, The Pale Reach should scratch that nautical itch while we wait for The Iron Rig DLC next year.