Draugen is an interesting game, for sure, and it has enough to say for itself ‘on the cover’. A thrilling noir mystery set in a picturesque Norwegian village, an independent AI companion, changing scenery fitting the weather and your protagonist’s mental state, and twists that would give M. Night Shyamalan a run for his money. It all sounds rather good, but unfortunately most of this ended up being overblown and disappointing, and arguably for better or for worse, Draugen isn’t the game you might be expecting it to be.

The game starts out with you, Edward Charles Harden – an American traveller – arriving at a Nordic coastal village with his ward Lissie. Edward is visiting to see his sister Betty, however upon reaching land you discover that the village is totally deserted. You make for your host’s house at the top of the village, but after arriving at the conclusion that no one is coming to greet you, you set off to investigate. What you discover leads to a sinister mystery surrounding feuding families and a discovery that they made in the nearby mine.

Draugen does a very good job of opening this mystery. The beautiful landscape sets the mood, and slowly exploring your surroundings leads to snippets of information about the village as it once was. There’s a genuine eeriness and tension, particularly when you’re back at the house, that pervades the story – always a sense that someone might turn up, or that you might regret discovering the reasons for the mass disappearance.

The game is fully voice acted, so each note or book you look at is read through by Edward, and his deep sophisticated tone fits the atmosphere perfectly. Walking though the village you can find spots to sit and take in the environment as Edward draws – a nice touch as you steadily explore – and you’re free to engage in conversation with Lissie. There’s no puzzling involved, but keeping an eye out for information and things to interact with is where the gameplay involvement comes from. It’s not really a walking simulator in this sense, as there’s a bit more to it than that – letting you explore the whole village at your own pace, and having you investigate the mystery of the missing villagers, at least in a basic way – though it is a fairly linear and passive experience.

The music and audio complement the game perfectly, with just the right levels of tension and tranquillity to accentuate the beautiful environments, yet fuel the eerie atmosphere. Upon closer inspection the visuals, from animations to textures, aren’t grade A, but I think even the fussiest of us could take a step back and appreciate the work that’s gone into the scenery. Surrounded by a vast lake, mountains and trees, the village is a painter’s dream. Of course, the fact that it hides a dark history makes it all the more compelling, and the balance between pretty exploration and sinister discovery is finely achieved – it’s in the moments with this game that you least expect it that it throws something chilling or revelatory at you.

The notion of the missing villagers and a discovery in the nearby mine is a genuinely compelling one and there’s a decent amount they could have done with this – gradually discovering more of the dark plot and characters involved – but unfortunately this runs aground rather quickly, and the game throws out a pretty shocking twist and runs with it to the its conclusion, somewhat muddying the plotline. I didn’t particularly enjoy the revelation that’s thrown at you (which obviously I’m not going to spoil), but I will admit to it being impressively implemented, at least to begin with, as I had absolutely no idea what was coming.

It doesn’t help that the game is as short as it is. Sitting at 3 hours, my big issue with the direction the story takes isn’t that it’s inherently uninteresting, or that it couldn’t work alongside the core plot, but within such a short timeframe it doesn’t allow its original mystery (the one that attracted me to the game) to flourish. What we actually end up with is a slightly overcomplicated, if vague, exploration of ‘the twist’, but not really much of a conclusion to the base story. It feels like they were either trying to be a bit too clever with not enough resources, or didn’t have enough confidence to pursue this as a ghostly mystery/investigation (if that was ever the plan to begin with).

I feel this transfers to Lissie as well – our ward and ‘gregarious, independent young woman’. The boasting of her as some sort of independent companion is misleading to say the least. She is independent in the sense that she doesn’t cling to you every step of the way, but this is only because she completely disappears, before conveniently turning up behind you when you reach the next important area – “you go on ahead” is a common phrase for her as she stays behind to look at something random. The description of your interactions with her and the dialogue system in general as ‘dynamic’ is a bit of a stretch. You can talk to her (or to yourself) at pretty much any time – making comments on your findings or just general natter – but this is all very basic, and with Lissie presenting as frankly annoying, you might not want to engage too much with this feature anyway.

Perhaps this is a little unfair, as Lissie certainly grew on me as a character, but particularly at the beginning of the game I found some of her dialogue to be a tad cringey. There’s a lot of unnatural britishisms forced into the dialogue, and while Edward is clearly a boring old sod, she doesn’t half give him a tough time. But what she does do well, having said all that, is offer you direction and instigates your sleuthing of the village/environment quite effectively. Things do seem a bit more interesting with her, albeit naïve, input and she most certainly grows as a character.

The game feels a bit of an unfulfilled opportunity. The length most definitely has a lot to do with that, as ultimately I found the narrative to be very compelling indeed (even though I didn’t like the direction it finally takes), and exploring the village feels rushed. There could have been more houses to peak into and learn about different characters that once lived in the village, and I feel there most definitely could have been more of a solid conclusion to the initial plot. The game ends with you ‘sort of’ knowing what happened, but none of it in very much detail.

But for what it is, despite these criticisms, Draugen is an interesting adventure and not without its charm. Our two main characters form a curious pair, and though slightly disappointing, the overall narrative has its thrills and intrigues. I’m not sure I’d recommend it at its current price point (£16.99), but with a few quid shaved off it would be a safer investment. There’s also an upcoming (13th June) release of a prequel comic, so it will be interesting to see what led up to this adventure’s beginning.



Author

John Little
John Little

I started gaming with the release of the PS1 - Crash Bandicoot and Ridge Racer Revolution being the first 'real' games I ever set eyes on - and have been enthralled with the medium ever since. I particularly love strategy and horror games, the sort offered by titles such as Total War and Silent Hill, though I also have a soft spot for a good RPG. I studied Journalism at university in the hopes of progressing into writing about games. You'll most likely find me covering indie games as I'm always on the look out for interesting little titles, and generally I stick to the PC and PS4 platforms. I'm not interested in MMOs or really any kind of online game, and I have an unusual and frankly worryingly expensive obsession with collecting gaming guide books, but aside from that I like to think I'm a well rounded average gamer. Find me on twitter @JohnLittle29