Draugen is a beautiful and haunting adventure with powerful writing that feels like a teaser for a bigger story. But it’s worth your time if only to spend it with Lissie.
Draugen, the latest title from Dreamfall Chapters developer Red Thread Games, defines itself as a “Fjord Noir” mystery, which is the best way to describe the game. It’s a dark tale of loss, betrayal, and fear set in a small community on the Norwegian coastline.
However, Draugen was also marketed as a psychological survival horror game. While the game does deliver on the “psychological” part, it is very light on horror or survival. Frankly, Draugen is light on everything that isn’t dialogue and breathtaking vistas.
That’s Norway to Tell a Story
In Draugen, you play as Edward Charles Harden, an American traveling to Norway in search of his sister Elizabeth. The game starts with Edward, accompanied by a young woman named Alice (Lissie for short), rowing a fishing boat down a fjord towards a quaint village right on the water. When they reach the shore, they discover the place to be completely abandoned and set out to find out what has happened, and how Edward’s sister ties into all of it.
What unfolds is not so much of an investigation, as it is a leisurely stroll in the most picturesque location the world, peppered with moments of dread and suspense, with a hint of something supernatural going on behind the scenes.
I say “leisurely stroll” because Draugen doesn’t require any effort on your part to uncover clues or put them together into a coherent narrative. The game doesn’t hand you anything on a silver platter, but if you make sure to interact with everything you can, you’ll figure out what’s going on; or as much of it as the game lets on.
But the mystery of the disappearing Norwegian fishermen isn’t why we’re here. It’s a cool side story that helps drive the game along, but the main story is all about Edward himself. You see, Edward is what you’d call an “unreliable narrator,” meaning his version of the truth isn’t, well, all that reliable. It’s not that he’s a liar, just that he isn’t all there. At some point, you start doubting whether the stuff happening on screen is really happening, or is it all in Edward’s head.
Unfortunately, Draugen doesn’t do anything interesting with its story. It’s still good, with the right amount of tension and discovery, but I was expecting more elements of psychological and existential horror. Instead, the game continues to hint something unsettling is going on right around the corner, just to end with a feeble twist and doesn’t pay off in any significant way. The story ends up feeling like a teaser for a much larger narrative we’ll probably never get to experience.
While the story is lacking in substance, it is full to the brim with dialogue, specifically with Lisse, your companion. Lissie isn’t your typical AI companion: She feels and often acts as a separate entity from the player, exploring on her own, shouting when she spots something cool and generally being her own person. She’s free-spirited, curious and brave – qualities Edward is scared to show, which means a lot of the times she’s the one pushing and guiding the player forward.
While sometimes she will literally point you towards an important location or item, most of Lissie’s guidance is done through dialogue. Everything you can interact with prompt a conversation between Edward and Alice, about the village, the people who used to live there, or Edward’s sister.
Lissie is also the one doing most of the mental work, connecting fragments of information you already discovered together. It would have been better to let the player do the detective work, but the game is more interested in Edward and Alice’s relationship than it is with allowing you to solve a mystery.
Luckily, talking with Lissie is always enjoyable. She’s a great character that evolves in an interesting way throughout the game, and still has something new to say. Her dialogue is expertly written and acted, which makes her the best part of Draugen by far.
Don’t Stray Far
When you’re not talking with Lissie, you are wandering around the fishermen village, stopping only to read notes and draw in your notebook. Of course, you don’t wander about aimlessly. You always know where you need to go, and if you don’t, Lissie will make sure you do. However, you are free to go almost anywhere you want from the very beginning, though you might not want to.
The environment in Draugen is very inviting, and you’d want to explore it as soon as you can. However, the game is very linear, and if you try to go somewhere it still doesn’t want to you, you’ll find a lot of locked doors and gates. But even if you go exploring in the areas that are already open to you, you won’t find anything of interest. There’s almost nothing to see off the main path, and I spent a lot of time slowly scouring every location in hopes of uncovering additional clues or hidden secrets, to no avail.
But if you stick to the linear path the game sets for you, you’ll continuously come across new areas to explore and items that will spark a new conversation with Lissie. Draugen is a very contained experience, and you should treat it as such.
Resisting the urge to explore off the beaten path can be a herculean task sometimes, due to how beautiful your surroundings are. Everything is painted in the most radiant shades of blue, yellow, and green, and it’s impossible not to stop and take it all in from time to time.
There are only about three or four distinct areas you explore, but each chapter in the story takes you either to a new part of the village or changes the visuals of an existing one. The world also shifts according to Edward’s mood and mental state. It gets foggy when he’s confused, and a snowstorm envelopes the mountain when he’s distressed. These changes are all scripted, and there’s no real way you can hurt or improve your sanity, but they all look absolutely stunning; artistically, at least.
If you look too close, you’ll start seeing the seams and tears – spots where the technical constraints are showing through the impressive art. But after a while, you stop noticing the technical side and just lose yourself in the gorgeous Norwegian countryside.
You will also lose yourself entirely in the game’s music. Draugen has one of the best musical themes I’ve heard in a long time. Every time I loaded up the game, I just let the music play in the main menu. Composer Simon Poole did a fantastic job at creating a haunting soundtrack that perfectly captures the game’s atmosphere. I adore it.
When I Awoke I Was Alone
Saying Draugen is a short experience is an understatement. It will last you about 3-4 hours if you take your time to walk around and take everything in, but if you stick to the main story, I bet you can finish it in half that time. I’m pretty sure it took me longer to write this review than to play the game. I will say it leaves you wanting more – more story, more to see, and more to do. Not necessarily because it’s that good, though most of it is, but because there isn’t a lot there to begin with.
The game reminds me of The Park, Funcom’s little spin-off of The Secret World MMO, in that it feels like a self-contain adventure in a much larger world. The only problem is that in Draugen, we know next to nothing about the world beyond the game. It’s like a vertical slice from a story, a teaser, with no real beginning and no real end.
It does feel like it was meant to be bigger than it ended up – like there was a larger story Red Thread Games wanted to tell but ultimately had to go in a different direction. The game was in development for quite some time, so to end up as a short title that doesn’t challenge you in any way is a bit of a miss.
I enjoyed Draugen, but I was also a little disappointed. It’s a small game with a good story, great characters, and beautiful visuals and music. However, it doesn’t quite live up to its ideas and marketing premise. Draugen feels like trying to look out into the fog – you’re sure there’s something there, but you can’t really see anything beyond a few unsettling glimpses.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.