A lot of games these days try to take over our lives with a plethora of content and features. After a while, you start wishing for shorter, more self-contained experiences, even if they’re not that great. Especially if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands. I knew Draugen would be one of those experiences when it was first announced. It’s a very linear exploration game that runs about as long as a feature film. If you go into it expecting just that, you’ll enjoy it for what it is: a stunning visual experience with a mellow soundtrack and a decent story. Otherwise, you’ll do well to manage your expectations.
Into the Fjord - The Setting of DraugenDraugen was advertised as a “fjord noir,” which is a fancy way of saying it’s a mystery set in the unique valley landscapes of Norway. In a way, it also ties in with film noir being originally an American genre, and the lead characters of Draugen being Americans. There’s Edward Charles Harden, the endlessly dull middle-aged man you’ll play as, and the cheerfully bratty teenager Lissie, his ward. They arrive in Graavik, a small village in the heart of a fjord, searching for Edward’s sister, Elizabeth.
As they explore the village upon their arrival, they find it deserted, with some tracks left behind to unravel what happened. This involves reading letters and newspaper clippings, looking at photos and pictures, and so on. What sets the experience apart from dozens of walking simulators is that you’re not alone as you explore and follow the breadcrumb trail. You have Lissie around you most of the time, asking questions, making fun of you, climbing trees and dancing. That is, behaving as bored teenagers usually do in these situations.
Companion Engagement in DraugenLissie acts in many ways like a typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl foil to Edward’s brooding personality. She’s a tomboyish girl who talks and acts like what I imagine a 1920s flapper would. She’s like a teenage girl out of the pages of The Great Gatsby, and just as gratingly cartoonish at times. She calls Edward “old sport, old bean, old fruit, old boy,” over and over. At first, it’s kind of funny and cute, but it gets old halfway through the story. Still, I actually liked her, even though I see through her role as mostly a narrative device for exposition. She’ll often ask you to explain things, translate letters, but what she’s really doing is cluing the player in on what you discover about Graavik and its former inhabitants.
At some points, if you’re talking to her and you turn around to look at something else, Lissie will say: “Please look at me when I’m talking to you.” I wasn’t expecting that kind of reactivity when it happened, and I really liked it. I do wish there was more of it, but Draugen manages to be neat and clean with its interactions so that it doesn’t drag on and it’s substantial enough to feel like a proper game. The animation of Lissie sometimes looks excellent, with some decent facial nuances, but not all the time. This is still an indie game with a low budget, so I adjusted my expectations accordingly.
On-Rails Exploration in DraugenDraugen is an exploration adventure first and foremost. You’re mostly able to walk around freely wherever you want. Of course, if you try to stray off the beaten path, you will run into invisible walls. The village doesn’t have many surprises, and you don’t have to be the most thorough explorer to see all there is to see. The interactions with Lissie also set the pacing of the exploration. Sometimes you won’t have a choice as the game cuts to the next day or back to the farmhouse where you wake up every morning.
There are no puzzles. At one point you have to associate a Norwegian word with an object, and it’s right in your face, so there’s no challenge. Other than that, Draugen is as casual as adventure games can be. Once you interact with every object and exhaust all the dialogue options with Lissie, there’s nothing left to do. There are a few binary choices, but I don’t think they affect the game at all. I did wish there was more to it, maybe not a lot of hard puzzles like Ether One, but something closer to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or Eastshade. More interactions and soft puzzles would be engaging in a game like this.
Draugen’s Majestic Fjord VistasWhat really keeps you going isn’t the exploration gameplay, it’s how stunning the environment art is. The fjord vistas are truly majestic and walking around Graavik is enough to keep you engaged and immersed. It’s a truly amazing art direction that seems to really bring the Norwegian landscape to life in digital form. The game objects and assets are beautifully realized with rich textures. The game performs flawlessly on the highest graphics setting, making great use of the Unreal Engine 4, with no crashes or dips in frame rate.
The soundtrack is sublime if you enjoy that kind of European traditional folk music. It really fits the setting and enhances the atmosphere as you explore its nooks and corners. The sound design is also decent, with a few moments that keep you hooked on what’s happening, especially toward the end. For such a short game, there’s a lot going on here, and the audiovisual experience as a whole is what sticks out. Most of all, Lissie’s voice acting is excellent, while Edward’s is just good enough. In spite of some issues with companion engagement, Lissie’s voice stands out and keeps the story fresh.
Draugen Review | Wishing For MoreYou can easily finish Draugen in less than three hours, even if you take your time with it. The story has its problems, especially toward the ending, but I enjoyed it well enough. I can’t say that any of the twists surprised me, but maybe other players will buy in. The game explicitly tells you that Edward and Lissie will return, so Draugen feels like the basis for something more substantial to come. I’d like to play more games with these two characters, but also with some actual puzzles and more intricate interactions. Another game with the same linear exploration wouldn’t really stand out in any way.
I recommend Draugen only if you’re looking for a very short and self-contained adventure game. This is something to play when you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, but you’d like to experience an immersive first-person game with a truly beautiful environment to explore for a few hours. Other than that, you might be disappointed, especially if you’re looking for puzzles or any kind of deep and intricate gameplay. Draugen is worth your time if you think you might like Lissie’s personality, even if she’s not the most interesting character.
Draugen is a short exploration game with not a whole lot to explore, but its majestic Norwegian vistas and its amusing companion engagement make it worth the trip.
- Stunning Art Direction
- Sublime Soundtrack
- Engaging Companion
- Predictable Plot Twists
- Shallow Gameplay
- No Puzzles