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Draugen Review — A Gorgeous, Memorable Stroll in Norway

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The ‘pure’ walking simulator seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent times. The likes of Tacoma and What Happened to Edith Finch pushed the format in wonderful new directions, while more recent examples, such as Close to the Sun, Observation, or Eastshade, have all moved away from epistolary storytelling common in the genre. Red Thread Games has stepped into this void with Draugen, a mystery adventure set in the fog-prone climes of Norway–a “fjord-noir” as the team has termed it. Despite feeling slightly outdated in its core design, Draugen succeeds in telling an intriguing story laced with antiquated charm.

The first thing to note about the game is the visuals. The core location of Graavik is quite tightly contained, and the development team has used that small scope to its advantage: the hamlet is breathtakingly beautiful. Fields of flowers and autumnal trees explode with colour, lending vibrancy to a landscape dominated by the blue-green hues of mountains and lakes. The handful of homes scattered about also contribute to an ineffable sense of quaintness. Hanging over all of these various facets of the scenic backdrop seems to be a softening filter, taking away the rough edges and giving everything a dream-like quality. Players also have the option to engage a ‘1923 filter’, which sets the game in monochrome and adds an old-school film grain effect. However, while evocative in a different way, this filter detracts from the charm of the standard visuals.

Importantly, that optional visual effect is not a random inclusion, rather referring to the year in which the game is set. One October day in 1923, the American Edward Harden and his ward (the sarcastic, vivacious Lissie) arrive on these far-flung shores in search of Edward’s sister, Elizabeth—a journalist who travelled here in search of a story. On their landing, a more pertinent mystery takes precedent, as Graavik seems to be abandoned. Without meaning to be, Edward and Lissie find themselves drawn into this background story, which ranges across subjects from family feuds to small-town superstition and mythology.

The methods of unravelling the mysteries will be familiar to anyone who has played the likes of Gone Home, Dear Esther, or Perception. Letters and key items are dotted about the landscape like breadcrumbs, leaving the user to piece together these clues. Draugen adheres quite rigidly to this archetypal format, though the inclusion of Lissie as a sounding board and inquisitor does add a much-needed sense of personality. Nevertheless, Red Thread seems to have been careful to make the story experience as frictionless as possible, as the few find-a-thing challenges are so banal as to not even be worth including. This absence of ludic barriers to progression makes sense, as the developer has instead relied on psychological ones—for Edward, at least.

Draugen uses tropes from the genre—locked doors and other inaccessible areas—to prolong the experience, but relying on Edward’s decorum rather than the hunt for clues to cordon off area. For players used to freedom, this approach will likely grate, yet it makes sense from a story perspective. Being a stranger in a strange place, Edward is reluctant to transgress boundaries until desperation forces him to do so. Psychology also plays into the story in a much more significant way, though to detail it would be to spoil things. Suffice to say that the game does not quite succeed in the character study that it attempts, but Draugen remains constantly engaging nonetheless. The same sentiment holds true for the brief history of Graavik that players are exposed to, as they are left to draw their conclusions about some of the goings-on that have led to its current state.

Regardless of those questions unanswered, Draugen might be less compelling to tell its story. Almost all of the storytelling relies on Edward’s narration, as most the text in the game is in Norwegian. Nicholas Boulton’s Edward has a measured way of speaking that is oddly reassuring and calming. By contrast, Skye Bennett’s Lissie is energetic, questioning everything with a delightful balance of petulance and maturity. Lissie enjoys a greater range than does Edward, and she is, by far, the more interesting character as a consequence.

This high-quality voice work is supported by a wonderfully realised audioscape. For the most part, environmental sounds serve only to set the scene, with the score instead being allowed to flourish. Strings often dominate in a haunting evocation of loneliness and isolation. However, whether meandering through Graavik to soak in the sights or engaged in a headlong dash through dense fog, the music always matches the mood; it peaks, though, on those rare occasions when the ethereal vocals kick in, soaring and transportive.

In some ways, those adjectives suit Draugen as a whole. Slightly dated game design and some poorly telegraphed narrative elements aside, the game makes for a wonderful four-hour adventure. The town of Graavik is a delight to look at, and the stories it hides drag players deep into the mystery. The design tropes of walking simulators are backed up with more logical cause than is often the case, while the story leaves just enough open to keep the player thinking after the credits have ceased to roll. Draugen seems unlikely to win any awards for originality, but it shows what mastery of the ‘walking simulator’ format looks like.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PC.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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Review

The Sinking City Review — Sanity is Optional

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Video games based on tabletop games seem to be in vogue at the moment. With Vampire: the Masquerade — Bloodlines 2 and the announcement of Baldur’s Gate III generating a lot of hype, the time seems to be right for The Sinking City, an atmospheric horror-themed investigation game. Based on the lesser known Call of Cthulhu board game, The Sinking City sees the player taking the role of Charles W. Reed, a private investigator and veteran of the First World War as he travels to the fictional town of Oakmont, Massachusetts to seek reasons why he is plagued by horrific visions. Reed quickly discovers that the citizens of Oakmont are also troubled by the same visions, as well as other threats of a sinister and supernatural nature.

The game is set in the 1920s and unashamedly embraces the hard-boiled themes of that era of fiction while blending in a strong dose of creeping, Lovecratian horror. The city of Oakmont absolutely drips with ambience, from the murky lighting to the semi-constant rainfall and the looming, old-fashioned New England architecture. The graphics are extremely impressive, and the animation is very fluid. Even the horrific monsters are fascinating to look at. Getting caught up in the many mysteries lurking about the beautifully well-realised town leads to quick and easy immersion.

The town itself is half-inundated after an otherworldly event known only as The Flood. This means that many of the streets need to be traversed by boat. Doing so can be a little awkward at tight corners, of which there are many, but the other option is swimming in waters infested with any number of nasty things, so taking the time to learn how to steer is worth the extra effort.

At times, the player may need to don an old-fashioned diving suit and take a trip underwater. These are some of the most unsettling sequences in the game, as the ambient sounds, underwater lighting effects, and the shadows of things twitching just beyond the edge of vision give a profound sense of claustrophobia and helplessness as the player lumbers slowly towards the destination.

The main gameplay elements recall other investigation or detective games, such as L.A. Noire or developer Frogwares previous work on the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series. The developer has used that experience to good effect, as the outcome of the quests depends on how well the player has managed to pick up on various clues hidden in the crime scene and evidence. The developer has said the goal in each investigation can be reached in multiple ways, so if the player gets stuck at any point, they have the freedom to move on to a different quest. Sometimes, evidence for the problem quest will pop up, or the player will have a sudden epiphany on what to do next.

The visions experienced by the protagonist have a gameplay application as well, as Reed can use his visions and investigative powers to reconstruct crime scenes and gain insights into the events. However, doing so costs Sanity. Some disturbing scenes or monster encounters can also drastically cut the player’s Sanity, and this, in turn, can affect perception of the environment, causing the player to overlook or completely misinterpret what actually happened. Total Sanity loss is fatal, as the protagonist descends into suicidal insanity.

In addition to conserving Sanity, players need to also conserve ammunition. Though encounters with supernatural creatures often involve the need to unload a gun into them, bullets are also used as currency in Oakmont, as bullets are more valuable than gold in the nightmare-infested town,. The player can barter for useful tools or weapons, but will need to remember to keep some bullets aside for those inevitable run-ins with tentacled horrors.

The result is a balancing act with the player trying to conserve Sanity and ammunition while delving into the secrets hidden within the town. The Sinking City has many layers, with much to be unravelled in the dark, dripping streets.

The Sinking City

The setting is well-served by the music, which is mostly subdued and ambient, serving the mood well. Of particular note is the voice acting, which is great, particularly on the part of the protagonist. Reed’s voice actor does an excellent job of portraying his various moods, giving a convincing performance of a troubled, world-weary war veteran.

The Sinking City is one of the best Lovecraft-inspired games available and, despite some slightly awkward controls in places, the game is brilliantly crafted. Fans of horror will love its atmosphere and those who enjoy investigative games will quickly become absorbed in the depth offered by the gameplay. Those who loved L.A. Noire or Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, and players of the tabletop game, should definitely give thought to picking this title up.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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