Two Americans walk into a sleepy Norwegian village. No, it's not a joke, it's the premise of Red Thread Games' Draugen, which puts you in the shoes of Edward Charles Harden who is visiting the sleepy town of Graavik with his ward Lissie, in pursuit of his missing sister Betty. You're thrown right into the thick of it at the game's opening too, as we're already on a rowboat with Lissie approaching the town, which is as sleepy as it is gorgeous.
Graavik is one of those idyllic postcard places sat next to a fjord, so pretty much the stereotypical Nordic village. The year is 1923 too, so it's very much cut off from society, relying on their own farm and mining operations to keep them afloat. There's just one problem when you get there - everyone has disappeared, and to find Betty, Edward must unravel the mystery surrounding the town.
You see, a friendly family invited Edward into their home via a letter, and this house is almost the first place you discover upon arrival. The plot revolves around this family and how they fit into the community as a whole, and the house is key to this, holding several of the key clues you must follow. It also serves as your base of operations; the nucleus of sorts, around which the town and the narrative revolves.
Aside from that you also have all of the other old-fashioned features you'd expect, like a church on a hill, a convenience store, and several log cabins. This is all yours to explore as you wish, but Red Thread gently guides you from place to place to keep the story moving on, eventually pushing you in certain directions. Each day the pursuit of your sister and the conundrum of Graavik continues, and you eventually see more and more that informs your understanding of what's going on and why.
One of the highlights of the game is how beautiful the village is, as Red Thread has really created a picturesque delight for players to explore. Whether in deep mist or blazing sunshine, this game is a joy to behold (we even had a hard time narrowing down our screenshots for the review). It reminds us a lot of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture as it creates the mundane and the usual, but with so much care that we felt really convinced by the immersion offered to us. It's a believable place, which is why it's even more unsettling seeing it totally devoid of all human life.
As mentioned, you're accompanied on this journey by Lissie, a young woman who isn't afraid to say what's on her mind. She regularly wanders off and playfully explores the village, but she's also keen on telling Edward when he's mistaken, overthinking, or at times obsessed. She serves to check his narrow-mindedness and tunnel vision by offering another way of thinking, and the interplay between her and Edward works nicely. He's there to guide her, but usually, it's the other way around.
You can also interact with Lissie throughout the plot as well, using various dialogue options based on what you've seen. What's more is that you can also press R1 at any time (we played using a DualShock 4 on PC) to find out where she's run off to, again providing another guiding force if you're a bit lost. Discussing the world with Lissie helps flesh it out, and the conversations develop in really interesting ways as the days go on.
In the same way, you can also choose how much (or how little) of the environment you want to interact with as well, as documents and objects in the world give you bits of information. These are remnants of the residents of Graavik, and eventually, you are able to piece together a really interesting tapestry of the lives in the town, so much so that Betty even begins to take a backseat as you see what's happened mere months before your arrival. Is Betty involved in these events? Well, we won't spoil that.
There isn't a whole load of choice in the game with regards to the plot, but you're allowed to explore at your own pace and talk with Lissie as you wish, so it's more than a 'walking simulator', the term often given to games in which you passively absorb the story. Also, there's a lot more dialogue from the protagonist than in your usual walking sim, and it's just as much about how you impact the world as it is about how the world impacts you.
There's also a certain ambiguity to affairs which really adds to the mystery of Graavik, since not all events are answered, and you're left to come to your own conclusions. Edward's own account is brought into question as well, to a point where you can't decide who to trust. A lot of Draugen is up to interpretation, and it's often up to you to make what you will of the clues you find dotted around. Do you trust a child's perspective? Is this source biased? These are some of the questions you'll be asking yourself.
It only took us a few hours to finish Draugen, but it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. It has a lot to offer, and it's so tightly designed that it's always a joy to see more of Graavik. Red Thread Games has provided a mysterious, tragic, and unexpected yarn to unravel here, and we were left thinking about what we'd seen long after the credits had rolled. Don't be fooled by the sleepy village of Graavik; there's so much more under the surface.