The real-time strategy has often had issues on consoles. With but a few exceptions, the interface of using a controller for these games is nothing compared to the precision of using a mouse and keyboard, but as I playing Bad North, I began to wonder if it’s the genre or just how the interface and games are designed? I sat down with Richard Meredith – the game’s designer and gameplay programmer among many other things – who guided me through the first few levels of the game while at the same time explaining some of the design philosophies.
Bad North is essentially a micro RTS. Everything is boiled down to the most minimal of components, making everything a visual cue. This allows for the game to potentially work on console, a feat few RTS games manage. In order to do this, the interactions needed to be simplified. As Richard puts it, “Your primary action in the game is to tell a unit to go to a grid space. You don’t have many units, maybe four or five at most, really limiting the amount of micromanagement you need to do.”
One thing I really did like, which also works in the game’s favour in this regard, is that despite the game moving fairly quickly, choosing where to move units just slowed the game to a crawl rather than stopping it entirely or letting it run full speed. It means there’s still a sense of urgency which really speaks to the game’s identity, while at the same time allowing for a little breather in order to try and salvage a bad move. Since giving orders is akin to in a turn-based strategy game, it was easy to grasp how things worked.
The first level I played had two units defending from waves of incoming invaders on an island with just a couple of houses. Initially that meant perching the archers on high ground to fire as they were sailing toward us, before putting sword and shield units near where they land in order to intercept them.
I was playing this in portable mode and while this did involve a lot of zooming in and out to see where the enemy was coming from, the first level went by relatively seamlessly. It wasn’t until I was introduced to the pikemen that the game ramped things up a little. One wrong move is the difference between losing nothing and losing a few of the houses, or even losing entire units and being forced to flea to ensure you don’t lose the whole game.
I was able to recover lost soldiers by sending the unit to houses to recuperate, but once the flag bearer was gone, that unit is permanently dead. This is where the Rogue-lite elements come in, as the player is able to recruit more units by ensuring the safety of the houses where that unit is first introduced. The flag bearers are the heart and souls of each unit and while you can eventually have whole armies, they need protecting.
The thing about Bad North that was difficult to grasp was how each unit worked. Even with Richard showing me around the game and guiding me through, there were a lot of things to keep track of, such as how Pikemen can’t attack while on the move, or how best to position certain units to deflect attention from the enemy. “Generally, infantry and archers are easy to grasp, very easy to understand the basics of them,” as Richard put it, “but there are some subtle things in there that take a little while to get hold of.”
“As an example, you’d assume in archers vs archers battles that a bigger group of archers would have the advantage, but that’s not the case because the bigger group is a bigger target, so a small group can do damage to your larger group. But you can see this happening and see the reason why.”
Despite looking like a relatively clean and simple game, there’s enough complexity that takes some getting used to, in order to make the gameplay more involved.
Bad North will be released on PS4, Switch, Xbox One, mobile devices, and PC in the summer of 2018.