Everyone knows things are better up north. Nicer people, cheaper property, and actual snow all combine to make for the ultimate geographical position. Bad North isn’t about the north-south debate in the UK, oh no, it’s actually about defending tiny islands from invading vikings.
You defend your island by commanding your minimalist troops to go to different points on each in order to hold the beaches against the incoming long boats. This is a minimalist real time strategy game, but one which slows things down to a crawl when you issue a command to allow you to make the right one.
Sadly the strategy’s minimalism is also the barest of bones. You see, much like property, it’s all about location, location, location. Your units will attack whatever is within their range as long as they don’t have to move much, they would all much rather someone else did the hard work. You can upgrade your little teams so that they specialise in different things; you can make some archers and others into pikemen if you so desire. Along with this you can find different items which can impact your squads differently, whether through usable items or permanent buffs. The simple customisation offers a much needed injection of depth, though it could still do with going further.
The units do feel different to one another, archers are fantastic for defeating the vikings before they even hit land, while infantry are the perfect partner to the long range units, their shields allowing them to hold off an onslaught and give the bow users time to pick off the enemies as they come. The pikemen however don’t really become useful until they are fully upgraded, and even then they completely lack the defensive abilities that are essential later on in a given run due to their lack of shields. They just feel ironically pointless.
Each island has the same general progression. All you have to do is keep the bad guys from torching all of the buildings or killing all of your teams, so you’re spinning the camera around to see them as they approach and then trying to take them out before they do much damage. As you get further into your run you’ll find that the units are bigger and start to take a lot more work to take down. If you’ve failed to upgrade your teams correctly then they will make short work of your meagre defences. This is where the game shows it’s rogue-lite persona.
The trouble is, every island feels more or less exactly the same. Each fight is simply you watching and occasionally moving your people around in the hope that they will actually take out that fleeing viking. Despite the islands being randomly generated, it is incredibly rare that they truly feel different from one another. At no point will you feel as though the game is suddenly new and fresh. The idea of starting a brand new run isn’t that enticing when it almost feels like a chore just to push through with your current one. Bad North lacks that special something that drives the player forwards, instead opting to outright kill you with a brand new unit and making you truly start from scratch. Your skill level simply isn’t as relevant in a simplistic RTS such as this, as it would be in an action game.
It’s even more disappointing when the minimalist design is so unbelievably pretty. Every aspect has the exact right amount of detail to tell you what it is, but not so much that it changes the art direction. The most impressive moments come when the weather is playing up; lightning and rain both enhance the look of the matches more than is reasonable. The blinding radiance of each lightning strike turns everything on screen pure white, while the constant rippling of the ocean in the rain is pure eye candy. The fact that this is all offset by the significantly less striking gameplay is a tragedy.
Bad North has a lot of potential, but it wastes most of that by doubling down on simplicity over depth. In many rogue-lite games starting a new run is an exciting prospect, as you know your newly acquired player skill will carry you through, but the slower pace here makes it feel a lot more like having to do the hoovering again because someone ate a pastry with no regard for your nice clean carpet.
Version tested: Switch – also coming to PS4, Xbox One & PC