Sliding, yapping and leaping their way through the snow, a russet-coloured fox isn’t the likeliest of heroes. Ever the smaller, weaker cousin to the mighty wolf, the humble vulpes vulpes doesn’t often get a chance to shine, typically cast as the villain in pretty much every animated film featuring rabbits or chickens. Spirit of the North champions this misunderstood creature, casting them as beings of mystical importance and, amidst the frosty climes of Iceland, linking them with the guardian of the Northern Lights. It’s a beautiful and evocative adventure.
You’re a fox, and there’s little else to be said beyond that. There’s no Bambi-esque parent loss (or Batman-esque, if you’re fancying a darker, broodier type of mammal), and little in the way of explanation as to why you’re here, trudging your way through the snow-covered mountains.
The world of Spirit of the North has been beset by corruption. The unequivocally evil red filth blocks your way at various points, and, if you were a mere mortal fox, you probably wouldn’t be getting any further. However, after meeting the guardian of the Northern Lights – who just so happens to take the form of a fox – you’re eternally changed. You’re now granted the ability to collect energy from flowering plants, using this to expunge the corruption.
It doesn’t end there either, with this Fantastic Mr. Fox – a reference I’ve not been able to get out of my head, so it had to be written down – steadily gaining new abilities as you progress. You’ll be able to ignite ancient tablets or take on a spirit form to access new areas, though this is really just a new way to gate your progress.
You soon discover the game’s loose task, which is to revive spirits and allowing them to leave this mortal plane. You’ll find skeletons scattered across the mountainside and the country below, and you can assist them by reuniting them with their staffs. It’s a lot of skeletons, and a lot of corresponding staffs, which seems overly careless to my mind. Still, it gives you a small amount of drive through your travels, and if you miss some on your first run through, it gives you a reason to return.
Barring that notion of resurrecting spirits, Spirit of the North is a relatively frictionless experience. There are occasional puzzles, which tends to be a question of activating things in a specific order, and the lightest of running and platforming requirements, but all in all this is more of an experiential piece. It feels a little unfair invoking the spirit of Journey, but there’s some of that explorative, life-affirming adventuring here.
It’s probably a blessing that there isn’t too much in the way of platforming or puzzle solving, as our reddish-brown pal isn’t all that good at them. While he looks great walking or running down the hillsides, climbing steps or leaping across anything showcases the game’s more humble roots. The times where you’re stuck often aren’t through a lack of understanding what to do, it’s you wrestling with the slightly ungainly controls. It’s not a complete disaster by any means, but it diminishes the game’s thoughtful outlook, when you may have to take a step away through frustration.
As you enter the closing sections, the platforming challenges do step up a notch, as do the puzzles, but so much of the difficulty comes back to your fox’s wayward leaping. It doesn’t help that Spirit of the North ever so slightly overstays its welcome, dragging things out when you feel as though the tale should be coming to an end.
The main reason to return beyond ticking off the spirit collection, would be to experience the delightful and evocative atmosphere that developer Infuse Studio have cultured. Your foxy protagonist is a living, yelping, sneezing creature – with glorious fur to boot – who pants when you’ve made them run too far. The sun nestles above the Icelandic-styled mountains, offering a primal landscape for your fox to adventure across, and it’s a beautiful, if simple, place to do so. At times the camera pans out to show mountains off in the distance, while the grass waves in the breeze; it’s genuinely breathtaking.
Similarly, the piano-rich soundtrack sets a gentle and mysterious tone. It’s suitably tender, thoughtful and playful, and good enough that you might find yourself stop playing just to take a moment and listen. It can reach for more drama in the few action-led sequences, but largely this is a soundtrack to sooth the senses, rather than assault them.