Real-time strategy games have grown into vast, complex affairs over the years, but Bad North isn’t interested in adding to the genre. Instead, it just wants to strip everything back until there’s barely an RTS at all.
Out now on the Nintendo Switch, and coming soon to PS4, XB1, PC and mobile, Bad North is a very light tactical roguelike, where you take control of a small band of Vikings and sail from island to island defending each small chunk of land from hordes of black-clad invaders.
These enemies approach islands on boat, each incursion a miniature D-Day landing with swords and bows, and their measured advance makes each level feel a little bit tower defence, as you arrange your own men in the best position possible to take down the waves of bad guys threatening to burn down each settlement.
Your control of the good guys is very basic: you can order them to occupy a space on the island, retreat to a building to regenerate their health or seize an enemy boat and escape the island if things are going pear-shaped. You can’t set waypoints, you don’t harvest resources, there aren’t attack stances, it’s just a very simple game of manouvre and placement.
Challenge and complexity comes in the form of unit variation and the frequency (and size) of the enemy waves. Invaders begin as simple sword-wielding raiders but you’ll soon be facing bowmen, heavier units with shields and even giants who can spear entire squads of your men off the map. To match this threat your own squads can evolve as well, specialising in certain weapons (spears, bows), improving their armour and picking up special weapons which can do serious damage.
Each unit type has its own strengths and weaknesses, so there’s a classic RTS rock-paper-scissors deal going on with matchups, made more urgent by the fact you’re controlling persistent units that once killed can’t be revived.
Also roguelike is your progression through the game; you travel from island to island much the same as you moved between star systems in FTL, each voyage a push further into the unknown, each pause between battles not as restful as it could be since you’re forever being driven forwards, never given the chance to take a leisurely stroll.
Bad North gets frantic as you venture deeper, but thankfully the game’s controls do a great job keeping up. I’ve been playing the game on both Switch and PC, and found that while the mouse + keyboard are fine, the Switch was the preferable system thanks to its more tangible touchscreen interface, which was a lot faster. I’d imagine the mobile versions will benefit from this as well.
The game is paused while issuing commands, so it’s not like other versions of the game will suffer, but the speed of faster controls is appreciated as levels become more difficult, devolving into bloodbaths as waves of enemies simply refuse to let up.
This chaos is where Bad North is as its absolute best. It’s not only forcing you to constantly juggle the rock-paper-scissors staple of RTS games by matching the right unit to the right enemy, but then has you performing constant battlefield triage as you assess which units you can spare to send to the next beach landing, since many of your best men are probably still fighting off the last one.
The game is asking so little of you, just the absolute basics of RTS gameplay, and yet the reward at the end is no less than in games that are far more complex, and tedious. There’s beauty to be found in this simplicity, where so few systems are able to provide so great a challenge (and reward).
I haven’t finished the game on either platform, as it’s just kicking my ass. There’s a generous opening few islands, easing you into the ideas of different unit types, but once you’re settled in it’s not long until you run into some brutal difficulty spikes. Which would be fine in a more complex, generous game that featured hotsaves and quickloads, but with its persistent roguelike elements once you botch a mission in Bad North there’s often no coming back, forcing a complete restart (which gets tedious since you can’t skip or fast-forward past the glacial opening islands).
As cute and identifiable as the game’s visuals are, there’s also the sense that there’s something missing from Bad North, a little heart to go with all these bones. There’s no story or developing plot other than the broadest of settings, which is cool in a way in that it lets you just get on with things, but it also makes things a bit of a repetitive drag. A bit of banter between units might have helped brighten the mood, which gets bleak as hell once the weather gets bad.
Then again, this is a game about keeping things as simple as possible, and a plot might have just weighed that down. Bad North isn’t a game for weighty narrative, no more than it is a game for unnecessary systems and complex controls. It’s a game that’s at it’s best when it’s asking you to do a lot with very little, and it asks you that often.