Real-time strategy games always look extremely attractive to me on paper. I love the feeling of commanding thousands of troops and looking on from above as they clash with an enemy army in a spray of blood and guts. As thrilling as all this is, commanding thousands of troops with different abilities across changing environments can be a complicated endeavour. You’ve got to have a good tactical head on you, be capable of making snap decisions and make sense of how all the different abilities work to compliment each other and how they play off against the different enemy units you’ll come across. There’s a lot to keep track of, and it can turn a lot of people off the genre.
Bad North attempts to simplify an increasingly complex genre, stripping back all the micro-management that can often stress you out. Instead, it employs a minimalist real-time tactics approach with only three unit types to keep track of and small enough maps that the action is always on-screen and easy to keep track of.
The aim of the game is to jump from charming hand-painted island to island, defending each wind-battered settlement against hordes of rampaging Vikings. These Vikings arrive on small boats in waves and are determined to burn down the few homes that dot these small islands. The only defense you can employ is small groups of units, up to a maximum of 4 once you’ve progressed through some of the game.
Each group of units is specialised with your choice of upgrade. You can choose from shielded infantry, ranged archers or defensive pikemen. The tactical part of the game comes into play through where you choose to deploy these specialisations, which can be the difference leaving your enemies as a bloody smear across the map or getting a game over after seeing the blackened husks of burned down homes.
Once deployed, the action doesn’t let up until all waves of enemy Vikings have been killed or your tactics have utterly failed. Thankfully, the game isn’t completely real-time when you’re controlling your units. After selecting a unit, time will slow down while you choose where to move them to. Got a boat full of unshielded troops approaching fast? You’ve got time to deploy your archers on a hilltop to rain down arrows on top of the enemy as they crash down onto the beach. If they get through that rain of arrows, you could have a group of pikemen standing at the top of the slope of the hill ready to poke down their pikes at the climbing enemy to prevent them from reaching your hilltop settlement.
It’s easy to quickly make the decision of where to deploy your troops in the first few levels, but in latter levels, you’ll have to contend with multiple boats arriving at the same time and deploying the wrong type of units against the enemy can quickly see them decimated. For example, later enemies may carry shields that they’ll hold above them to stop your arrows landing home. Enemy archers may also arrive, killing all your pikemen because they can’t defend themselves with their own shields and can deploy far away form the reach of their pikes. This is where the game can raise the stress levels, but simple controls and a clutter-free screen mean that it never quite reaches the levels of a traditional RTS game.
There are no complex menus and reams of statistics in Bad North. Everything you need can be found on the same screen, with each of your unit type represented by their own colour and artwork. It’s easy to tell the difference between your archers and your infantry, just as its easy enough to tell what enemy type is approaching so you can make a smart tactical decision.
You can boost your units effectiveness by upgrading its strength and giving it special abilities. These are paid for with coins you’ll be granted by your surviving homes at the end of each level. But even here you’ll have to be tactical, as you need to decide how to divide the limited kitty between your units. Your infantry, for example, can be upgraded with more men and better strength, but you can also give them the special ability of being able to leap from hill down onto the enemies below. Archers can rain a volley of arrows down with their ability, while pikemen get a charge skill.
Items can also be found on certain islands, which when added to a unit will give them a bonus ability. For example, the ‘war horn’ will call in more reinforcements of the unit type its attached to, which is a god send when it’s nearly been wiped out.
There are only two big issues I had with Bad North. Firstly, it’s a roguelite, which means that once you’re defeated, it’s game over for good. Restarting means you have to go through the incredibly easy first few levels again, which can get dull after being defeated a few times. The islands may be randomly generated each time you start a new game, but the first batch of islands is always the same simple slog.
Secondly, you’ve pretty much seen all that Bad North has to offer after the first couple of hours. The gameplay becomes quite repetitive, with the only change being that it gets substantially harder. This difficulty spike can crop up randomly, with one level being a breeze before the next pitting you against seemingly impossible odds. It wouldn’t be much of an issue if you could just repeat the island again with a new strategy, or at least go back only a few, but restarting from the beginning of the game every time you make a mistake gets old fast.
That said, I did enjoy my time with Bad North. It’s a great game for RTS newbies to get into, using their experience with Bad North to ease their way into the more complex games out there. But it’s also worth playing for RTS veterans who have been burned out or just want a break from the ever-complex nature if its bigger brothers. Just don’t expect it to keep your attention for long.
As well as PS4, Bad North is also available on Xbox One with a PC version arriving later this year. iOS and Android versions are currently TBD.