Bad North Review
PCAlso available on Nintendo Switch, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
Bad North is not a bad game, which is a shame for any reviewer who likes easy puns.
The developmental debut of Plausible Concept, Bad North is both an excellent game and an interesting case study in how games exist and are developed in an ecosystem with other games – it takes inspiration from a variety of game genres and their core mechanics, yet simplifies and reworks mechanics from these divergent genres to create a hybrid game.
The best way to describe Bad North would be as two parts real-time strategy, one part tower defense and one part rogue-like. You command a team of soldiers to defend a series of randomly generated islands – at each island, you must protect several houses against waves of enemies. Between islands you can upgrade your soldiers and choose which island to defend next over the course of a randomly generated map.
Gameplay in the levels is a treat. Each island has unique geography, with choke points or elevation, and each of the three unit types has clear strengths and weaknesses. Trying to work out where to place each unit, and when to move them about in each wave, is a rewarding and engaging endeavour that’s challenging but always feels logical. It’s rather simplistic in its tower defense and strategy mechanics, but this is fitting in a game that also has a roguelike over-world, as each level constitutes only a small amount of time per play through.
When you lose all your soldiers – which you will do, because the game becomes rather challenging towards the end (or in its nail-biting hard mode) – and you start again, you’ll have learnt from your loss, and will be better equipped to try again. This natural feel of progression gifts the player a lovely feeling of satisfaction, as in each run you progress even further than before.
The levels are connected in an FTL: Faster Than Light style over-world, as you can choose branching paths between islands but must always go in one general direction. Unlike FTL, however, you know what’s going to be on each island – if there are more houses to protect (so will provide more rewards for victory), a squad of soldiers you can recruit, or an item hidden away, you can choose to go there (or avoid the island). You can also upgrade your soldiers with gold won from defending islands, upgrading their abilities or decking them out in better armour.
This upgrade system is the game’s largest weakness, however, as it’s too simplistic to merit many extra play-throughs. There are only three classes of warrior to choose between, and each only has one corresponding ability to purchase. In addition there are only four different items to equip (each gives another ability), meaning the only real choice you have in upgrading your soldiers is if you do it in the first place.
In comparison to the mechanics of FTL again; (which is an apt comparison, as in its rogue-like elements it is very similar) in that game you can choose which ship to begin with, which systems you upgrade in your ship, whether you'll prioritise breadth of abilities or depth, and many other varieties of modifications which means each run-through is totally different, and there’s no optimal way to play. In Bad North, each run through will necessitate in you assembling your soldiers in the exact same way.
Of course, future updates and expansions can easily add more variety, but for the time being each play through feels rather similar.
The art style of Bad North is rather minimalist, which perfectly mirrors the simplistic game-play mechanics and aids in easily understanding what’s going on in each level. It’s lovely to look at, but special mention must go to the weather system. Each level is distinct – although there’s not a huge amount of variety – but the weather, which has no actual gameplay function, makes each level feel aesthetically and tonally separate. Whether fog has rolled in, it’s sunny, or is raining, the weather is what sets the mood and tone for each level.
Bad North is a lovely game to play, with a perfect difficulty level that eases all players in, while actually posing some serious challenge later on. While it doesn’t yet have enough variety been play-throughs to make it an instant classic, it has the potential to join the annals of great rogue-likes you can endlessly come back to like FTL, Spelunky or the Binding of Isaac.