Spirit of the North (Switch) Review
Narrative games have to walk a fine line; does the player just roam and experience the story, or do you have to include more traditional game elements like combat or platforming. Spirit of the North is a game that flirts with both sides of the line, a narrative game with light puzzle and platforming. Rug up because it’s time to head North and have a spiritual journey.
Your Adventure is that of a red fox walking across a snow-covered landscape, following a plume of mysterious red smoke. You follow a fox spirit across the land, getting ever closer to the source of the ominous smoke. The game doesn’t give anything away, there is no dialogue or text. When relevant a button prompt will show up when you need to grab a stick, bark, or use spirit power on a mystic rune. This approach adds to the serene exploration of the areas you’re traversing. It can get slightly frustrating when it’s unclear where you need to go next when you encounter the light puzzle areas.
Your journey is scenic, especially the vast snowy region you start in. Spirit of the North is all about the atmosphere and there is a lot of beautiful nature to absorb along the way. The further along you go, the more different areas you’ll find. It’s not all snow and wide-open spaces, but it always feels peaceful. While the Switch’s resolution and power aren’t equal to the other platforms this was released on, it still manages to capture the beauty in the environments. This is all accompanied by music fitting to this spiritual journey in the frozen North. I really enjoyed soaking in all the views, especially the opening area. Even though I felt lost initially, it was a delight to roam around in.
Then the whole experience struggles once you actually have to play it as a game. While you can take in the world around you, jumping around and overcoming environmental puzzles drag it down. Precision jumping is a struggle, as missing a jump usually leads to some annoying backtracking to take your chances again. Turns out that controlling a fox moving around on all fours isn’t as agile as a more human character. The game is unforgiving when it decides if you’ve landed enough on the edge of a surface to stay standing or to fall back down. Then there’s finding staff in the wild that you need to take to the skeletons to guide their spirits onwards (the game isn’t very clear on this). Finding the staff means that you now have to scour the area to locate where it needs to go. In wide-open areas, this means a lot of aimless wandering, combined with the wandering you’re already doing to make sure you’re not missing anything tucked away. The open aimlessness at times can wear thin. None of this is helped by the fox’s walking being just a little too slow, and running is limited by stamina.
Not that far into this 4-5 hour adventure, the red fox appears to be imbued with the spirit of the mystical fox spirit you’ve been following. This allows you to activate runes in the environment, to open up the way and clear corrupted growth. First, you have to locate a small patch of blue flowers. Next, you need to stand on the right spot and bark. The spirit will then open up the main flower to charge you up with spiritual energy, which then needs to be used on the aforementioned runes. It is as clunky to experience as it is explaining it to you. It’s a slow process, involving backtracking to the nearest flowers a few too many times as you can only hold one charge at a time. Sometimes you have to return to the same flowers so you can get another charge which just feels unintuitive. I foolishly spent time running around with one of the staffs while doing the rune activations. This meant dropping the staff, standing on the right part of the flower, barking until it activated, moving until you absorb the spirit charge and then trying to pick up the staff again. Not long after, I gave up on tracking down the staffs or skeletons.
There’s no real way around it, Spirit of the North is let down by all of the parts that make it a game. It’s a shame, I was very on board for the premise and the presentation. The visuals of the world look lovely on the Switch and it was surprisingly relaxing to roam about in the snow. The light puzzle moments never bring the game to a standstill for long, but at no point do they feel enjoyable. There is still something to enjoy with the exploration and the peaceful atmosphere for fans of narrative games. Just be aware that Spirit of the North carries some baggage whenever the game wants you to play it as a platformer or puzzler.
Spirit of the North is a game I wanted to enjoy much more than I did. It’s a game that I want to be able to recommend to anyone looking for a narrative that takes you through some lovely environments. Honestly this game is a hard sell. It’s a fully functioning game with some good things going for it, but when actually playing a lot of the fun is sapped out of it. I hope that Infuse Studio can take the elements that worked so well in this game to make a great narrative game in the future.
+ Expansive and beautiful landscapes to roam
+ Music adds to the scenic atmosphere
+ Has a lot of potential
- Precision controls let down platforming sections
- Light puzzle areas are dragged out and unpleasant
- Unfortunately doesn’t pay off on that potential