Spirit of the North Review – Indie Watch


Before we get into this Spirit of the North review, if you haven’t read our intro to this series, then head here!

Spirit of the North is a tale brought to you by Infuse Studio out of North Carolina. It is actually the first game they’ve made, with the company previously focusing on providing 3D assets for other developers to use.

Given that it’s their first title, a fact I didn’t know going in, a lot of the more negative comments that I have regarding the game might sound a little harsh, and I do apologise for that. Spirit of the North is available for £15.49 on Steam, which it launched side by side with on the Switch, on the 7th May. It’s also available on PS4.

Sitting down to write this Spirit of the North Review, I didn’t really know where to start. I have a lot of issues with this game, but at the same time it gave me an interactive and unique experience, with a payoff that is almost certainly worth the time. Speaking of time, my playthrough of Spirit of the North clocked in at 5 hours, which was perfect for me to finish in an afternoon.

To start with the setting, Spirit of the North follows an initially ordinary fox. This fox is seemingly following man made stone formations through the snowy mountains of Iceland, which is this game’s setting, and trailing a foreboding red vapour through the sky. Exploring from the third person view, early on you’re greeted by a spectral fox that’s covered with strange markings and who prompts you to follow.

It’s a curious start to a curious game. Spirit of the North follows the trend set by games such as Journey and Abzu, in that there is no narrative direction at all. There’s no voice over of any kind, no written text, and no objective. Progression in the game is tied to solving environmental puzzles to get around, activating old architecture left behind by a forgotten and dead civilisation. 

The tools you’ll need to solve these puzzles are fed to you throughout the game, with new abilities coming by way of puzzles that cannot be solved without them. This means that they obviously aren’t missable, and you don’t need to worry about accidentally gating yourself off later on and having to backtrack.  

The powers themselves are granted by the Spirit Fox, after you take a tumble early on. Seemingly she sacrifices her life force in order to save you, and allow you to complete your journey.

During this same moment, it’s established that the world you’re exploring is being infected by an unknown darkness, with areas being tinged by the same black and red palette that you can see streaking through the sky above you. It’s fairly obvious from that point on what your goal is – the source of this darkness.

The journey that follows is a relaxing one, without a timer or other variable to worry about. You’re encouraged to explore each area you find yourself in, but this did breed some early issues. While a lot of the areas you’ll explore are relatively huge, the puzzles you need to overcome and solve often take place in a small partition of that.

Regularly I’d trudge to the edge of the allowed game area, only to find nothing and be forced to return while muttering about my disappointment. There are collectables strewn throughout the world though, and finding these will contribute to a chunk of the time you’ll spend playing Spirit of the North. The first of which is Shamans. 

These Shamans are deceased members of the aforementioned civilisation, who have become tethered to the living world. By finding their staff (woodens stick with a gem attached) in the game world and returning it to their body, you free their spirit and allow them to move on. It’s very symbolic, and most of the time just the right mix of challenging and self explanatory. The gem on the end of the staff will glow brighter the closer you get to the owner, making it work as a compass of sorts. Interestingly, I found myself locating the staff first most of the time, with finding the body being the actual challenge, sometimes hidden behind puzzles that are themselves hidden off the beaten path. 

The second collectable comes via stone murals, fancy engravings made by the civilisation that walked the lands before you. By transferring the energy inside of you to these murals, you’ll make these glow a rather striking shade of blue/ white. They also house details about the fates of said civilisation, if you’re interested in finding out more about the world. 

Like I said though, outside of these two brands of side activities, each area is largely just an empty expanse. Gameplay outside of the puzzles themselves is normally just a bland combination of running, walking, jumping, and trying to navigate Spirit of the North’s wonky controls. 

I play games like this with my Elite 2 Xbox controller, and I honestly can’t imagine how torturous this experience would’ve been with a mouse and keyboard. Controlling the fox is clumsy at best, and downright egregious at worst, and isn’t helped by the often lazy environmental design. The best platformers are defined by simple things like tight controls and accurate hit boxes, and Spirit of the North has neither. The amount of times I’d have to repeat a jump due to hitting an invisible wall, or I’d land a jump that I expected to miss due to the “hit box” being wider than the visual representation was infuriating. The environment was always working either against me, or for me, but never with me. Which is an important distinction.

The Fox himself is actually home to some surprisingly accurate fox-like animations, in all areas but the important ones. Jumping feels floaty and hard to aim, and the Dash ability you get later on isn’t aimed by your sticks, but instead by your camera. Which makes the precise adjustments you do actually require, an absolute nightmare. Not only that, but turning your Fox on the spot is inexplicably difficult, with the model regularly just refusing to face the way you want or need.

All this sounds rough but it actually gets worse. Running is commanded by a stamina bar that you can’t see, and when this invisible resource bar depletes you’re reduced to a painfully slow walk. This wouldn’t be a problem if any of the gameplay mechanics were designed around this mechanic, but they aren’t. The game wouldn’t be played any differently if you could sprint forever, it would just be a far more streamlined experience. Swimming is also painful to behold, with the Fox devolving to an excruciatingly slow doggy paddle, with no way of swimming faster. Both these issues are then rendered LESS painful by the late game Dash ability, but then your traversal recedes into mashing the Dash button to get where you need to be faster.

The other resource is your Energy. This is what’s used to activate puzzles, and use your abilities. You have the aforementioned Dash, which is a traversal ability and launches you forwards quickly. You have this “spirit mode” (I don’t know what the official name is, as the game doesn’t tell you) where you can send out your own Spirit fox, leaving your physical form behind, and a couple of others besides.

Dash doesn’t use up your energy, and neither does spirit form. However, you need to transfer your energy into stones and pillars around the world to activate puzzles and mechanisms which is where the problem lies. 

The “energy” resource is given to you via blue plants found around the world, once you’ve used up your energy on a puzzle you need to go back to a plant and refill it. This would be fine, if it didn’t house a similar issue as the stamina bar. 

This artificial resource management doesn’t need to be there. Finding the plants isn’t a challenge or obstacle to overcome, and more often that not just revolves around you making 3, 4, or 5 trips to and from the puzzle you’re trying to solve, and the nearest plant. These trips can add 15-30 seconds each time to a puzzle, and makes puzzle solving very often a genuine chore. 

This is a crying shame, because credit where it’s due, the puzzles are actually good. It sucks that the resource required to solve them is such a drag, because both the variety and implementation of the puzzles is quite impressive.

The game doesn’t handhold you at all, leaving figuring out the minutiae of each obstacle up to the player to work out. This hands off approach is rare in puzzlers, but refreshing here as each small victory feels like something to be proud of. Of course, we’re not talking about The Witness levels of environmental challenge here, but for a casual game, the difficulty curve is just about right.

While we’re on the subject of things the game does well, the visuals are actually regularly quite stunning, at least at a distance. Unreal Engine proves yet again that it can handle environment design at least as well, if not better, than other competing engines, and the way that Iceland is represented within Spirit of the North is fantastic. Wide shots of scenery look fantastic especially, and the lighting is terrific throughout. 

There are a couple of major blights on the visual fidelity though. First up, the Fox looks pretty poor. Hair effects are a notoriously hard thing to do in video games, but the Fox you control looks like something ripped from the PS3/ 360 era of gaming. The second is the textures. While the environments are often stunning from a distance, the closer you get to objects the worse things tend to look, with no real depth, and coming off a bit muddy in general. 

Obviously this game was probably made on a tight budget, so these graphical issues are forgivable, and thankfully they are somewhat saved by the variety of the environments. Everything from ice and snow, to muck and sludge, to green hills and water are represented wonderfully here, with each giving off its own sense of mystery and uncharted territory that you rarely find in gaming. Oddly enough as well, given my complaints about the fox hair effects, the grass effects are particularly impressive, with individual blades bending around the model as you walk through. 

The score is wonderful as well. It doesn’t harbour the same emotional impact as you might find in top tier Indie titles, but it’s written really well and suits the game to the ground. I would say though, that it suffers a little bit from the length of the title and is maybe overused. It sounds like there’s only half a dozen tracks at most, and none of them stray very far from the strings & piano arrangements that are dime a dozen in games like this. It loops throughout as well, to the point where there’s almost no break. A little more variety would’ve gone a long way, and a little “less is more” approach, but what we got was fantastic. 

Spirit of the North came out on Switch and Steam on the 7th of May, which is how it caught my eye, and I played it on my PC. For a refresher on my specs:

1060 6GB GPU

I7 7700k CPU

16GB RAM

1080p G-SYNC Monitor

With those specs, I’ve run games like Hellblade, Sekiro, Doom, and a few other AAA titles besides on high or ultra, at 60-120fps (Sekiro was capped at 60 even on PC). Spirit of the North mostly ran fine, but “mostly” doesn’t really cut it for what shouldn’t be a particularly demanding game. I had half a dozen random frame drops, usually on close ups or the in-game cutscenes, which I found very surprising. Outside of this though, pretty flawless from start to finish.

Now is probably the time to revisit the narrative, before I sign off. I don’t want to spoil the ending so I won’t, but despite the hands-off approach in favour of environmental storytelling, the payoff at the end is one of the better that I’ve experienced in an Indie title. With many premier Indie games like Firewatch and Edith Finch somewhat phoning their endings in, instead relying on the sum of their parts, Spirit of the North uses its slow build and quiet atmosphere to eventually arrive at a moment, right at the death, that is certainly worth the very often frustrating journey there. 

If I had to choose whether to recommend Spirit of the North to you, I’d have to know a couple of things. Do you place huge value in an upfront story, visual fidelity, or rock solid gameplay? Can you skate past some very notable flaws, in order to reach a moment that might be considered unforgettable? Depending on how you value video games, and which qualities you look for, Spirit of the North might just be one of the best games you play this year, or one of the worst, a fact that is backed up by varied review scores across the internet.

Tied into the very personality of Iceland and the things it’s famed for, Spirit of the North does it some justice in both it’s mythos, and presentation. But yet it falls flat on its face in almost all areas regarding the detailed gameplay, a shame given the generally great puzzles. 

For £15.49 on Steam, the payoff at the end is something that I think needs to be seen. It ties together a storytelling style that so easily could’ve disappointed, and even encourages inward thought in regard to the beauty of nature, how easily things can be polluted beyond recognition, and the long lasting effects of that pollution. 

Despite my many, many issues with it, Spirit of the North is a unique experience that you likely won’t forget, and I think that’s its greatest strength. Give it a chance, and you may even like it more than I did. Plus I don’t think playing as a Fox will ever get old.

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