America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 17th Nov 2019 | 2,370 views
The story of how Spirit of the North sprang into existence is one I love hearing in today’s industry. It’s a tale of two passionate developers remaining afloat with contract work who one day decide to branch out on their own; a team striving to utilize environment and gameplay to tell a quaint yarn about companionship. Many elements are there for this to be something special. Despite all of this tangible goodwill preceding the game proper, it’s one that becomes more dispiriting to play as time goes on.
You take control of a fox who's trundling through a snowy tundra. Their eyes are cast towards a crimson contrail snaking from its origin: a tall mountain in a distance. Despite no exposition, there’s an implicit draw in venturing to this place. So, as one does in a typical game, you begin traversing the landscape to reach said goal.
Such a basic description is partly beneficial when considering what type of game Spirit is striving to be: a minimalist, narrative-emphasizing exploration. That’s easily understood by the breezier atmosphere of the beginning. Sure, there’s this trail of red smoke piercing the blue sky, but the open-ended snowy plain offers some room to play around. Developments quickly occur thereafter with a short introduction of setting a staff by a long-dead hooded monk and discovering a mysterious fox spirit. These ethereal beings are important to progressing and in providing the context of this abandoned world.
Similar to Abzu, hieroglyphs are scattered across various walls to tell of a society’s succession and downfall. As much as I like this method of environmental storytelling, Spirit is sorely lacking in providing much after the initial chapters. Looking at Abzu or Submerged, stories that utilize pictographs often tie them in as a reward and feel like a woven tapestry; it’s similar to the stories that artists would craft on clay jars. There isn’t a similar level of satisfaction in seeing a bareboned, generic tale about reawakening the guardian/spirit who protected these lands from an evil entity.
This lacking narrative comes from the identity change seen in the third chapter onward. Spirit seems rarely content in giving you space to explore this world, its long-dead culture, or any other background detail. Instead, the ‘foxtrotting sim’ is set aside for puzzle-platforming. A lot of expectations are met - the simple platform-hopping base, examination of the world to work out solutions, occasional shifts to time-sensitive platforms such as geysers. In regards to game feel there’s a lot to be desired. The wonky movement when mounting the terrain is something that’ll never quite fade away though; this is especially exacerbated by the lacking in-flight control of movement when platforming on geysers.
One of the most hair-pulling concepts is how your spirit powers are designated. To its credit, the buildup has its benefits. Each area feels like its own character when a new ability is introduced, be it spirit dash or otherwise. My issue comes from the method of acquiring them. Blue-flowered fauna is selectively placed that contains your needed spirit power. Simply bark within its proximity, let your guide (akin to Ocarina’s Navi) open the flower up, and then absorb its energy. Simple enough. But the issue is one consistently used ability expends all of this energy, requiring you to constantly spend time going back to nearby fauna to recharge. The process can sometimes last several seconds, but it’s a case of death by a thousand papercuts. Any misplaced usage of that power-draining move stings because now you have to retrace your steps all over again to regain spirit energy you just had. And this goes on over and over.
This type of time-wasting isn’t limited to that either. Even the minute detail of how the fox shakes his fur dry upon leaving the water actually got annoying. Once again, another transient moment on its own that became a bit grating after the twentieth time coming onto dry land and losing control to see the same animation. These smaller moments of frustration are complemented by the overly-expansive areas Spirit wants you to admire. As impressive and imposing as these areas may be, either as a fox or person, there’s little engaging about them after a glance and the collectible staffs to reunite with dead monks. As a result, it feels poorly paced. The yearning to be an immersive title with virtually no HUD, markers, etc. results in a sense of aimlessness.
It’s a shame to be so negative about these ancillary qualities so often, because the base puzzle design can be sporadically enjoyable. Several moments where spirit powers come into play do make you feel smart upon discovery. But my admiration is hindered by those stated issues and others. There are these specific moments of colors tinting an entire area, resulting in diminished pathfinding. There were also instances of progress-halting bugs, one in particular that demanded a hard reset and others demanding brute force.
Spirit has a decent-if-generic puzzle foundation, but that’s dampened by what I can’t help but see as rookie mistakes. Whether it’s on the topic of pacing, visual cues, or movement sensation, major and minor issues plagued my enjoyment.
As lacking as the story and gameplay may be, the presentational acumen shines throughout. This Icelandic landscape varying from tundra to grassland is constantly changed up. The details on the fox protagonist’s fur also deserve praise. The minute qualities like how oil will stick to it or seeing the specks of water flying when shaken off bring them to life. Since there is no spoken dialogue, the music and diegetic sounds successfully carry the audio load. Although there is a complaint worth noting about the OST: tracks lose their effectiveness not by their quality but by their repetition.
Value tends to have a... fluidity about it when talking about these types of artistic platformers. It’s a $25 title that might hit the five-hour mark—though it didn’t seem like that was the case. But even if that hits your personal dollar-per-hour threshold, the artificial design inflating said runtime sometimes feels insulting. A tacked-on staff collectible mechanic on the side does little to change that.
Spirit of the North places me in a strange spot. My adoration for the new studio’s story isn’t something that can carry a game for me; in fact, their story feels more personal and engaging than the one found here! And the gameplay structure hinting at more interesting exploration tumbles into less-exciting platforming that’s been done better elsewhere. For a game with such a title ‘tis ironic to see how quickly things go south for it.