Spirit of the North Review

Spirit of the North Review $24.99

Title: Spirit of the North

Developer: Infuse Studio

Platforms: PS4

Release Date: 2019-11-01

Game description: "Spirit of the North is a single player, 3rd-person adventure game inspired by the breathtaking and mysterious landscapes of Iceland. The story takes root from various pieces of Nordic folklore. The game is unique in that it purposefully has no dialog or narrative. Players must breathe in their surroundings to solve various puzzles and speculate the meaning of a lost ancient civilization. Play as an ordinary red fox who’s story becomes entwined with the guardian of the Northern Lights, a female spirit fox. As you journey over the mountains and under red stained skies you’ll discover more about your companion and a land left in ruin." - https://playspiritofthenorth.com

4

A Fuzzy Foxy Friend

Those who know me are likely aware that foxes have played a significant part in my life. I have spent many years volunteering with wildlife, and based on that experience can earnestly say that foxes are my favourite animal. They’re the only wild animal I’ve ever worked with who seem to recognize you are trying to help them during rehabilitation, and will get excited upon seeing you. They’re sweet, playful, and also incredibly clever – on top of being ridiculously cute. Seemingly unrelated, I’m also half-Norwegian, meaning I have a strong connection to these Nordic roots of mine. What happens when you combine Nordic culture with foxes and smush them together into a third-person adventure game? You get Spirit of the North

In Spirit of the North – the debut effort from Raleigh-based Infuse Studio – you will find yourself in a world inspired by the natural beauty of Iceland while playing as a normal red fox. You run around, wag your tail, are somewhat of a troublemaker while remaining endearingly adorable – you know, normal fox stuff. That is until you meet the spirit of another, ancient fox. While the nature of this spirit ends up being interesting, that isn’t as important as its practical effect on the world. With it by your side, you’re able to affect the world around you in ways no standard, adorable, tail-wagging fox could. You solve puzzles, lend a helping paw to other spirits, explore a deluge of vistas, and change the very world around you. Before we dive too far into the mechanics, it might be worth taking a step back to talk about something which greatly influenced my first impression of the game. 

An Unexpected Journey

There is something to be said for a developer who is willing to wear their inspirations directly on their sleeve. It is a noble pursuit when paying homage to the games which meant a lot to the developers, and may garner attention from fans of these inspirations; but also risky as it can welcome direct comparisons to the original materials. My first hour with Spirit of the North was met with many of these direct comparisons, and if I’m honest, none of them went in Spirit of the North’s favour. 

In that first hour, the two most obvious connections to make were to thatgamecompany’s modern classic Journey, and the seminal Okami. Spirit of the North swings far more towards Journey with regards to gameplay, pacing, and atmosphere, and takes many cues from Okami in character design, and artistic tone. The game starts by playing so close to Journey that it feels as though the developers were trying to make a copy. Unfortunately, were that the case, it would have been a direct-to-video copy. Reason being, it simply lacks the polish, grandeur, and technical mastery which elevated Journey to being as profound an experience as it is. However, as time went on, my feelings changed – it was when Spirit of the North found its own voice that it truly became interesting. 

Once fox and spirit are working in tandem, you will gain access to a pool of abilities which make for some creative, clever puzzle-solving. Where in Journey the puzzles were largely simple to serve as a means to gate the greater experience, the puzzles themselves in Spirit of the North make the experience far better. While they aren’t all exceptional, and occasionally they can be obtuse, I genuinely enjoyed making it to a new chapter and discovering a new mechanic to play around with. Had the game simply stuck with my first impression of being a recreation of Journey, my feelings would not have been so keen; but adding all of these unique flavours served to make something special.

The Real Journey Was the Fox-Friend You Made Along the Way

At its best, Spirit of the North nails that oh-so-nebulous-but-ever-important “flow.” The pace is relaxed, the puzzle design often makes wandering into a new area intuitive to sight read, and exploring areas outside of the critical path rewards players with small, clever, self-contained challenges. I wouldn’t go so far as to say any of the side-puzzles were particularly mind-blowing, but they were often fun despite being relatively simple. And, while avoiding spoilers, seeing how the outcome of these puzzles affected the endgame was a welcome, satisfying surprise. On that note, I feel the last two chapters are triumphant, unique, and elevated the game to something well beyond the sum of its parts. 

There are many possible things to nitpick about Spirit of the North – the visuals can sometimes be grungy, the sound design leaves much to be desired, you’ll get lost in some of the more open-ended areas, you’ll lament how it sometimes feels as though you’re controlling a fluffy bus rather than a fox, you’ll run into glitches, you’ll get stuck on puzzles every now and again, you’ll balk at why there’s a dedicated button to barking despite the fact that foxes don’t bark, etc. I felt miffed by all of these at some point or another; but upon reaching the credits, none of them really mattered. 

It was as the credits began to roll that I was left truly impressed. The listed credits for the entire game had two names – three including the music’s composer. With how stunningly beautiful the last chapters were, I never would have guessed they were created, designed, and developed by only two people. That in and of itself is an amazing feat, and something wholly worth celebrating. I applaud these developers, and am very excited to see what they do next.

Spirit of the North may have its fair share of flaws, but is ultimately a success in spite of them. It’s a feel-good puzzle game which will leave you with feelings of whimsy, wonder, and warmth. If you enjoyed Journey, it is a fairly easy recommendation – though its price point may warrant hesitation for some. In the end it won me over, and will be a game I’ll revisit when I need a warm hug from an old friend.

Pros

  • Creative mechanics leading to fun puzzles
  • Gorgeous final area(s)
  • Truly impressive given the tiny team

Cons

  • Some prevalent jank/lack of polish (excusable because of team size)
  • Unfavourable facsimile of other games

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