Review – Spirit of the North
A colleague of mine, Leo Faria, was the one who first brought Spirit of the North from Infuse Studios to my attention. He described it as looking like a mix between Okami and Death Stranding. Naturally, this piqued my curiosity and had me scratching my head as to what kind of game this would be. After playing it, I can say that he isn’t entirely wrong with that description, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Or a lot less depending on your perspective.
In Spirit of the North, you play as a fox who encounters a spirit in fox form, who is a guardian of the Northern Lights. You follow her and eventually join forces whilst becoming imbued with her powers. It is up to the two of you to discover what has happened to the civilization that perished long before your time and push back the corruption that is taking over the world around you.
While it might seem like there is an obvious comparison to Okami here, with the protagonist being a fox who is given mystical powers, that’s where the similarities end. Okami is a humorous and magical adventure that radiates charm throughout it. Spirit of the North is slow paced adventure with almost no hand-holding, aside from an occasional button prompt to perform an action in a specific place. It is a slow burn of a game that forces the player to take their time thoroughly exploring the world around them for any clues about the past and solve puzzles to open the way forward.
The exploration is what seems a little bit like Death Stranding (at least from the gameplay trailers) and where I can imagine some people might lose interest. With no narrative or dialogue to guide you or give you clear objectives to follow, you are left to traverse the narrow caves, expansive meadows, and crumbling ruins on your own in search of answers. There is a LOT of searching and meandering with seemingly little payoff, at least until the later sections of the game.
Most of the “story” is shown to you through large slabs of stone with hieroglyphics carved into them. None of them mean much at first, but as you progress and explore the ruins and structures left behind by the race that came before you, it starts to make sense. It isn’t until the very end that things become clear. I can see some people getting bored with seemingly running around aimlessly, but if you can allow yourself to enjoy the journey, then you’ll appreciate it a lot more.
There are staffs you will find scattered throughout the lands, which can be brought to the earthly remains of ancient shamans that once lived in the now extinct civilization that ruled previously. Reuniting the shamans with their staffs will bring their spirits peace and allow them to pass on. I’m not sure if setting them all free unlocks a special ending to the game (I would think it does), as I missed quite a few in the beginning before I figured out more about how this game worked. I might at some point try another playthrough to see if anything changes. For now I’ll just say that finding them provided some of the more fun challenges in the game.
While a lot of this game is running around in vast open areas, there are some parts that require some platforming, especially around the ruins. This is where Spirit of the North gets frustrating. The platforming sections can get downright maddening. The fox’s basic running and jumping controls are decent, although the jumping feels somewhat floaty. You’ll also run out of stamina quickly when running, which forces you to walk slowly for a time. The floaty jumping mechanics make it difficult at times to properly gauge how far you’ll go, resulting in a lot of missed jumps.
Encountering water in any capacity is also incredibly aggravating. The fox swims at an excruciatingly slow pace, with no option to doggy paddle faster. I could be a bit more forgiving of this if it were just limited to swimming across open bodies of water. However, every time the fox encounters any sort of water, be it a lake, marsh, or even a puddle, he instantly reverts to slogging through the area like it’s made of molasses. He then goes through an animation where he shakes off every single time he exits any water, which of course interrupts the pacing quite a bit.
Then there’s the huge issue with environmental glitches. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to make a leap, only to bounce off some invisible barrier. There were also quite a few times I would run along the bricks of some ruins or across a rocky landscape only to sink through to the underside of the area and become stuck. This resulted in me spending a few minutes wildly thrashing and trying to jump out of it, as well as having to restart my game a couple times. It really kills the flow of the game to say the least.
The graphics in Spirit of the North are kind of a mixed bag, even aside from the environmental glitches. This game can look absolutely gorgeous when displaying large panoramic shots of the scenic landscape. Some of the world has a truly magnificent beauty to it. The problem is when you get closer to things. There are lots of textural inconsistencies throughout the game, even from rock to rock. Some rock clusters looks polished and in high definition, while others look extremely muddied. The same goes with the main protagonist. His fur looks like something from the PS3 era when you zoom in too close. However, the framerate is pretty solid and it overall runs very smoothly, with very short loading screen times.
The sound design is where Spirit of the North is strongest. There is absolutely no dialogue, but the various sound effects are well done. The musical score is where this game shines brightest. Joseph Gifford has created a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack that evokes a full range of emotions from wonder, to desperation, to hope. My only complaint is that this musical piece is often played on a continuous loop, which leads to too much repetition. I would have liked to have seen more musical pieces or even this main score utilized only during certain moments so it doesn’t lose its potency.
Spirit of the North is a slower paced game than many others, but it is intentionally designed that way. You have just as much information as the fox protagonist, so you truly feel like you’re right there with him while discovering more about the world around you. It’s a long journey for a tale of self-discovery, but one worth taking if you’re patient enough to stick with it.
While the game can look beautiful at times, especially in wide landscape shots, there are lots of textures issues and environmental glitches.
The moves are simplistic and easy to learn, but there are lots of frustrating platforming sections, camera issues, and wonky controls.
There is no dialogue, but the sound effects are well done. The musical score is powerful and beautiful.
Spirit of the North is a slow burn of a game, but prides itself in allowing the player lots to explore and discover.
Final Verdict: 7.0
Spirit of the North is available now on PS4.
A copy of Spirit of the North was provided by the publisher.