I loved Bad North back when I reviewed it. It’s a doomy game about fighting off invading forces, set on a chilly archipelago strung across the edge of the world. It’s one of those games where brilliantly simple mechanics – three kinds of units, very straightforward victory and loss conditions for each scrappy battle – are married to rich atmospheric details. The seas here are glassy and still, each island a bleached eruption of cold earth. You feel the cold, the wind, and you get a sense of how tenacious life must be to get by here. And then the invaders arrive, masked and silent in their black ships which ghost in without sails to propel them. There is a horrible inevitability to their advancing, something of a bad dream to it. And the horn that marks their arrival! The horn.
At the time I was playing it for review, Bad North struck me as being almost a museum exhibit of a game – everything was so poised and perfected. You stand back from the landscape as if you’re viewing a little diorama through safety glass. The game is so wrapped up with death and violence that there is nothing else in its world besides death and violence – unreadable heroes and villains from the past, so unlike us!
None of this is a slur, by the way. I love a game with a strong sense of its identity. But as I return to it now, clumsier somehow, sausage-fingered at the Switch, I’m starting to see so much more. This is one of those glorious games that scales brilliantly to match the player’s errors with sheer fun.
So I fight through the first few islands playing things safe. I create archers and keep them up on cliffs. I create pikemen and infantry and they go down to the shore to await the death ships. One, two, three islands like this. I pick up another unit and I make another archer. I deal well enough with shielded foes and I unlock a few special abilities with gold.
Then good fortune! An item. It’s a warhammer, which allows whoever I equip with it to attack with a huge thudding blast that knocks enemies back. I give it to my infantry, led by Cwen, and I move on to the next island. This time I am eager to try out this new gadget. Bring on the ships!
The ships hit the shore of this new island and I’m ready. Pikemen and Infantry go in, and I fumble through the menu to trigger the warhammer. BOOM! But I’ve made a terrible error. My two archer units had whittled the enemies to almost nothing before they hit the beach, so my pikemen finished the stragglers off in seconds. And the beach of this island is knobbly, filled with squares that are practically surrounded by sea. This is where the battle was fought, and it’s where my infantry used the warhammer. With no enemies to tackle, the hammer has blasted my own pikemen into the sea. An entire unit is down to just one soldier – and here come the rest of the waves of ships!
I had no idea you could do that to yourself in Bad North. I’m still not entirely sure that you can – maybe the battle was brief but bloody and the enemies had time to cut my pikemen to pieces before the warhammer went off. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I was jolted awake. I had a unit that was very badly damaged, and in Bad North once they’re dead they’re dead for good. So I had to scramble to see off invading ships with just an infantry and two archers while I healed my pikemen in a nearby house.
Man, it was electrifying. A game about scanning the horizon and preparing for landfall was suddenly about how to keep kiting enemies who had already hit the ground and were racing around trying to burn down my island’s structures. I had to watch the clock, as my pikemen regenerated their health, but I also had to keep an eye on my remaining units, keeping the archers back but not leaving my infantry without support.
When it was done, last ship defeated and pikemen all healed, no units lost, no houses lost, the white of the earth was stained red and I was completely, comprehensively knackered. And then I did something I don’t think I have ever done in Bad North before. I leaned back and laughed.