It’s not hard to sell me on a game where you get to play as an animal, or even get to interact with one a lot. Hell, I spent entire days in Breath of the Wild taming horses, I got misty eyed all the time during Last Guardian and I thoroughly enjoy being a horrible goose. It’s also not hard to sell me on a game that has beautiful, ethereal art. I say all this to say that Spirit of the North should have been a no-brainer for me, and from the little I saw before I picked it up to play on PS5, I was psyched. Unfortunately, Spirit of the North was more of a slog than a meaningful romp.
In Spirit of the North, you’ll play as a fox, wandering a snowy wasteland. At the outset, Spirit of the North has a sort of serene, almost Journey-esque vibe. Diving into piles of snow is satisfying, thanks to some nicely used rumble on the DS5, and this initial playtime got me excited for what was to come. Being a fox, I assumed I’d be nimble, a good climber and pretty capable overall. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case. In fact, the first boulder I tried to scramble up turned out to be an invisible barrier, quickly dampening my dreams offoxing around without a care in the world.
There’s not really any kind of tutorial in Spirit of the North. You’re a fox, it’s snowy and you’ve got to figure out why you’re there and how to get to…whatever your objective is. There’s nothing wrong with learning through exploration, and I don’t mind trying my own hand at pressing buttons and observing what they do, but laggy controls muddy the waters. I knew I could bark, for example, but because the delay between pressing the button and actually barking was so long, I couldn’t tell what button had successfully done it, at least at first.
After a while, you’ll piece together more of the “story.” There’s not any kind of speaking or even reading to do in Spirit of the North, and anything you do know is something you know because you stumbled upon it. This is something else I don’t mind in games, if it’s executed well. But again, Spirit of the North suffers in execution of its pacing and story. You’ll find some tidbits–everyone seems to have died, there’s some sort of magic at play, and you’re headed to the top of the mountain to fix it–but it never really fills out much beyond that.
For that matter, there’s not a ton of characterization put into you as the fox, either. It’s fine to be a nameless wanderer, but a little bit of personality injected into the things you do as said wanderer goes a long way, whether that comes from silly interactions, some sort of flashback or peek into the character’s life, or an early struggle you barely make it out of. There’s a little bit of this in Spirit of the North, but not enough to where it really made me feel connected. There are silly little things that happen, and cute animations to go with them–sliding on ice on your butt, puffy tail trailing behind you, or being shot from a geyser, legs splayed and landing not stuck, but the spirit, ironically, just isn’t there.
As it turns out, neither are the controls, even early in the game. To be fair, there are some animals who might not corner well in real life. Cows come to mind. But I didn’t expect my fox to “drive” like a bus, and honestly, it did. Turning corners is more complex than it deserves to be, and jumping, too, is incredibly sloppy. It’s not even just unresponsive, there’s also inconsistencies in how high you can jump. In one area, you’ll be able to easily clear something “waist” high, for example, or make a long jump from one crumbling piece of ruin to another, where in the next area, that same height or distance is simply not achievable.
If just one of the controls were wonky, you might be able to compensate, but most of your time spent exploring the mountain and surrounds is spent doing various jumping puzzles to activate various magical gates and solve some sort of puzzle to advance to the next area, and the combination of awkward turning and hard to time and judge jumps makes what turns out to be 90% of your gameplay time pretty damn frustrating.
Puzzles can be equally frustrating, with red herrings that seem cheap, or drawn out puzzles that require a lot of backtracking. There’s a lot of Spirit of the North that ends up being quite tedious as a result, since even sprinting doesn’t make up for the long distances you’ll need to travel to complete every last puzzle, each one much the same as the one before. As you advance through the chapters, you’ll pick up new abilities that somewhat alter the gameplay, and there are “collectibles” you can pick up if you’re so inclined, a few of which I picked up just running through the first playthrough, but they don’t ultimately add much value, and often require even more backtracking. Nothing is quite intuitive either, and if the game does throw you a bone to help, and you happen to blink and miss it, it will never repeat.
Unfortunately, helpful hints are about the only thing that don’t repeat ad nauseum, as even the art fails to find its footing. It feels to me like Spirit of the North was torn between a realistic and ethereal, dreamlike world and didn’t quite achieve either as the end product, and sometimes the art even gets in the way of puzzles, with some areas being blown out and obscuring the spirit guide and others being so flat it’s hard to pick out where there’s a path forward. It’s not without its moments though, as the ice caves towards the beginning of the game are quite beautiful, and some of the valley vistas and cut scene reveals are rather epic in their scale, though none ever quite get to that “breathtaking” sort of moment that games like Breath of the Wild and Journey seem to be able to produce at the drop of a hat.
The last bastion of hope for my enjoyment of Spirit of the North was its story’s ending, and without spoilering it I’ll say this: it’s okay. I think a lot more could have been done to build up to the final resolution than was, and ultimately, it fell a little bit flat for me, though, as it turns out, some of the most beautiful parts of the game, and most fun parts to play are in Spirit of the North’s last few minutes.
So where does that leave me with Spirit of the North? If I had to describe my feelings in one word, it’d be “frustrated.” I feel about Spirit of the North the way you feel when you wait outside the movie theater for a midnight showing just to be the first to see the big new release, and come out tired and not all that entertained. There’s so much of the premise and the environment that drew me in, but ultimately, it’s another story of a death by a million cuts, and due to its vague story, uncanny valley art, and repetitious and often frustrating story and controls, I can’t recommend it.
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