Platforms: Nintendo Switch (Review), PC, PS4, Xbox One
The Nintendo Switch is in the midst of an indie strategy game golden age, and Bad North might be the game that best takes advantage of the console's particular features. Bad North feels a lot like a mobile title in terms of its limited scope, tight focus, and simple controls, and that makes it a fantastic fit for the Switch in portable mode.
Defending from enemies on all sides
Bad North is a stripped-down medieval RTS in which you control a small handful of units defending small islands. You start with just two units as you begin the game, eventually working up to maximum of four on the field at a time (with reserves on the bench, but inaccessible during battle). Combat plays out on a grid in real time, as Viking invaders begin sailing out of the fog around your island. Spotting your incoming foes as early as possible is key, so you can quickly move your limited forces to the best possible position to repel your enemies.
Upgrading your basic forces will eventually give you infantry, archers, and pikemen, each of which is best when used in a particular way. Archers obviously excel when they're on the high ground, pikemen are strong while stationary but can't fight while moving, and infantry are your most mobile and versatile troops. There isn't a huge amount of variety or statistical depth to be found here, and success in Bad North comes mostly from perfecting your use of your very limited resources.
Time slows way down when you're selecting a unit, but battles still become frantic once you're beyond the first few islands in the game, and the training wheels come off. Basic enemy units aren't very tough, if you're playing smart, but once the enemies get archers of their own, axe-throwing berserkers, and hulking brutes that can easily kill entire units before dying, you'll have a much harder time keeping all of your troops alive. And that intense challenge may cross the line between satisfying and frustrating for some players, because losing a single unit can be almost impossible to come back from, when you only have a maximum of four at a time.
Unit health is represented visually on screen simply by the number of individuals making up the unit. Unit strength is fully replenished between island battles, but in the middle of a fight healing is a much harder proposition. You need to send a depleted unit into one of the homes you're defending on an island in order to recover, and those forces will be unavailable while their healing timer counts down. It's a tense bit of risk/reward calculation as you try to find the right moment during a conflict to put yourself down a unit, and as with so much in Bad North your timing often comes down to a matter of seconds.
An RTS Rogue-lite
Bad North's RTS gameplay comes with a rogue-lite structure. You start a run with two fresh units on an island, then progress from island to island as you try to stay ahead of the encroaching Viking hordes. Along the way you'll gain experience and promote your units, add additional commanders to your roster, and pick up items like bombs and hammers that can give individual units extra abilities.
The game has two difficulty tiers, but the default Normal setting will probably be challenging enough for most players. The game's stripped-down focus means there's very little margin for error, and there isn't a great deal of distance between a single mistake or a small stretch of bad luck and being in a position where it's impossible to make progress. You can technically flee an island with your surviving troops if things are going really badly, saving your experienced commanders to fight another day, but your limited reserves and the constant pressure of the advancing line of Vikings at your back on the world map (which spells a Game Over if you can't keep advancing steadily) means you'll probably be forced to restart with a new run once you've suffered a loss on an island.
Monument Valley visuals, with a lot more blood
Bad North features a stylish and simplistic visual presentation, avoiding health bars or any numbers on screen during combat. Colorful, geometric islands are gradually covered with blood and corpses as battles rage on, and you'll see your troops dwindle in number as you struggle to keep as many alive as possible. Rain and fire effects add visual flair to the islands, though since you'll see a lot more of the early levels than the later ones (thanks to the nature of rogue-lites) it would be nice if there was a bit more variety to be found in the look of the stages earlier in the game.
The audio design is as minimalistic as the rest of the game, and that serves Bad North well. You can play the game muted without any real issue, which is always appreciated in a game that's such a great fit for playing on the go, but the limited sound effects provide useful feedback that help you keep track of what's going on as you're frantically spinning the island map around and putting out fires. There are also some nice, subtle music cues for victories and defeats.
A natural fit for the Switch touchscreen
The very best way to play Bad North is in handheld mode on the Switch, using the touchscreen. You can control it using the buttons and analog sticks as well, of course, but that feels slow and clumsy compared to the intuitive touch controls. Tapping on units to select them and pinching the screen to zoom in will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever played a remotely similar game on a smartphone.
During my first week playing Bad North I encountered a few bugs and crashes. Occasionally units stopped responding, or got stuck on geometry, and with a game as stripped-down as Bad North that usually led to a frustrating defeat, and an end to my run. Fortunately, following an update released a few days after launch, stability has appeared to be greatly improved.