Spirit of the North Review – Switch

One setting that certainly evokes a strong feeling of melancholy is the ruins of an older civilization. Wandering through places that were once whole and full of life, only to wither into nothingness – whether it’s due to some catastrophic event or gradual decline – can induce a certain sense of existential sadness, and curiosity of how that civilization used to be.

Many games have used this as a setting, to varying degrees. Breath of the Wild wasn’t quite an apocalypse but much of the world was in ruin, with scattered evidence of a once-prospering land. Ruins are an inspiring setting, but whether it’s effective depends on the execution.

In Spirit of the North – the debut game by Infuse Studio – the player controls a red fox exploring the landscapes of Iceland. The fuzzy fox is helped by a guardian spirit along the way. As the game begins in the snowy mountains, our little fox hero notices an ominous red mist swirling high into the air, emanating from an unknown source. Naturally the fox decides to investigate.

Exploring the pretty mountain landscape

The story of Spirit of the North is told primarily through cave paintings. There is no dialogue throughout (unless you count barking foxes as dialogue) so everything is narrated visually. The first chapter is fairly slow, as the fox meets the titular Spirit of the North and learns some of the land’s history. Well, the player does anyway; whether the fox can comprehend it is unclear.

The melancholic art direction is one of the game’s biggest strengths; from the cave paintings that tell a vague story of devastation, the lack of dialogue, the locations with their vibrant colours, and especially the soundtrack that provides sombre piano-based arrangements throughout. It’s at its most powerful when exploring castle ruins with a red sky overhead. There are even skeletons of shamans scattered throughout the game that tie into an optional sidequest. The environments are beautiful too, shifting from snow-covered tundras to grassy mountains, and from rocky plateaus to mysterious dark caverns.

Foxes were clearly revered in this society

At its core, Spirit of the North is a light puzzle-adventure game. Each area has some puzzles to solve before progress can be made, designed around the fox’s spiritual power. This needs to be regenerated at a group of flowers every time it’s used, but it can also be “taken back” from an activated spirit stone.

The puzzles never get taxing but aren’t so easy that they’re unsatisfying. That said, the game leans more toward its narrative intentions, so anyone looking for a more puzzle-focused experience may be disappointed. The fox gains abilities as it progresses, which keep the new areas from getting stale. On-screen prompts inform the player how to perform a certain action, but these prompts never disappear permanently. Even towards the end of the game, the player gets told when to activate a power they’ve already used. At a point, most of these prompts should disappear and leave the player to figure out the situation for themselves. The game’s visual cues are adequate enough to inform the player of what needs to be done.

The fox’s spirit powers can destroy whatever those large red balls are

The game has a healthy mix of sprawling hills and compact areas, and exploring wide-open areas doesn’t get too tedious, partly thanks to the interesting environments. There’s usually something to discover too. As already mentioned, there are shaman skeletons to be found all through the game. By bringing a shaman its staff, which is normally hidden nearby, the shaman’s spirit will be freed. This is necessary to advance at points, but the majority are optional. It’s a nice addition for completionists looking for more, and the process of finding the staff and carrying it to its owner can be more challenging than the regular puzzles.

While Spirit of the North‘s art direction is on point, there are a few technical issues. The collision detection on several surfaces and platforms isn’t consistent, and the frame rate can get choppy at times. This unfortunately happens in the opening logos for Infuse and Unreal even though they only fade in and out. The fox itself can be awkward to control in the more compact areas too, although punishment for missed jumps is minimal. It’s impossible to “die”, so it’s a matter of retracing steps.

A conundrum for many a canine… but not for this fox as the staff phases through the wall. Perhaps a missed opportunity for another puzzle element

These technical issues are the most likely deal-breaker, but they never happened often or seriously enough to make the experience unenjoyable. For everyone else, it will be whether they appreciate the game’s wonderful art direction, and the relaxed gameplay.

At only 3-4 hours long, Spirit of the North is a small adventure worth taking. There is slight replay value thanks to the shaman spirits, but even without this the game stands on its own as a pleasant journey through a deserted land with foxes. And foxes make everything better.

Thanks to Merge Games and Infuse Studio for this review copy.

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