It’s a rare game that manages to make Vikings simultaneously adorable and relentless bloodthirsty killers, but Bad North: Jotunn Edition manages that balancing act with aplomb.
Such contrasts and contradictions extend throughout the production. The game gives off casual, minimalist vibes, but has a sadistic undercurrent that can instantly smash your ego in two. Even its genre is under question. Is this a real-time strategy game? A puzzler? Tower defence? A roguelike? Perhaps all of them at once?
It’s (not) grim up north
What’s evident right from the start is Bad North’s premium, approachable nature. In an era of freemium trash, Bad North feels out of place – in a good way. You fight on intricately drawn painterly islands; subtle animations afford otherwise nameless soldiers character; and the game smartly eases you in.
The basics aren’t tricky to grasp. Your islands are under attack from waves of Viking invaders on longships that emerge from the gloom. You must mount a stern defence, wiping out the aggressors before they get all murdery and unsportingly burn your buildings to the ground.
Strategy comes from how and where you position your squads of soldiers, each of which have special skills. For example, archers are best placed high up, whereas pikes can be used to fend off and slow down enemies – handy when you’re waiting for infantry to rock up from the other side of the island.
Each challenge comes across like a living puzzle. Place soldiers optimally to maximise damage to enemies and minimise deaths on your side, and you’ll emerge victorious. And when things get frantic, everything slows down Matrix-style when you select a squad, giving you a few extra seconds to think.
There is, though, a finality about Bad North: Jotunn Edition that’s quite jarring. When a squad’s wiped out, they’re gone for good. And with the game’s tendency to lob curveballs your way, getting cocky is a bad idea.
Fortunately, there is an upgrade tree to help you counter more powerful units that the game gradually introduces. This is funded by coins that appear from houses that remain unburned post-battle, and gives you the means to train your growing army. At least then you’ve a chance of surviving the campaign that comprises about three hours of minutes-long battles.
It’s fair to say this game’s direct, minimal nature might not gel with anyone looking for a properly hardcore strategic test. There are difficulty settings, but the harder ones ramp up the intensity rather than demanding you come up with especially cunning new solutions.
But on mobile, Bad North: Jotunn Edition feels great. It’s not deep, but the short battles, randomly generated islands and progression tree make it very replayable. Also, spinning islands with a finger makes far more sense than going into battle with a mouse and keyboard.
The sense of atmosphere is the clincher. With its unpredictable nature, every battle – every decision – comes with a side order of added tension; and this is twinned with pint-sized battles as beautiful as anything you’ll see on mobile, even when your tiny island is soaked in blood.