App Reviewed on: iPad Pro
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Bad North: Jotunn Edition is a minimalist real-time strategic roguelike full of tense medieval combat. You control a band of troops as they hop from island to island, hoping to make a final stand at some point to fend off an overwhelming Viking threat. Although there are times where the game can feel out of your control, Bad North’s combination of interwoven systems and haunting atmosphere make it hard to put down.
Faster Than Longships
The quickest way to describe Bad North is to say it’s like FTL, but with Vikings. The game starts putting you in control of two squads of troops who’s home is attacked by a Viking horde. For the rest of the game, you’re forced to make a strategic retreat, gathering resources and additional forces as you go so that hopefully you can stem the tide at a certain point.
The problem is, you can never outrun your enemies. Every island you retreat to is under attack, so each time you relocate, you also have to defend those shores from all kinds of enemies in real-time, strategic combat. If you’re able to defeat your enemies without allowing them to burn and pillage the houses on the island, you earn some coins, which you’ll need to upgrade your troops so they can measure up to more difficult threats down the line.
War never changes
The combat in Bad North is not especially complicated. All of your troops attack automatically, so your job as the player is to strategically position your units so they can be most effective. This involves such things as moving troops behind cover if there are ranged enemies incoming, or positioning pikemen at the top of a cliff to stab down at heavy brute units that might otherwise decimate infantry or archers.
What complicates things is execution and geography. As a real-time game, players need to be on point in positioning and re-positioning troops to respond to waves of incoming threats. And, with each island having unique land features (e.g. walls, cliffs, coves), the way you respond will always be shifting. To help make sure you have enough time to do all of this micromanagement, Bad North slows down the action whenever you select a military unit. This doesn’t completely alleviate the time pressure, but it makes the game much more manageable.
Waiting for death
If it weren’t for the time-slowing feature of Bad North, it would be completely overwhelming to play. This is to say that—even when things are crawling along—timing certain abilities or maneuvers is tough. It’s surprisingly easy to whiff on entire strategies because things in Bad North move along really loose timing windows. There’s a funny amount of delay between every command and action, and each are annoyingly difficult to pin down, especially when time keeps switching speeds.
This looseness inevitably makes it so even your most promising runs can be cut short at any moment. Of course you eventually learn and adapt—which is part of how run-based games work—but there’s such little room for error in completing Bad North that you’ll be gripping your device so tight each level trying to make sure you make no false moves.
As it turns out, this somewhat frustrating aspect is also one of its greatest strengths. Sluggishness gives Bad North an incredible sense of tension, which is then enhanced by the game’s cold and desolate aesthetic design. Even with the best laid plans, your future is uncertain, and sometimes you just have to wait and see how things turn out.
The bottom line
Once I learned to give in to Bad North’s unpredictability, I found a lot of enjoyment in it. There’s a strange dynamism that always keeps you on your toes, even when you have internalized the game’s basic combat strategies. This, combined with the sense of foreboding provided by Bad North’s style, makes for a refreshingly bleak strategic roguelike.