App Reviewed on: iPad Pro
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Northgard is a real-time strategy game where resource-gathering and building defenses is key to your survival against enemy creatures and its harsh wintery environments. Originally released on PC in 2018, this survival-based game has finally made its way to iOS. Touch screens tend to work well with isometric strategy titles, but some technical problems and unwelcome design choices work their way into Northgard's mobile version that make it less enjoyable than it might be elsewhere.
King of the North
Northgard's gameplay can most easily be described as a split between real-time strategy game components (i.e. resource-harvesting and unit management) and turn-based 4X strategy mechanics (i.e. controlling land "tiles," managing trade routes, etc.). These are then tossed into a hostile landscape that can throw harsh winters, dangerous wildlife, and mythical creatures at your kingdom's doorstep. These aspects of Northgard create a unique balance between expansion, defense, offense, and survival.
You can simply play randomly generated maps using these mechanics, controlling different "bannermen" with some unique abilities and bonuses, but the real meat of Northgard lies in its story mode. This mode follows Rig, the son of the Viking High King, after getting stranded on the hostile landmass known as Northgard. Along the way, he meets various leaders that give you opportunity to learn how each faction in the game plays, all while taking you on a straightforward adventure steeped in Norse mythology.
Across Northgard's 11 story missions, you can expect to be tasked with defeating enemy factions, slaying mythical beasts, establishing strong trade allies, and even taking part in fame competitions. While pursuing any of these goals, Northgard levels move across seasons, forcing you to also constantly plan your moves around the slow production time of winter. The ebb and flow of your ability to pursue objectives makes Northgard a slower paced, more meditative strategy game than other real-time counterparts.
This slower pace has its drawbacks, though. Games of Northgard can go on for a long time, which doesn't really comport all that well with mobile play. Of course, you can always save your progress and return to a game whenever you'd like, but you mostly have to do this manually, and it can be disorienting to return to a game in its late stages, as your land is vast and many buildings and units look pretty similar to one another. It's also worth noting that Northgard's mobile version also has a few technical bugs that can cause the audio to cut out or crash the game entirely.
Luckily, none of Northgard's technical issues stopped me from making progress through it, but they very well could have. Even though they didn't, Northgard's interface certainly didn't help me on my quest to conquer the north. In addition to the visual confusion that can occur as your kingdom expands, there were times when playing Northgard where I couldn't easily find objectives or units, even after scaling the UI or scouring the map. There are some quick-select icons that are intended to help you with this, but they too don't read very well and rarely felt useful.
That said, I still really enjoy Northgard, particularly when I could play it in longer stretches of time. When doing that, I found a real satisfaction in the cyclical planning process and exploring the specific ways I could leverage faction bonuses to my advantage. It's not like the rough spots of the game disappear when doing that, but there is something about Northgard's pacing that can really suck you in over time.
The bottom line
Northgard is a really satisfying strategy experience, but I kind of wish I didn't play it for the first time on iOS. Some aspects of the game really sing here, but Northgard definitely works better over dedicated play sessions on what I assume is a better performing interface on PC.