Warning: Bizarre Imagery Ahead
After playing and completing the game North within the span of an hour, I can safely say that I have no idea what I witnessed. And that’s actually the point of this light adventure/walking simulator that puts you in control of a refugee in a strange land. The game opens with a letter explaining the protagonist’s situation to his sister. After escaping the presumably horrible South, he has arrived in a city in the North, which is portrayed as a dark, dystopian landscape.
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From there, in your quest to seek asylum, you engage in several seemingly unrelated jobs such as exploring the mines and passing a test. The tasks are extremely obtuse. When I first entered the mines, I didn’t realize I only had a limited amount of time to explore before the screen suddenly cut to black telling me that I died. With every attempt, I thought that maybe I was getting closer to success, but I ultimately had no idea what my end goal was. The first screen of the game informs you that you need to send letters to your sister to understand anything, and it’s completely true. Not only are the letters the only means of conveying the story, but they’re also mini strategy guides that tell you exactly what you need to do.
It’s a problematic game design where the puzzles make such little sense that you are actually required to receive the answers from the game itself. Sure, you could stumble around and figure it out by chance, but you’d still need the letters to contextualize whatever you did. It’s a demoralizing loop, which is likely the developer Outland’s intention.
North is meant to simulate life as a refugee in a foreign land where the customs seem strange and you’re forced to engage in odd jobs that you know nothing about. Not to mention that everyone is a weird alien-like creature that speaks another language, making communication impossible. Well, except in this case, the protagonist CAN understand everyone else. When you talk to alien creatures, you only hear garbled noise but the letters that the protagonist sends make it clear that the he comprehends them, which is the only reason why he knows what to do. It’s silly that the translation skill doesn’t extend to you.
It’s an interesting premise with a deep message, and the simulation effectively confused and weirded me out at every turn. However, that doesn’t make it fun. First of all, it feels cheap that the only way to solve a puzzle is to look up the answer in-game. Second, the tasks are dull and straightforward once you’re told what to do. They all consist of looking for certain objects or answering questions correctly. In the previous example with the mines, after you learn that you have to drink a tonic to run, the task is a no-brainer. But what upset me most was a glitch I encountered during that segment; I drank the tonic for super speed before knowing how to solve the puzzle. After sending the letter to earn my mini guide, I discovered that for some reason, I could no longer drink the tonic again, which made it impossible for me to get through the mines. Since the game has no save function, I had to start over. Luckily, the entire game is only an hour long, but the ordeal was still infuriating. How was I to know there was a glitch when nonsensical events were a regular occurrence here?
Moreover, the dark visuals in some areas made it difficult to find anything, be it a door or a ramp. The simplistic textures, blocky polygons, and choppy frame rate gives the impression of an early PlayStation 2 game, taking away from the intended immersion. The display on the Nintendo Switch tablet is even worse, due to the lowered resolution and grainy picture quality. Though, I will admit that the frightening imagery was fascinating. There are technically no jump scares in the game, but I was creeped out the entire time due to the bizarre creatures, gross pictures, and just plain weird setting. A soft, unsettling music plays throughout, invoking a sense of fear and dread. Oddly enough, there are a couple of areas that play fast-paced techno beats that, while decent, feel out of place.
North is a unique experience that didn’t necessarily need to be a game to share its viewpoint. Nevertheless, I found it fascinating how the title conveyed it, even if it wasn’t effective or “fun.” The obtuse puzzles juxtaposed with the free-answers letter system muddled the game’s intended message, and the low-quality graphics took away any remaining immersion. In the end, I feel like I came away with some insight, but I don’t know if it was worth playing this to gain it. Regardless, it’s a cheap game, so I wouldn’t stop you if you were curious what it’s like up North.
Note: A review copy was provided by the publisher for this article.