On the surface, Bad North looks to be a fairly relaxed game; from the waves gently lapping at the shore of the small island in the middle of the screen, to your small brigade of troops, softly milling about waiting for orders. It’s a picturesque scene, the muted colors suggesting a calm adventure ahead, the fog surrounding the area provoking your sense of wonder at just what could be out there. Then the horn blows and, if you’re not prepared, the resulting action is anything but relaxing. Bad North is an RTS without any of the fluff that can often bog down the genre.
No individual units to manage, no base building or resource farming; just you against the waves of AI. You control up to 4 squads at once, your only option being where to place them. Once selected with the bumpers, the game slows to a crawl while the map is covered in a grid, showing where units can move. Press the A button and normal speed is returned, off they trot, waiting for the enemy Vikings to cross their path. These come in waves, riding in via boat before landing at the beaches and charging to the nearest house, their aim being to destroy all houses on an island as well as defeat your soldiers.
Clear an isle, and each house successfully saved will grant you a few coins to spend on upgrading your troops. These must be assigned to whomever you see fit in the active squad before you can progress and none can be saved or carried over. Assign enough coins and a little icon will appear letting you know an upgrade is available. I would have preferred to have the actual upgrade menu here though, allowing me to plan a bit better instead of trying to remember who needs coins, or where I need to focus my upgrades. It pays to choose wisely too, as each commander you recruit along the way can be assigned one of 3 specialities; Archers, Pikes or Infantry.
Each have strengths and weaknesses to bear in mind; archers can attack boats before they even reach the land but are pretty much doomed in close combat. Pikes have reach and power but cannot move and attack, meaning your placement of them is vital in order to prevent them from running into an ambush. Infantry can run and attack, but the close quarters puts them at risk from some of the bigger enemies. A balanced team is for the best then, but all upgrades cost a lot of coin, so you must decide whose tactics you favor. I found the upgraded archers to be near unstoppable combined with some low level pikes and infantry, until these were steamrolled by the Viking brutes that appear further in the game.
My weaker defensive lines were no match and once they were down, the archers never stood a chance. Squads are made up of several individual units, and using any remaining houses, you can send the survivors in to replenish the team. A small timer will appear, after which a full squad will re-emerge. Quite how they repopulate is unknown, but, well, I’ll leave that to your imagination… It’s possible to retreat on an enemy boat if defeat appears imminent, your flag carrying captain at least must make it away to secure the divisions future. This does require physically running to a boat though; leave it too late and you’ll be on the edge of your seat as they plough headlong into enemy Vikings, most likely to their death.
And seeing as the game is also a roguelite… any lost captains are gone for good along with their upgrades. Bad North is a constant game of risk/reward. When it pays off and you have a powerful team, it feels as though you cannot be stopped. One loss, and it all falls apart. By the late game, losing a fully powered up team all but means a restart as the procedurally generated islands will only get harder and using anything less will mean a swift defeat. Various power-ups can be found throughout and assigned to one captain for use in battle. The WarHorn, for example, will summon extra troops without having to use a house, while a giant hammer will help clear an area quickly.
Most of these are on a timer, some on a limited use per-round, but all again are lost if the captain holding them perishes. But, really, your best weapon is planning. Position troops wisely and enemies will fall quickly. Early on you’ll find it easy to manage as Vikings arrive slowly and in small numbers. Later, many boats will appear on opposites sides, carrying heavy brutes, archers and shielded infantry, all requiring a different approach to beat. What initially seems a simple case of placing troops soon devolves into chaos as teams get cut off or blind-sided while you focus on moving another brigade. Risk replenishing a team at the wrong moment and you’ll get over whelmed, your team re-emerging (if their house hasn’t been destroyed) to fight the battle alone.
It can be a bit frustrating to just sit idly by and watch, unable to help in any tangible way, but also elating seeing your team scrape by and emerge victorious. All troop counts are reset on each island and hopefully enough coins will be earned to give you that much more chance in the next fight. It’s to the games credit that when it does all go wrong, it never feels cheap or unfair. And once all commanders are dead, it’s back to the start with you to try again. The early islands can feel a bit laborious on repeat plays, knowing the power you just had and seeing how feeble you began, but use your accumulated knowledge and hopefully, this time you can reach the final island.
Bad North is a fun, challenging RTS Roguelite. The visuals paint a charming picture, giving you a false sense of security until the Vikings begin their assault. As your island is bathed in their (or your own) blood, the game keeps you on your toes despite the simplistic interaction you have. This is absolutely worth your time, even if the genre isn’t usually up your alley.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.