North Review

By Lucy Wood, 30 days ago
Independent studios may not have the resources of major developers, but they have more freedom to work on projects addressing polarising topics and to deviate from conventional approaches to game design. NORTH takes this freedom and tries to run with it, taking players on a journey into the world of refugees. It's a good effort in many ways, but doesn't quite deliver the gameplay that the development team's vision deserves.


North is a short futuristic adventure game that combines exploration of an alien city with solving puzzles. A simple story of a refugee hoping to build a new life is revealed through exploration, alternating with puzzle sections where he must pass tests in order to gain asylum. Designed to be played in one sitting, North has no menu or save facility. This is made clear at the outset, along with advice to allow around an hour to complete it. A thorough explorer or someone who gets stuck could easily require more than an hour, whereas someone following a walkthrough could complete the game in as little as 20-30 minutes.

Imagine a world without brightness settingsImagine a world without brightness settings

Overall the visual style of North is cyberpunk, but with variations in the sophistication of the graphics depending on location. A dark monochromatic palette dominates in exploration areas, with brighter colours introduced in test areas. The synth-pop instrumental soundtrack is an ideal accompaniment to this title, enhancing the impersonal nature of the game world as well as being worth listening to for its own merits. The towering city setting of North is ostensibly the unnamed protagonist’s land of hope, but it looks and feels more like the place hope went to die. In the darkness of the streets the only acknowledgment of his existence comes from being photographed by surveillance cameras. His flat is a hovel shared with a motley collection of living flotsam and relics of the dead. Barbed wire-topped walls surround his new workplace, and anyone who has entered will wonder whether they are meant to keep people in or out. The authorities demand that tests must be passed, but they don’t explain what is required. A church full of worshippers seems like it might be a place offering help, but instead sets yet another test to pass to qualify for acceptance. The light of a postbox stands out in the darkness of the street, beckoning him to ease his loneliness by writing letters to the sister he left behind in the South.

I don't think that's an Employee of the Month AwardI don't think that's an Employee of the Month Award

Postboxes are important in North. Instead of using conventional devices like interaction with NPCs to develop the story, developer Outland chose to build a sense of the protagonist’s isolation by limiting narrative and communication to the letters he writes to his sister. These letters give insight into his backstory, relate rumours heard from other refugees and record important things he learns about the city and how to get asylum. An envelope icon appears in the corner of the screen whenever a new letter is available, and it can then be read by interacting with the nearest postbox. Key points relating to gameplay are usually highlighted in red, so players aren’t under pressure to read the whole story to get to the essential information. Unfortunately there isn’t any way to re-read letters later, which will cause frustration for some players. The letters system is great for enhancing the lonely atmosphere of North, but it also feels disruptive to gameplay and can either make the game unnecessarily hard or negate any challenge in the test sections. The postboxes are all located in the city streets, but new letters are unlocked by exploring off-street locations. This means that if you want to read the letters immediately you will have to backtrack to another area to do so. In a game this short it feels wasteful to spend a significant amount of play time going back and forth in this way.

This must be the potluck dinnerThis must be the potluck dinner

The more important issue involving letters is that some of them contain guidance or solutions for the puzzles which must be solved to progress through the game. These puzzles are the tests set by the authorities to prove the worthiness of asylum seekers and are the only part of the game that involve any significant challenge for players. These tests are straightforward when tipped off by the relevant letters about how to solve them, but can also be impossible for someone who has missed an important letter or interaction. The probability of missing something vital is unfortunately far higher than it ought to be due to poor optimisation for consoles. The exploration segments involve point and click gameplay, with text boxes that pop up whenever the screen is centred over an interactive object. The system probably worked much better on the original PC version of the North with the precision of a mouse. However, the lack of sensitivity when using a controller can be very frustrating at times, making it difficult to find and use interactive objects.

The game runs smoothly with no technical problems other than a trivial graphical glitch. One test has a very awkward control scheme, which is annoying but not problematic enough to hinder progress. Another test section included flashing images, but there was no photosensitive seizure warning either in-game or on its store page.

Apparently queues are a universal constantApparently queues are a universal constant

Outland has done a great job of creating a dark atmospheric setting and fostering a sense of isolation in players. As such, North is more an uncomfortable art piece than something to play for fun. The game bills itself as “dealing with the issue of the contemporary refugee crisis,” but this is something of an overstatement. It takes aspects of general refugee issues and presents them in a fantasy setting that truly feels alien, leaving it to the player to draw parallels between the game and real life. Within the confines of a very short game, North does a surprisingly good job of presenting a nuanced view of refugee issues. It does this not by giving a lot of information, but by pushing the buttons of those inclined to reflection and by setting tests that relate to real-life challenges faced by asylum seekers. It’s a game that asks players to think, but doesn’t push them to do so or to make any particular judgement. If a player wanted to ignore the political aspects of the game and focus instead on experiencing the atmosphere or earning achievements it would be easy to do so.

North has ten achievements, most of which are for story progression. It is possible but fairly unlikely that the remaining achievements could be missed, in which case they could be quickly picked up later in a partial playthrough.

Summary

North is an interesting game with something special to offer despite its flaws. It presents the story of a refugee seeking asylum in a way that is open to interpretation according to the player's values and life experience. At its best it does a great job of creating a sense of unease, loneliness and confusion, immersing the player in a painful scenario that is all too easy to relate to real life. At its worst it undermines immersion with poor optimisation and a disjointed relationship between the flow of gameplay and information. As a gaming experience it will be most satisfying to those who enjoy thought-provoking titles or exploring dark worlds. However, it will also appeal to achievement hunters looking to gain an easy 1,000 Gamerscore in less than an hour.
3 / 5
Positives
  • Dark, atmospheric world
  • Good synth-pop soundtrack
  • Quick and easy achievements
Negatives
  • Poorly optimised
  • Controls can be awkward
  • Too much backtracking to read letters
  • Can't re-read letters
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately 90 minutes playing North, completing the game and unlocking all ten achievements. An Xbox One code was provided by the developer for the purpose of this review.
Lucy Wood
Written by Lucy Wood
Lucy wasted her youth in the pursuit of music, art and stories. Eventually she discovered that video games combine all three with shooting and exploding stuff and a gamer was born.