It might be biased of me, but I don’t typically associate the viking aesthetic with cleanliness. Warhorns, braided bears, sweat, muscle and flagons of ale? Yes! But sharp, clean lines and a soft, welcoming tones? No. But Bad North, Raw Fury’s surprise, real-time tactics game released earlier this week, is a elegant, polished, almost frictionless experience, presented in a simple interface and with muted, pleasing colors. It’s by far the prettiest viking game I’ve ever payed.
It’s also ridiculously easy to slip into, as I mentioned on the podcast today. Its tutorial is effortless, introducing its real-time tactics puzzles with grace. You have a sparse-but-pleasing low-poly island to defend, and a couple of groups of units to do so. You select a unit with the right trigger, select which tile on the map to send it to, specifically to counter invading enemies as they arrive on tiny ships, and viola, you’re playing Bad North.
There’s much more depth as you go on, of course: You’ll need to decide how to upgrade your units and commanders, with coins you earn from protecting your tiny island villages. Each campaign can last hours as you go from island to island, battle to battle, and there’s a whiff of the roguelike about it: lose all your commanders, and it’s game over.
There are special units (archers, pikesmen, etc.) which all operate differently. Melee hordes are best for confronting the enemy head-on, while archers can take potshots while the boats are still coming in. And the topography of the maps get more complicated as you journey through the campaign, simple, 12-ish tile globs of land giving way to multi-tiered lands with mountains, cliffs, and secret bays and arches that enemy ships might try to sneak into. I’ve put in a few hours across a couple of campaigns by this point, and I suspect there’s much more to the game than even this appreciable branching complexity. But I love that, within a few minutes of downloading the game, I was comfortably commanding my units and keeping my little lands safe.
The tidiness of the interface and smoothness of the onboarding go a long way to make the experience smooth and responsive. Bad North feels wonderful to play, and it needs to, because once the complexity ramps up at all, the pace becomes furious. Tiny invading ships come by in wave after wave, starting to attack opposite angles of your island at once by only the fifth battle or so. You need to be smart about your resources and quick on your feet, tactically speaking.
The only breather you get is right before a battle, when you’re allowed to look at your island and examine its weak points. Once things start, there’s no real respite—waves of enemy boats will start coming in, and you need to defend each position on the fly. Ordering your troops around doesn’t stop time, it only slows it down, so sending your little defenders to a bad position will be costly. And commanders die permanently, so if a little legion eats it during battle, that’s it.
The strategy layer happens in between battles, where you decide which units to upgrade or outfit, and which islands to take on. Do you level up your archers or melee fighters first, or keep them on par with one another? Do you equip an ability that lets you rain death down on the enemy, or hold out and earn a few more coins and just go for better units overall? The decisions never felt overwhelming, and allowed for enough customization to keep things interesting throughout my playtime.
It takes a lot for a game—especially a tactics game—to make me look up from my almost-700-hours of playtime in Into the Breach, and Bad North probably won’t replace Subset Games’ mecha masterpiece in my mind. But it is a fresh and extremely pleasant approach to real-time tactics puzzles, and indeed, a much prettier Viking game than I ever expected to play. In my five hours playing, I haven’t hit any rough edges or wild difficulty spikes. Nothing gets in the way: Bad North is just a clean, airy experience with enough hooks to keep me invested, even when the mechs and bugs of Into the Breach kept calling back.