A fine Norse adventure that may not be quite up to Odin's standards.
Northgard is a base-building strategy game set in a world of Norse mythology. It’s reminiscent of games in the 4X genre such as Civilization and Rome: Total War, but shrunk down from the empire-sized scale of those games to a more localized conquest. You start the game with a small clan of vikings who’s recently arrived in a new land, and you must stake your claim in the territory by expanding your borders and establishing the facilities needed for your clan to survive for years to come. With Norse-inspired threats such as draugr and corrupted valkyries, Northgard carves out a good niche for itself among bigger strategy games, but a few rough edges in key places keep the game from really shining.
Basic gameplay involves growing the population of your clan by increasing your available resources. You’ll need woodcutters to gather lumber so that you can construct new buildings, farmers and hunters to gather food to feed your people and expand your borders, and a host of other resources that are standard fare for 4X games. As your clan grows in size, the resources you need to simply sustain them increases in kind, so you’ll need to proactively work towards acquiring new territory to build farms, woodcutting lodges, and military camps to accommodate your growing army. There are a lot of moving parts to consider that can seem daunting for a new player, but thankfully the story mode does a great job of slowly introducing the player to everything they need to know.
One twist on the genre that I particularly liked is regular catastrophes that force you to rethink your survival plans. In addition to every in-game year ending with a winter season that drastically reduces the rate at which you gather resources, you can also be hit with disasters like a rat infestation that spoils your food supplies or an earthquake that damages your buildings. The game warns you well in advance when a disaster is going to occur, so you have ample time to prepare for the oncoming trial rather than be caught off guard. Since it’s more or less impossible to steel yourself against every potential disaster in the game, the system of random events helps prevent the player from being so prepared that all the game’s challenges are a breeze to overcome.
Despite all the good in Northgard, there is one thing that frustrates me enough to be discouraged from playing—the game’s incredibly slow pace cannot be sped up by any means. It can take forever for your units to complete autonomous actions such as building, exploring, and gathering materials, and a fairly simple mission in the story campaign can take upwards of an hour because of it. It’s fair for the base speed of the game to be on the slow side because you’ll be juggling and keeping track of a lot of different things in the late game, but with no option to speed up the action whatsoever it can be agonizing to get that far into a game. While searching online to find if any speed settings existed, I saw one fan of the game say that it was the only real-time strategy game where they had time to fold their laundry in between actions, and I cannot think of a better way to describe the pace than that.
The Switch port of Northgard holds up surprisingly well for a game so clearly intended to be played with a mouse and keyboard. The majority of the menus are mapped to a wheel that can be pulled up with the press of a button. From there, you’ll point the analog stick towards the location on the wheel of whatever you need to get to and click through the menu in an instant. I’ve never played the PC version, so I don’t know if the menu wheel design also existed on mouse and keyboard, but it feels tailor-made for a controller. That said, there’s no replacement for the tooltips you can usually get in games like this by hovering the mouse cursor over elements of the UI. Like I said, I’ve never played the PC version, so maybe they were never there to begin with, but either way it makes learning all the different elements of the game a bit harder. This could've been solved with touch screen controls like the Switch version of Civilization VI, but Northgard sadly does not feature any touch controls in portable mode.
Overall, Northgard is a wonderful strategy game despite its shortcomings. The rough edges can make it tough for newcomers to the genre to get invested, but if you're a fan of strategy games or able to tough it out through the warts until everything clicks, then you're in for a treat. The Switch is a natural fit for the 4X genre, and Northgard is a prime example of the potential that this style of strategy game can have outside the PC ecosystem.