Simple strategy and brutality make weird bedfellows in this roguelike RTS.
The simplicity of Bad North’s brutal, minimalist take on the real-time strategy game is glorious. As someone who has often dabbled but never adored the more complex entries in the genre, the straightforward, no-nonsense design of Raw Fury and Plausible Concept’s chill little game is refreshing. That element also contributes to the game’s failings, as the austere mechanics seem to doom your roguelike runs as often as they click. Even if the late stages of Bad North can be infuriating, the relaxing tone and slack vibe help make the repetitive, oft frustrating structure more endearing even if it doesn’t save the whole game.
The strategy elements are clear and clever. Commanders and their troops can be moved on a grid with ease, either by buttons or the touchscreen and they all auto-attack when an enemy is in range. Each group can be upgraded to be attack-heavy infantry, archers, or pike-wielding defenders, and paths beyond bestow more power or special abilities. Nothing is super complex, letting you focus a lot more on placement and lightweight strategy. The slower pace of the sailing troops coming to the island you have to defend makes for a weirdly calming feel, especially early on.
I briefly touched on it but it should be clarified: Bad North is a roguelike - not a roguelite. Each new campaign starts with a fresh randomly generated pair of commanders that travel through generated islands felling foes, finding new friends, and discovering helpful items. This all ends when all of your commanders die. Nothing carries over aside from your own experience. I generally prefer games like this that have some sort of carryover from run to run, but the structure didn’t drain on me here as much as I thought it would. While the cruel hand of fate that leads to your party’s death is mildly incongruous with the laidback style, each run has a nice arc to it.
My problems spin out of the fact that once things start to go south in your campaign, you’re basically screwed. Each commander and their troop can be upgraded by coins accumulated by protecting houses during each battle. That’s good when you’re winning battles, but bad when you start taking heavy losses and your commanders die or have to retreat. When that starts happening, you’re almost better off restarting then because the lack of ability to upgrade at this point means you’re boned. This does emphasize making sure you get your upgrade paths and builds right early on in the campaign, because you have to be prepared for the back half’s onslaught and savagery.
Bad North is a stiff challenge, very much so in Hard mode and still really challenging in Normal. It is rewarding when you make your way through maps efficiently and smartly, and gets exhilarating when you just make it out by the skin of your teeth. The failures will come, for sure, and it isn’t that they’re unfair, it’s that they occasionally veer into punishing in an unfun manner. Let’s say you enter a battle with four commanders (the maximum you can bring in), two of which were your starting pair so they’re pretty well upgraded, but the other two are newer to your squad so they’re not as deeply upgraded. One of those well-built commanders falls and your reward for finishing the map gives you a fraction of your regular reward. Now you’re down one of your best and you have little recourse to build up other units since with a weakened roster, earning a well-paying reward is less likely. And if that second starting commander gets defeated? Might as well just jump into the ocean and end it early then.
Thankfully, Bad North’s other elements are strong enough to get past that unforgiving nature, but just barely. In a way, I started to enjoy it more when I treated my playthroughs more like a puzzle game than a strategy game. I was trying to keep my game going as long as possible, not necessarily expecting victory or a massively high score; just to see if I could beat my personal best and have a fun time in the process. And despite some frustrating moments, I did enjoy myself a lot.
Bad North is, broadly speaking, a hard game to recommend even if I came out the other side enjoying it. The style and thoughtful minimalist reworking of the real-time strategy game is exemplary, but the unrelenting back half of the roguelike adventure can sour a good time. I can wholeheartedly recommend Bad North if you fall into either of these camps: someone who’s into a novel RTS twist on the good old-fashioned hard-as-hell roguelike or someone who can chill out to a brutal yet serene RTS that has some rough edges.