Spirit of the North: Enhanced Edition Review

December 14, 2020
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A puzzle platformer with a focus on environmental storytelling, the mysteries of Spirit of the North begin immediately. Where was I? Why was I here? And what was the significance of playing as a Fox? Alas, very little of that was explained throughout the course of my journey through this desolate and occasionally beautiful world.

It turns out that the snow-covered setting is Iceland — a fact I learned from the game’s summary online and nowhere else — and, somehow, I had allied myself with the spirit world to cure this land of the unseen calamity that had blighted it. Progressing through the world, solving puzzles and going as fast as my little fox legs could carry me, fragments of the history of this world were uncovered as I went. 

Having been rescued from the brink by a spirit guide (also a fox) and bestowed with magical powers, I could now explore the land over eight different but straightforward chapters. 

Impressive and captivating in sparse moments, Spirit of the North lacks the pull of other games with the same kind of minimalist narrative. Alas, the illusion that this is a beautifully rendered frost-bitten world quickly fades away. Texture pop in, stiff animations, and our four-legged hero clipping into the environment are just three things I noticed within minutes of exploring the world in front of me. As I progressed, this only got worse with animations failing to blend into one another and seemingly impressive visual feats like snow deformation found to be far more uniform and angular when they came under scrutiny.

Talk about a glow up.

I wasn’t expecting Spirit of the North to be a graphical powerhouse by any means but, this being the ‘Enhanced Edition’ of the game, it did very little to take advantage of the power of the PlayStation 5. The game’s landscapes can appear beautiful at first, but on closer inspection they just don’t hold up. It can look good in motion too but, whilst environments can often be sped through, stopping to explore only serves to highlight more of the game’s glaring issues. There is some nice work done with light and shadows, particularly given that there’s plenty of spiritual glowing going on, but to put such a thing on a podium when the fundamentals are lacking seems trivial.

Similarly disappointing, although to a lesser degree, is a lack of implementation of the DualSense controller. Now, I’m not knocking the game too much for this. After all, it’s early days yet and it’s easy to give Infuse Studio the benefit of the doubt and say they didn’t have time. Still, it’s unfortunate. There are moments here — trampling through snow, sliding on sheets of ice, getting stuck in tar — that would have felt much better had the tech been implemented. 

One area where Spirit of the North does shine, however, is its soundtrack. A beautiful orchestral score follows the player throughout the game and never gets old. The soothing twinkle of piano complemented calmer moments, gently asking me to take in my surroundings and slow down the pace. However, it also wasn’t scared of ramping things up when called upon or stirring up emotions when the story called for it. One of the game’s few narrative devices, it did a really good job of guiding me through each area and complementing each moment. 

No really, what does the fox say?

Aside from the soundtrack, the story is borne from the environment itself. Whether that's a forgotten ruin, the remains of former inhabitants, or an image carved into a rock. It’s all very minimalist and whilst I managed to piece together that something catastrophic had happened, my place in the world and a lot of the reason I was restoring parts of it felt unexplained to the point of disinterest. The first time I reunited a fallen Shaman with his staff felt meaningful. Unfortunately, every optional reunion after that felt the same until I began to simply ignore them. 

It’s often said that it’s better to show than tell, but Spirit of the North does very little of either. Ultimately, there’s just not enough substance for the game to hold your attention for its six-plus hour runtime. Its puzzles are elementary, rendering the majority of the game entirely linear, exploration feels optional at best and an unrewarding afterthought at worst. Rearming Shamans with their tools is one of a few things that divert attention from the game’s critical path. Should you choose to undertake these literal fetch quests there is some pay off towards the end of the game, although it’s not very substantial. Exploration will grant you more knowledge of the world, allowing for a version of what has happened and the connection to the spirit world to be pieced together. However, this lore is so segmented and similar that I never really grasped what had happened for sure and there was very little incentive outside of sheer curiosity for me to find out. Perhaps time may have been better spent highlighting what was key for the audience to see and keeping each area more focussed.

The empty world may add to the sense of loneliness and the game’s imposing atmosphere, but it's also entirely unnecessary. Spirit of the North ultimately outstayed its welcome very quickly, which made the end of the game all the more frustrating. With our journey looking complete, the game presents its most open environment yet — a large forest. 

“I’m blue daba dee daba die…”

The confusion I felt at the opening of the game returned. However rather than being fleeting, this time it seemed to be the driving force behind this late-game level. Lacking any proper landmarks or environmental signposting and with everything bathed in a turquoise hue, the objective is simply to escape.  Where previously the gameplay had amounted to little more than some light puzzle solving and collecting upgrades to augment your fox’s spirit powers — an ear-shattering bark, the ability to phase through objects and a mid-air dash — this chapter throws all that out of the window.

And so my time with Spirit of the North ended in anger, frustration, and a feeling like I’d wasted my time. Had it not been so long, so buggy, and so uninteresting for long stretches, that feeling of misspent time would likely have not piled on top of what is otherwise a pretty mediocre puzzle platformer.

Spirit of the North: Enhanced Edition seems to want the best of both worlds. A mystery needing to be solved with relaxing gameplay and a cute — and he is very cute — fox at the centre. At the same time, there appears to be a desire for a beautiful, vast and open environment that is begging to be explored for hours. The resulting game is neither of those things and underneath the facade of an enigmatic puzzle platformer steeped in Nordic folklore is actually an unremarkable linear game with basic puzzles and a rudderless, characterless story with an ire-inducing conclusion.

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Spirit of the North: Enhanced Edition is a game trying so hard to replicate and better its peers that it loses its way. From the story and lore of the world, to the puzzle solving and even the visuals, everything about it feels held back and the little it does well isn’t enough to justify its lengthy playtime.
Ant Barlow

Started with the PlayStation, now I'm here... with a PlayStation. Once skipped school to play the Metal Gear Solid demo repeatedly. I love stories big and small. Trophy hunter. Recent VR convert. Probably a hipster.