Spirit Of The North

Year: 2019
Platform: PlayStation 4
Genre: Adventure
Review Date: 6/20/20
Rating: ***

Inspired by the stunning beauty of Iceland, you begin the game as a fox who encounters a fox spirit in an ice cave. When the fox becomes critically injured, the spirit revives it and inhabits its body for the remainder of the journey. Comparisons to "Journey" (2012) are many and obvious, and it even hits the same story beats. The game is a walking simulator in the truest sense, and the lack structure and clear objectives can be frustrating. As you traverse the breathtaking landscapes, you slowly piece together a tale about the fall of Humankind, which resulted from a plague of corruption. Your destination is the source of that plague, which appears as a ribbon of red smoke in the sky that rains down like blood.

While the premise is fascinating and the setting is fantastic, the gameplay and execution are sorely disappointing. The scenery is gorgeous and is the most compelling aspect of the game, but the game is also a victim of its own expansive level design. The levels are HUGE, and the more time you spend exploring the world, the more flaws you uncover. Features are repetitive, textures become blocky up close, and texture seams become glaringly apparent at a distance. Details also pop in and out, which is a common artifact of the Unreal Engine. While the geometry does a good job of presenting a rugged and uneven landscape, your character doesn't interact with it very well, and it's never clear which objects are climbable and which aren't. Collision detection is poor, and the fox often bounces, bobbles, sinks into, or floats above the ground. While the fox's walking speed seems appropriate, it feels tediously slow considering all of the ground that you have to cover. You have the option to run, but you overexert yourself after about eight seconds and have to rest, which becomes increasingly aggravating. There's actually an option to walk slower, which I never used. I'm not even sure why it's there or what purpose it serves. While these are all minor niggles, the absolute worst part of the game is the jumping mechanics. Jumping is a constant pain, and you're never sure what you can jump on, how far you can jump, or even what direction a jump is going to take you. This alone is a deal breaker. I can handle the slow and contemplative pacing, and I'm okay with the janky graphics, but not having tight and reliable control over your character is infuriating and ruins the magic.

Since it's primarily a walking simulator and exploration game, the only peril you face is that imposed by the narrative. Some of the platforming sections are challenging simply because of the wonky controls, but I was able to circumvent some of the more frustrating puzzles by taking advantage of the wonky geometry. Collectibles are in the form of historical murals and magic staves that can be reunited with the corpses of shamans from long ago. Some of the shamans unlock other areas, which resulted in one game limiting bug for me. At the end of Chapter 5, you need to bring a staff to a shaman in order to start Chapter 6. However, the staff never showed up, and neither did the shaman. To make matters worse, when I tried to jump over the area that the shaman was supposed to be in, I got trapped in the environment and had to restart the chapter. The only way to get past this was to take a staff that was meant for another shaman to the end of the level, and then the gatekeeper showed up. I also ran into a couple other game limiting bugs where I got stuck and had to restart.

As the game reaches its emotional climax and the fox spirit is freed, you're left with the most frustrating level of all, which is The Spirit World. It's a beautiful and enormous forest that gives you no clues whatsoever about what to do. There are spirits and fox statues scattered throughout, but interacting with them leads nowhere. After about an hour of scouting the perimeter and running around in circles, I finally had to resort to a walkthrough to see where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed the do. By this point, the game simply became tedious and I wanted it to end. It was not a celebration of life by freeing my soul, but rather a purgatory that I needed to escape from.

Another aspect of the game worth mentioning is the music, which is excellent and also reminiscent of "Journey." Unfortunately, it consists of a dozen short themes that play in a continuous loop and have no contextual relevance. Fortunately, the music is pleasant and sets a wonderful mood, but listening to it endlessly repeat for the 10-15 hours it takes to play the game can become grating after a while.

Even though it's a short game, it requires an inordinate amount of patience to get through it, and it's not the calming and meditative experience I was hoping for. The nearly non-existent narrative and lack of direction can be exasperating, but I still enjoyed my time in its world. The levels are almost entirely dead space, so either tightening up the boundaries or providing more discoveries and collectibles might help. Polishing the graphics, collision detection, and controls would also make a huge difference, but I'm guessing these were budget constraints rather than technical limitations.