A trip to Iceland may not be on the cards for travellers any time soon but a copy of Spirit of the North is more than a decent substitute, providing you with an excellent getaway if you can stomach some frustrating side-effects.
You play as a seemingly ordinary red fox travelling through incredibly scenic landscapes, accompanied by a spirit fox, the guardian of the Northern Lights. By working together, you explore a land in ruin, underneath a mysterious and ominous looking red streak across the sky.
As the fox, you start off alone. The spirit appears quickly into the game and swiftly forms a bond not just with the fox but with you as the player. She guides you where you need to go but sometimes shoots ahead, leaving you behind and feeling alone again. In these moments you feel a little lost and helpless even after the briefest of introductions to the spirit but continue on through the journey and it becomes clear that both the fox and the spirit are dependent on each other.
It is a testament to the excellent visual storytelling and the bond shared between fox and spirit that all this is done without any speech or even text.
Travelling through the world, you realise from the skeletons and ruins that a terrible fate has been bestowed upon it, but you can make things slightly better for those unfortunate to be caught up in whatever tragic events occurred. By finding staffs mislaid throughout the world, you can place them next to the bodies of any Shamans that you find and by doing so you can help release their spirits, so they are no longer trapped within their dead bodies.
Releasing these Shaman Spirits act as the game’s collectible, and collecting specific amounts grant different skins for the fox. These can be changed at any point in the Options menu.
As you progress, extra abilities are unlocked such as the power to collect spirit blooms from wherever you see a small group of shining blue flowers blossoming from the ground. These quickly become your main method of progression through the chapters as they are used to unlock doors and then later on become powerful enough to destroy blockages.
The journey itself is wonderful; the mechanics behind it can be a little clunky. General traversal is hampered by awkward controls and worse, some unnecessarily lengthy backtracking sections for a spirit bloom when there aren’t any in the immediate vicinity. On top of that, several times my fox avatar has become stuck on relatively flat looking sections and then even Shaman Staffs have disappeared through the floor entirely when I have had to drop them momentarily to summon a spirit bloom by barking.
Despite Spirit of the North’s shorter length, in the middle it does start to feel sluggish. Split into eight chapters – and after a very good opening – chapters four and five start to drag on. It is a combination of larger areas, slow movement and a general lack of guidance that makes these sections outstay their welcome.
Things do improve in chapter six, but this presents a different issue, at least on a Nintendo Switch Lite. This chapter takes place predominantly inside a cave and even with the brightness whacked up to full on the Switch Lite, it is still terribly difficult to see which way you need to go.
Chapter eight acts as the game’s epilogue but rewards you with a glorious moment that makes the entire journey – ups and downs – all the more worthwhile.
Whilst there is no speech, there is a wonderful soundtrack to accompany you. Soft pianos and slow pieces really help make the whole Icelandic setting feel almost ethereal. Listening to it while checking out the vistas this game provides offers a real sense of escapism.
This works well with the fact that once a chapter is completed, you can revisit it at any point using the chapter select menu, even going as far to select from which checkpoint you wish to resume from. This menu will also highlight which Shaman Spirits you have yet to awaken.
Spirit of the North on Nintendo Switch has a lot of minor grievances to contend with, but after the four-six hour journey all these are forgotten and you are left with an experience that will stick with you for a while. It’s uplifting, melancholic, calming and intriguing all at the same time. And with the option to revisit specific areas after completion, you can even replay your favourite bits and skip the more frustrating sections. Spirit of the North unfolds like a good book and deserves to be treated so: Find yourself a comfy armchair, a nice warm drink and feel yourself transported to a different world.
Release date: May 2020
Formats: Nintendo Switch (Review)
Massive thanks for the free copy: Merge