Science fiction is often based on real life, modern society, real world events and proceeds to warp them into something outside our own imagination. Take no better examples than George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eight-Four and Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune which carry topics that remain as relevant today as they were upon release. You don’t have to look at either very closely to draw parallels with current world events. Can Outland’s NORTH possibly achieve such a similar feat on the unsuspecting Switch audience?
In NORTH you take control of a SOUTH refugee who has just survived the great desert crossing and arrived in a great northern city, seeking refuge. You are warned from the start that you should play the entire ‘game’ in a single sitting (the first run should take you about an hour), and told you can write to your sister who is still back in your homeland in search for clues on how to correctly proceed. And that's all you will get on your departure into this cryptic experience. You are then dropped onto a dystopic city scape and are left to figure everything out for yourself.
As much as we would like to describe the plot further, doing so will only spoil the experience by giving away your objectives. You should play this as it is meant to be: with no prior knowledge of what to do next. This was a deliberate design choice to simulate the confusion of a refugee when he enters a new nation seeking asylum. You can walk and interact with a few other ‘people’ (note that neither northern or southerners are human) but as warned at the start, you will only have a clue on how to correctly proceed by interacting with the mail boxes spread around the city and writing letters to your sister. As you might have probably figured out, there won’t be any rainbows and happy celebrations during the time spent being utterly oppressed in NORTH.
After a quick glance at the finished product running on Switch one might be mistaken into thinking this is some sort of Unity engine showcase, with flat polygons and light-sources successfully used in simulating the dystopian future cityscape. We encounter some issues with the default brightness settings, with ramps and doors that are all clearly defined on the PC version all but invisible in the darkness of this version. Since there are no in-game options to change this, a little frustration might set in when you realise you are lost for the past dozen minutes because you can't spot a crucial elevator door you need to progress the plot.
The ‘game’ description points towards its ‘dark synthpop soundtrack’ and it most certainly lives up to it. You will not hear many musical themes on your oppressive journey, but the ones that play on cue certainly help along the experience. Sadly, every time the game loads a different area, the music starts fizzling which somewhat ruins the immersion, something we hope will be mended in a future update. The happy jingle that plays when you do something deemed ‘correct’ is the sole humorous (purposely ironic) touch in the whole package.
NORTH is not a video game, per se, at least not in the traditional sense. It is an interactive piece of electronic art one can choose to indulge in order to better understand the plight of refugees. As such the messages might escape those who are too young to understand the real-life parallels or those who are too old and with prejudice to care. If you like cyberpunk science fiction and don't mind experiencing simulated oppression, give this a shot. There is certainly nothing quite like it on the eShop and for the asking price and a mere moment of your time will give you modern society conundrums that will haunt you for years.
The experience is so subjective we have no choice but to leave the score for each individual to settle on their own. The biggest tragedy here is not that number on the bottom of the review, but the fact that if this ‘interactive art piece’ was released 100 years in the past or a century in the future, the lingering topics would and will surely still be completely relevant.