If the recent releases of Jotun: Valhalla Edition and The Banner Saga Trilogy have taught us anything, it’s this: the Vikings make for the most bloodthirsty of heroes. But what if the tables were turned, and it was you defending against the reaving Norsemen? The sound of a ghostly war horn roaring in the distance. Longships emerging like sea monsters from the fog. The unmistakable smell of death on the wind. That’s the task that lies ahead of you amid the many islands of Bad North, and it’s a glorious example of how a real-time strategy title can be distilled down to its core ingredients without spoiling the flavour.
Swedish developer Plausible Concept calls it ‘micro-strategy’ and it's the perfect encapsulation of a minimalist approach that covers everything from unit management to the Monument Valley-style isometric art style. You start out with a set of units (each with their own commander) and it’s your job to systematically and individually defend a group of islands from longboats filled with angry marauders. Each island is procedurally generated so every time you play you’re getting a vastly different set of challenges.
To begin with, it seems relatively simple. You can select units with the left analog stick or use Switch’s touchscreen to control them (we find a mix of the two works really well in handheld mode). Each island is divided into a series of tiles, often with multiple levels, and with Vikings potentially attacking from any angle, you’ll need to use the right analog stick, ‘RZ’ and ‘LZ’ to swing the camera and zoom accordingly. When there are only one or two boats to deal with, it’s simply a case of moving your forces to surround your incoming foes. But when you start getting more and more incoming groups at once, you’re soon thinking about how best to place and divide your own limited defences.
With a random set of houses on each respective island, you’ll need to ensure each one survives the waves of attacking reavers. If a Viking gets near they’ll chuck a torch into it, and it’ll continue to burn until all the enemies in that unit are slain. If a house burns too much, or just enough, you’ll lose some or all of the coins each one is worth. Given that you need this gold to level up your commanders in-between each island defence, preserving each one has a tangible benefit.
The problem is, if these units are wiped out in their entirety during a defence, they’ll be dead for good. So units themselves serve as both a resource as well as a means of tactical defence. You can replenish units that have been partially cut down in a previous wave by redirecting them to one of the houses, but it’ll withdraw them from the battle briefly. You can even flee, should a skirmish become too much, using one of the many abandoned boats your Viking usurpers have left behind. You can also pick up items (represented as a question mark on the game’s pre-skirmish map screen) or add new Commanders (you can use up to four at once) to your army.
That sense of micro-strategy goes deeper still. Leaving units too close to the shore could damage, and even kill, some of them with the force of a ship making landfall. Leaving unshielded units - such as archers or pikeman - too close to an incoming group of enemy archers means they're open to gross casualties. So you’ll need to level up your infantry to give them shields or upgrade your archers to use concentrated volleys. You’ll need to use elevation to your advantage as well as cover (should you have access to it), and with waves coming in all the time (and at a greater frequency at as your progress) it goes without saying that you’ll need to become seriously adept at cooking up new strategies under pressure.
This is the wonderful thing about Bad North. RTS titles can often be overwhelming, drowning you in waves of menus and subsystems that are just as likely to kill you as your fictional foes, but Plausible Concept's minimalist approach ensures it’s never an over-abundance of logistical plate-spinning that brings you down, only your inability to manoeuvre your forces accordingly and divide your funds appropriately. With items you can buy - or find - that add extra dimensions (such as doubling the size of a unit) there’s just enough depth to keep genre vets who want a casual romp entertained, and enough restraint to ensure even people that don’t like the genre will find something to adore.
A slice of Viking strategic combat right out of the heart of Scandinavia’s indie development scene, Bad North joins the likes of Element at the vanguard of a new wave of smart yet intrinsically accessible real-time strategy titles. With enough enemy variance to convince you you’re playing an interactive episode of the Vikings TV show, this endlessly entertaining sea of bitesize battles will teach you to fear - and love - the sound of the oncoming horde.