There’s something about a game that can take you on a rousing, ever-moving and succinct journey in the space of a single day that makes it truly memorable. Games like Journey, Inside and Vane have done it so well in the past. Spirit of the North, from developer Infuse Studio, might not have the polish and tightly-honed design of the indie greats, but it’s just as memorable and full of heart.
Spirit of the North’s completely wordless tale follows a red fox, who finds a connection with an ancient ‘spirit’ fox that takes them on a journey through a vast land inspired by Iceland and Nordic folklore. There are hints in the environment and throughout the game at what might have been – a civilisation lost to a deadly red mist, a mythical fox with powers from the heavens themselves – but it’s all kept intentionally vague, as these types of meditative indie experiences are wont to do. For the most part, your only real goal is to keep pushing forward, helped along by a glowing wisp and the borrowed powers of your ethereal fox friend to navigate all manner of environments and help them eventually ascend to the stars.
Most closely described as part walking simulator and part puzzle-platformer, your time as the spry, red fox is mostly spent using a suite of cool spirit powers to get from A to B, across frozen mountains, rocky meadows and ruined cities. Upon joining paths (and bodies) with the spirit fox, the red fox gains the ability to draw power from spirit blooms and use it to do things like activate ancient monoliths, dash through the air, destroy plagued branches and even separate into a spiritual form to slip through obstacles. The puzzles and light platforming on offer are all fun, despite some awkward jumping physics, especially the more clever conundrums reserved for awakening sleeping human spirits. Some of the places the fox goes are sprawling, open areas, but the game does a pretty good job of using smart visual cues to stop players from getting too lost.
That said, while I can appreciate the variety in colour palettes throughout the game, it has a tendency to over-commit to a look in some chapters. Searing reds, muted blues and crushing darkness completely define certain areas and can make it needlessly difficult to navigate (mostly when searching for secrets). Aside from the sore points though, Spirit of the North is often a stunningly beautiful game to behold. The rolling plains leading up to and out of the ruined city in particular are breathtaking, featuring some shockingly photorealistic texture work and striking vistas with huge draw distances. I can’t count the number of screenshots I took while playing. The fox itself is rendered and animated wonderfully – so convincingly in fact that my cat, Bernie, became obsessed with it. The whole thing looks sharp and runs butter-smooth too, which is great.
Unfortunately, there are also times where it all falls apart. Spirit of the North looks great, but it’s not the most polished product. It’s quite easy to get stuck in bits of the environment, especially when prodding boundaries while hunting down secrets, and the fox is sometimes pretty wonky to control. The soundtrack, while hauntingly evocative and mournful in all the right ways, is played pretty much constantly throughout the entire game, meaning it’s repeated heavily. Used more sparingly to punctuate important moments, it would’ve been much more effective. I also experienced a near-game breaking bug in which the fox would fall through the scenery during the final sequence, resulting in my being stuck there. I had to reload my game quite a few times before it finally stopped happening – lucky, because I’d almost given up.
Spirit of the North is a lovely game with an adorable, furry protagonist. The gorgeous, sprawling locations are packed with detail and feature some nice puzzles and exploration, and the whole journey is paced wonderfully. This is the perfect chillout game to get stuck into over a day or a weekend, especially if the idea of playing as fox gets you excited. Wonky controls and a lack of polish prevent it from reaching the upper echelon of indie adventures, though.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher