Bad North – Enigmatic Combat on a Bitesize Scale

Bad North – Gamescom 2017 Hands On.

I’ve been watching —the only recently named— Bad North come together over the course of the year, stumbling across developer Oskar Stålberg’s clever trajectory calculator demonstration before realising he was working on a little, technically impressive tactical/strategy project.

Special attacks, when used properly, can completely turn around the events of a wave.

I’ve lazily deployed the same tactic which enamoured me to the game (GIFS) throughout this article — that if you have the same attention span or interests as I do you’ll probably not need to read the article.

Despite following the game for the best bit of eight months, I wasn’t entirely sure what the objective of the game was, nor even the structure; simply that the game looked great. Thankfully, then, the game was on show in the Sweden Game Arena section of Gamescom last month, and I was destined to head that way anyway.

Bad Norse

It’s a tumultuous time in the world of Bad North, as an enemy faction cranks up their raiding efforts to maximum. Their goal is simple: pillage and devastate. Yes, this does mean that this is a game played purely on the defensive, and so could even be called a tower (although they are huts) defence game, of sorts, however the game’s tactical definitely transcends the normal genre offerings.

Your mission is simple, manoeuvre several squads of units around a procedurally assembled map in order to protect three huts from multiple waves of marauding invaders. As a matter of fact, the whole concept is simple, and not even deceptively so; blade warriors rush to engage, ranged units pick new targets based on context, fire goes out if left alone. Indeed, in many ways the small skirmishes within the waves play themselves out if units are left in position.

Time slows as you move characters; the temptation to simply hang on this just to watch the combat play out in slow motion.

What is not simple is the mechanics behind the game; from the projectile map which I opened this post with through to the systems behind each individual unit’s movement as their path collides with others in narrow passageways, there is an incredible amount of systems at work for a game with such a simple premise.

Indeed, each of the combatants on screen are fed with enough information from the world around them that they make snap decisions which seem more structured and feasible than those of Bad North’s long-distant cousin Total War. While Stålberg showed me the game at the Gamescom stand he talked over some of the small decisions we see in the units —some dashing excitedly, out of rank-and-file, whilst others catch their breath— elements of a morale system.

It’s far too easy to be hypnotised by those sloppy, dashing sweeps of the swordsmen, by the swaying grass, by the gliding arrows, and many games would have been happy enough with that. However the clean and minimalist look is rapidly worn away by combat — the pale grey of the map transforming to a deep red, the beaches filling with boats which’ll never sail home.

From Shore to Thor

Each of the game’s maps are generated on level selection, although adhere to a shape (and theme) defined by the level selected; this means that you’ll be required to employ similar tactics on each play, but can almost certainly not repeat them and get the same result. Varied height, different ramp placement, and additional ridges and flats are all enough that you’ll need to rethink any choke-points you have planned for the map, as well as where you’ll place your missile troops for support.

An effectively placed pikemen unit can doom enemies to a hail of arrows, or dive-bombing warriors.

The designer talked me through the decision behind the housing layout, the first is always out in the open which causes enemies to funnel towards it. Should they burn down the first hut it’s a much linear path for them through the mid and final huts, with the last (naturally) being where the player’s units start. More advanced maps have more pathways open for the raiders, and those enemies will try and avoid conflict as to maximise damage — considering where the fighting is heaviest before pushing on or regrouping.

Making a bit of an Odin

Between missions each of the player’s squads are identified by a hero unit —although sadly not shown in combat— it’s this hero unit which is levelled up as to unlock additional abilities for the squad. These upgrades come in many forms, additional troops in the squad, dive-bombing attacks, or a massive projectile to launch. I didn’t see the full extent of these, but even if there’s only half a dozen of these over the (currently) three controllable unit types then that’s more than enough, as the two mentioned abilities are easily enough to ruin an enemy unit and turn a battle around.

As it stands Bad North is an ambitious and impressive tactical game look set to deliver on everything it has teased at within the many, many wonderful GIFs of it. My personal wishlist for the game stands, simply, at more, more, more — it would be great to see this attention-to-detail and style wrangled to a much bigger scale with more units on screen, and more unit types under the player’s command.

Bad North is targeting a 2018 release on PC, consoles, and mobile devices.

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