Right off the bat, North throws a curveball at you. There is no saving or pausing. The game is built to be a short session, completed in about an hour. I admire this honest opening, and agree that the game would not have worked had it been cut up in multiple play sessions. But whether or not the content on display justifies the choice is one I find myself struggling with.
One reason North is hard to tackle head on is that the game is essentially a walking simulator. The success or failure of such games relies on the scripted moments and the journey to them. My journey to each moment wasn’t filled with wonder and awe, but rather frustration and difficulty in traversing lands devoid of life and character. At the end of these bleak roads were puzzles, which started off at a disadvantage due to the task of getting to them. Being such a short experience, the puzzle mechanics need to help sell the game, as they are the pillars of gameplay. Like everything in North, they succeed half the time, and fail the other.
Residing in end of map locals, the puzzles aren’t what you think of when you hear that word. Rather, they’re a test of ‘figuring out where to go/what to interact with and how to do so.’ The moments of actual gameplay are truly terrible, as the challenge involving map exploration almost made me want to quit. But when the puzzles culminated in context solving or were detail oriented, they became truly fascinating. Building on the concept of alienation, the puzzles that succeed do so because they express a sense of cultural isolation. It’s not a failure, but a triumph, that solving these trials requires backtracking and seeking information. The path to these moments, however, is littered with barriers that is challenging to navigate past.
The game begins with a letter written from the main character to their sister. Letters are used to both characterize the faceless protagonist you play, as well as provide clues to how to further along the plot. The letters will often provide you with information that the regular game doesn’t, helping to solve puzzles and find your way when you get lost. More impressively, they really flesh out the character in unique and interesting ways. You learn about your character, who’s immigrated from his home down South to this city in the North. He’s hoping to be accepted as a legal citizen to help his sister. To do so, he completes tasks that strip him from his individual identity, and it’s done subtly. The story does well to make your character sympathetic and build him as an interesting protagonist. Other times, it sets up interesting plot points that fall to the side and are abandoned, which is a shame because they all hold potential.
But while the letters are a strong story mechanic, their overall implementation was fumbled. The only way to view their content is to access one of the mailboxes posted around the map, and once you’ve read the letter, you can’t re-access the information. Since the game lays out vital information in the letters, no additional access to them can be crippling in your play. Still, despite this, the letter system was brilliant in it’s usage, despite the botched execution.
On the subject of failed execution stand the graphics. While low-res models didn’t help, what makes the landscape hard to look at is the colors. The surfaces are painted a flat single color in large open areas, with overlays and detailed models used close up. The lack of a cohesive artstyle makes the simple colors feel lazy, while the more detailed moments feel underdeveloped. Adding to this failure of visual design is just how dark the game is made. While I see the attempt to create a somber atmosphere, the game just come across as dark and hard to see in.
Not much is there to be seen when it comes to the citizens. While addressed in a letter, the barren world contradicts the large city feel the character talks about. Traversing the small map and seeing no other inhabitants make you feel as if you’re in a ghost town. The areas that do have NPCs in them aren’t much better. Rather than give us a mixture of monsters and creatures that were truly frightening and confusing, the same two models had appearances in clumped areas, and that was about it. The most interesting character model was a half-glowing-half-normal creature that truly looked bizarre and interesting.
There are images, models, and moments optically where the game truly shines. Several stills were used to great effect and genuinely made me feel uneasy, providing the notion that this area was completely foreign. Not only do they cause discomfort, but they promote an isolation of culture that is rarely found in games. The monsters of the world were nothing special, but the humanoid figures that existed in these disturbing segments found a way to perfectly sit in the uncanny valley.
Early into my experience with North, I sat ready to rip this game to pieces. But the further I got, the more I eased up on sharpening my knives. Buried under the insipid portions is a cool and creative concept that surprisingly was on point. But those flickers of light were muted quickly by so much dark, both observable in sight and in gameplay. As an experience, this title is truly exceptional, and has me looking out for Outlands' next title. But I am a game reviewer, and as a game, I cannot in good conscious suggest you play North, as it falls fatuigingly flat fairly fleetly.