Bad North: a Jam-Packed RTS Voyage
A little over a year after its release on nearly every other platform, Bad North: Jotun Edition arrives on mobile. At $4.99, this game offers a lot of content. Jotunn Edition is the games largest patch and acts somewhat like an expansion update to the game. Unlike other platforms, iOS and Android users do not need to purchase the update, as it comes for free with a game purchase. This is an insane amount of content for its price point. Almost nothing is lost from the original versions, aside from control schemes, and you’re getting it at nearly a third of the price.
Bad North acts like both an RTS as well as a rougelite. You control up to four commanders in a battle, each commander effectively acting as a group of soldiers based on their class. Defending houses from invaders arriving by boat, you simply touch a commander to send them and their unit toward a location on the island. You fight waves until the enemies cease appearing, and you receive money when the round ends depending on how many houses survived (and their condition). Bad North’s simplicity makes getting into the game no hassle at all, even if you aren’t an avid RTS fan. When the game gets going, rest assured that it is frantic, fast-paced and remarkably fun for anyone who likes a challenge.
Bad North’s Engaging RPG Elements
It’s simple, and that’s part of its charm. The cell-shaded graphics are pleasing to the eye and decorated with subtle bloom effects to make the style pop. The controls are limited to swiping (to control the camera) and tapping soldiers to move them from place to place. But it’s the progression toward the endgame that makes Bad North truly memorable.
As you move from island to island, you begin to collect more commanders. The initial two you choose are essentially the same—they’re blank-slate starting classes with no special abilities or traits. While the game features no traditional leveling system, players can use money to upgrade their commander’s classes as well as to buy active abilities or other items to use during battle or elsewhere.
There are only three classes: Archers, the ranged unit, Infantry, who are armored, fight with swords and can block with shields, and Pikes, spear-wielding soldiers who can only attack while stationary. With their unique playstyles and synergies, the classes don’t feel too few. For example, in some of the earlier levels I found myself waiting for my enemies at the edge of the islands rather than fortifying myself on the mainland. This was because I would place my Infantry in front of my Archers and be able to knock most enemies off their boats while shielding their incoming arrows.
Choice, Commander Abilities and Variety
Bad North’s progression takes place on a map of the game world stylized into a sea-chart. You begin on an island and evacuate citizens from an oncoming raid of Viking enemies. Progression works in some ways like a 2D Mario game in that once you complete the first island you unlock the ability to play the second. After the first few islands, however, the map does not force you to play linearly. Branching paths open, leaving you to decide which path you want to make along your journey.
Plan carefully, as the Vikings chasing you will prevent you from accessing islands on a turn-based system. Before you amass a large battalion of commanders, you are forced to pass a turn after each island encounter. This restores your commanders to rested health, allowing you to use them again in battle—understandably at the cost of limiting your ability to backtrack and complete all islands.
Commanders and RPG Elements
This is all a large part of the fun. Islands are marked by the type of enemies on them, what items they unlock upon completion (if any) and which commanders are currently stationed there. Naturally, these commanders are yours to control when playing their island. If you keep them alive, they are yours to command for the rest of your playthrough. This collectathon element was not something I was expecting while going into the game. Regardless, it came as a welcomes surprise.
Each commander comes with an ability. All of these are beneficial and typically passive. Once you unlock that commander they are added to your current roster. You can see their kills and other stats from the menu including on what island you recruited them. This is an unnecessary but thoughtful inclusion, allowing players to scrutinize which commanders are performing well. It’s also simply enjoyable to scroll through your past conquests before initiating a new battle.
Additionally, you unlock the ability to start a new game as them and with their ability (no more blank-slate classes). This is a nice addition that allows you to rerun the game with more power from the start, amplifying your ability to try and complete all islands. Likewise, it’s awesome to see Plausible Concept find a way to make the first run feel grueling without limiting players’ ability to begin a new run feeling more accomplished from the start.
Rewarding and Continuously Challenging
Bad North is a more than capable RTS. It feels punishing in a way that amplifies the player’s victories. Losing a unit is heartbreaking and, while there is an option to replay an island or undo a commander death, it feels like adequate punishment for botched tactics. It’s satisfying. I enjoy loading up an island and fearing the angles from which my enemy might break my defenses.
The pace of the gameplay slows down to somewhere around 1/5th of its normal speed when clicking a unit and choosing where to put them. This is nice padding without feeling like too much handholding. What’s more, the mechanic sufficiently makes up for the inherent shortcoming of playing an RTS with swipe controls. The enemies are still approaching, even if more sluggishly, and the difference between regular and slowed time feels cinematic and tense. Likewise, this gives you ample time to make the right decisions before an enemy is on your shores.
One of the more interesting out of battle mechanics is how the map blocks off old islands and areas as you progress. After battle, your commanders are worn out. In order to use them again, you must move to the next turn, as the game calls it. Moving to the next turn also allows the enemy fleet (marked by a dotted line across the map) to encroach closer on your location. Anything behind this line is inaccessible, meaning it’s important to plan out which islands you want to visit ahead of time. Additionally, once a player amasses around eight or so commanders, it becomes viable to visit two islands with two unique squads before passing the turn.
All That and More
It’s worth reiterating that this version costs almost one third that of the PC or console versions. It comes with all the updates and content added to the game since its 2018 release, making it feel truly massive for its price-point. This allows for a variety of modifications, difficulty settings and useful quality of life mechanics. Some of these, like adding checkpoints on some of the islands further along in the campaign, are optional crutches. There was never a time where I was forced to use a mechanic that felt untrue to the rougelite or hardcore RTS genre. I didn’t have to make it easy on myself but the option was there. There is so much jampacked in this game that it keeps reminding me how well-spent my money was.
Whether you are prioritizing it above other games or opting to play it waiting in line at the store, Bad North delivers as a core mobile game. The battles on each island are episodic. They can be played in bursts of two to three minutes. At the same time, progress builds on itself. The results of each battle will carry (or haunt) you into the endgame.
There’s a cheery charm to Bad North amid all the blood and swordplay. The voiceless, grunting warriors and their intentionally unattractive portraits are silly but exude so much intention and creativity. It’s clear a lot of care went into making this game and it results in a polished and challenging experience. I hope to see more from this studio in the future – and if we’re lucky, maybe another update!
It is Hardcore?
Bad North: Jotunn Edition offers hours of content to be explored for both casual and hardcore players alike. It’s challenging and, as an RTS rougelike, no two runs are ever the same.