Review: Spirit of the North – A Breathtaking Adventure

Do you love to explore? 2020 has been a hard year to get outside, so many people have turned to video games for a way to escape, looking for games with immersive and beautiful worlds to explore. Spirit of the North is one of these games, featuring beautiful wilderness expanses full of secrets to discover, and best of all, a cute animal (you!).

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It’s you! A very good boy!

Spirit of the North is an adventure puzzle game where you take control of a fox who awakens the spirit of the northern lights, in the form of a spirit fox, and their journey of discovery and restoration. The game has more of an implied, entirely visually-based narrative—you are solo on your journey, apart from your spirit companion, traveling silently through the remains of a ruined civilization. It released earlier this year on the PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Steam, with the Enhanced Edition releasing for the PS5 at the end of November.

I was immediately interested in this game because, conceptually, it sounded very similar to Ōkami, one of my all-time favorite games—playing as an animal with spiritual powers on a journey to restore the land. Not to say it was exactly like Ōkami—in fact, once I started playing it, I realized it was more similar to Journey, which is another of my favorite games. Spirit of the North combined my favorite elements from each of these titles to create a breathtaking and fascinating experience—the sense of sonder from exploring a desolate landscape from Journey, and getting to play as a powerful and adorable animal from Ōkami.

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Learn more about an long-forgotten civilization by uncovering and restoring ancient murals.

As soon as I started playing, the ambiance the game creates drew me in. The landscapes are beautiful and full of amazing sights and vibrant colors.  As someone whose favorite animal is a fox, of course I loved playing as a fox—especially one that glows! The music was surprisingly my least favorite part of the aesthetic experience– the game only has a few tracks, and they loop in the same order on all the levels (except for the final level). It honestly got a little repetitive while I was struggling on puzzles or confused on where to go. I wish each chapter had had its own music track or tracks associated with them, as the areas vary wildly, from blue-skied hot springs to ash-covered ruined cities. I didn’t feel like the vastly differing landscapes should have had the same music.

As you travel through the land, you have to use spirit powers to rejuvenate runestones scattered throughout. These runestones all have a variety of effects, such as raising or lowering the water level, clearing a path through rubble, or even creating geysers or portals of wind used to launch your fox to new areas. I really enjoyed that your ‘task’ throughout the story was linked to the actual gameplay—you have to power the runes, or you actually cannot progress. The runestones with their different effects form the basis of the puzzle mechanics, eventually being combined with other powers to create more involved puzzles. Powering a runestone would expend your fox’s spirit energy, which could be recharged in special flower patches. You could also take spirit energy back from a runestone, which deactivated it and its effect.  This ultimately culminated in the final level, where there were no flower patches, to restore your spirit energy, meaning you had to pick and choose when to use each runestone carefully.

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One of the runestones after being activated.

Your spirit powers become more advanced as you restore more of the land. You unlock three new powers during the story: Spirit Bark, which is a powerful cleansing power used to clear away massive areas of plague; Spirit Form, which lets you leave your body behind and progress as a weightless spirit; and Spirit Dash, a teleport-like quick dash. With these new powers come new kinds of puzzles, such as switches that only activate when a weight is on them, meaning you must use Spirit Form to leave your body behind, or platforms with long gaps between that you must Spirit Dash between. The game did a good job of introducing each new mechanic—each one was introduced in a separate chapter, and became the focus of the puzzles in the rest of the chapter after their unlock. When I was not sure how to proceed, I knew I should try the newest ability first, which taught me what each ability was capable of.

This may be a minor thing, but I actually really liked the controller mechanics Spirit of the North had. The controller light changed from orange (the default skin for the fox is a red fox, with an orangey hue) to blue (the color of the spirit glow) when you have spirit powers, which I thought was a really neat touch, on top of being a good way to easily see when your spirit powers recharge. I also found the controller vibrations to be helpful– they’d alert you to when you were near a flower or rune you could interact with-. However, there was one chapter of the game where I had to completely disable controller vibrations—In Chapter 4, as soon as you entered the ruined village, the controller would start gently shaking and would not stop. I think it was to symbolize the corruption found throughout the ruined village, but I found it completely unbearable by about the mid-point of the chapter and had to disable all vibrations in the settings for the controller itself– there was no toggle for it in the game’s options. I get what the studio was trying to do and respect their vision, but it worked better on paper than in execution.

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When you have spirit powers, your fox is covered with glowing runes. The light on your controller also glows blue as well!

Most of the achievements and unlockable content (different fox color skins) for Spirit of the North revolved around finding abandoned staves and returning them to their owners—skeletons of sages who can move on to the afterlife with their power source restored. At the end of the game, you can see all the sages you have awakened wandering around in a spirit world village, and you can even get another achievement for finding and greeting them all there, which I thought was a really cute touch that made finding the staves worth more than just an achievement.

While I enjoyed the narrative and visuals of the game, there are a few things that I thought didn’t quite work. The main thing I struggled with was the lack of save points. Save points are few and far between, and there is no autosave. If you need to stop playing, you either have to keep playing until you find another save point, leave the console on, or lose all the progress you’ve made from the last save point. As this is a puzzle game, I found myself getting frustrated at several of the timing-based puzzles and needing to step away, wanting to try again later with a clearer head, but could not without leaving the console on or losing progress. Instead, I felt like I had to force myself through the puzzles, growing more and more frustrated with each attempt. I do not think the game needs to have a manual save feature—I think that may make some of the challenges too easy—but I think save points appearing more frequently would have made for a better play experience.

The other thing I struggled the most with was that toward the end of the game, some of the bonus content staves became required to proceed without warning. Initially, I found myself picking up the staves when I came across, determined to return them. I didn’t really start to find them until Chapter 3, once I learned what kind of places they would be found in. I’d then end up carrying one around the whole level because I either couldn’t find the sage it belonged to or couldn’t figure out how to reach said sage. By the middle of about the 5th chapter, I had decided to stop picking the staves up. because I found it slightly annoying to have to put the staff down every time I needed to replenish my spirit energy or use my Spirit Bark, as they were mapped to the same button. I also thought that since I had missed so many in the first 3 chapters that it wouldn’t make a difference this late into the game to really go out of my way to try to find them all. But, then, at the end of Chapter 5, you encounter the first staff since the tutorial area of the game that is required to return, as it clears some rubble so you can proceed. Not realizing this, I had ignored the first one of these required staves (which appeared at the very end of Chapter 5), thinking it was just part of the achievement. In the game’s defense, the required staves were placed rather obviously in the way, but I had found a lot of prior staves were in plain sight too.

Missing the initial required staff cost me about an hour of progress, as I had to go back to the screen before to get the staff and bring it back, only for the game to reset all the puzzles I had solved on the latter screen. It also wasn’t apparent to me that the staff was required to clear a path—the sage it belonged to was in front of the rubble, but only at the first “tutorial” sage did returning a staff clear rubble, and never at any of more than 20 ones after. Initially, I thought I had just found another hidden area that had a sage for the achievement. I only learned that not getting the staff was my mistake after I had looked up about 3 tutorial videos for older versions and realized they all had the staff when I did not. This did teach me for the next time, and I didn’t make the same mistake again in Chapter 6. I understand that the way the game’s story is “told” means that there are no actual instructions on where to go and what to do, but I would have liked if this requirement was made just a little clearer, only because it hadn’t been used except in the very start of the game.

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Awakening one of the sages by returning his staff.

The required staff wasn’t the only time where I found it difficult to figure out where to go next, especially at the beginning and end of the game. For the most part, once you meet your spirit companion, it serves as a sort of guide and sometimes shows you what paths to take, but it only will show you once. I would have appreciated if there was a button you could press to have the spirit to show you where to go again, as sometimes I had the camera either turned the wrong way or zoomed in too close to see where the spirit had gone.

For an “Enhanced Edition” this game still had quite a few glitches. Most were just weird clipping or invisible walls or platforms associated with the rocky terrain– purely graphical errors that didn’t really affect the gameplay much, if at all. Although, at one point I did clip entirely through a wall, and was able to run around inside it. I understand that every game has its bugs and issues, and mapping the rocky terrain of the environments in this game is a difficult feat prone to some weird clipping and platforming problems, but this is the game’s re-release. I would have expected these problems to have been worked out in the months between the release of the standard and updated versions.

I did have one gameplay affecting glitch that happened a few times involving the Spirit Bark mechanic. Sometimes, when I would try to either pick up a staff or bark normally, the game would register my short O press as a long one and charge my Spirit Bark. I could not dispel the charge without using it, meaning I would lose my spirit powers and have to backtrack to a flower patch or hope one showed up later. This happened several times and also helped to hinder me in the same area as the initial required staff– as I went to pick up the forgotten staff, it instead charged my Spirit Bark and cost me my spirit powers for almost the rest of the level (I had tried to go back to the flower patch before the save point for this part of the level, but found I was blocked by an invisible wall). Since the area I lost my powers for was one that had a lot of longer, trickier jumps that would’ve been much easier with Spirit Dash, it ended up taking me even more time to get back to where I was after getting the staff.

Despite my specific grievances, I greatly enjoyed my time with Spirit of the North. However, I do think that it’s not a game for everyone—its wordless narrative means the game falls into a very specific genre, and if it’s a genre you are not used to, you may miss the themes of the entire game. If you don’t mind playing games that focus more on a journey and have a more implicit overall story, I’d definitely recommend you get this game—it’s chock full of beautiful environments that are fun to explore and unique and interesting mechanics to open up the world around you, even if it has a few glitches. Regarding the Enhanced Edition specifically, I am not sure I would pay more for it over any of the other versions (PC, Switch, or PS4), as the footage I’ve seen of the older versions looks almost identical. I definitely recommend picking up any version of this game, especially if you enjoy the exploration or puzzle aspects of video games.

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