Real-time strategy games and consoles typically don’t go well together. The genre is all about managing a lot of different jobs very quickly, and, typically, the best way to do that is with a mouse and keyboard. But Bad North, which launched last month, goes against this conventional wisdom. It pares back the genre to its bare essentials, creating something that’s streamlined and approachable instead of overwhelming. It’s the rare RTS that works well with a controller. “We’ve made a conscious effort to resist adding a lot of complexity to the game,” says Oskar Stålberg, one half of Bad North developer Plausible Concept.
The first thing you’ll notice about Bad North — or maybe the second, after its cute and clean visuals — is that it takes place at a small and very manageable scale. The goal of each level is to defend a small island from invading Vikings. Each island has a handful of houses, and the intruders come in waves, their tiny boats filled with angry soldiers. You guide a small number of units — at the beginning, you only have two — each led by a particular commander. As the Viking forces come in, you need to make sure your units are in the right place to stop them so they don’t burn down the houses.
The complexity ratchets up from there; you’ll gain new commanders as you rescue islands and unlock skills and items to customize your forces. Eventually, you’ll have teams of archers and melee units fighting on increasingly challenging battlefields. The game gets hard, but it never gets unwieldy. Bad North features a simple control scheme that includes a slow-down effect when you move units, giving you more time during heated battles. It’s also procedurally generated, so things are slightly different each time you play.
Part of the reason that Bad North feels so minimalistic is that it was originally conceived as a mobile title. This meant that the developers needed to craft a control scheme that worked on a touchscreen, and levels that fit snugly on a smartphone’s display. Eventually, they set their sights on the Nintendo Switch, which meant they had to build gamepad controls. With that done, it only made sense to release on other consoles as well. Bad North is currently available on the Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4, with both mobile and PC versions also on the way. It feels particularly at home on the Switch, where you can utilize both control schemes and experience battles on both large and small screens.
Keeping the game so streamlined meant ignoring feedback from some players. “Hardcore strategy players tend to want a lot of things that don’t really fit with this kind of game,” says Plausible Concept’s Richard Meredith. For one thing, the game doesn’t have typical health bars that show you the status of each unit. Instead, as commanders fight, their forces are steadily whittled down, so you can see their strength by the number of soldiers still alive. “You’re looking at bars and numbers instead of the game,” Stålberg says of the decision. “We want to keep the player focused on what’s going on on the battlefield.” Other players have requested things like multiplayer, which the developers believe run counter to the small-scale experience they’re trying to create. “Those are things we resisted because we believe in the game that we have,” Meredith says.
One area they do want to change, though, is the difficulty. Bad North will soon be getting an update that includes some balance tweaks, as well as a new easy mode. While the game starts out fairly simple and intuitive, there are dramatic difficulty spikes; the team puts this down to playtesting the early stages of the game much more than the later islands. “We want to make it easier and more forgiving,” says Meridith, “so people who aren’t here for that high-end challenge can still play through.” After that, they might have actually made an RTS game that anyone can play.