Northgard, a strategy-builder of epic proportions.
- Developers: Shiro Games
- Publisher: Shiro Games
- Release date: Steam – March 7th, 2018,
Nintendo Switch – 26th September 2019,
PlayStation 4 – 3rd October 2019,
Xbox One – 4th October 2019
- Genre: Real-Time Strategy
- Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Steam (Windows/Mac/Linux)
- Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
I’m just going to jump straight in… playing through Northgard has whet my appetite for all things strategy-builder, and has drawn me back into this thoroughly enjoyable genre, known for its resource mining, land cultivation, market trading, structure building, and generally, the ability for players to preside over the beginnings of a functioning civilisation.
First impressions of Northgard were something along the lines of ‘Wow, there are a lot of moving parts, I have no idea what I’m doing or to which menu I need to navigate. I don’t have enough food and my Clan hates me!’
This less than inspiring start was quickly overcome by starting a new game (or three), in which a somewhat more discerning approach was taken to resource management. In addition, with the casting aside of whatever pride had existed when starting the initial play-through, the difficulty was reduced from Hard to Normal!
Moving on from the utter befuddlement encountered at the outset, it transpired that there was much to be enjoyed in steering the protagonist’s Clan through its maiden colonisation.
Graphically, the developers of Northgard have clearly not concerned themselves with character mechanics and micro-expressions; as well they shouldn’t have. Crisp graphics are not what Northgard is about, and the focus here is heavily slanted towards rich and imaginative gameplay and content.
Northgard has several gameplay options, which include a competitive multiplayer option, allowing for conquests that pit real-world players against one another in a battle for resources and colony expansion, not to mention the accumulation of lore, knowledge and fame, which serve as the ultimate social currency in determining the success or failure of would-be campaigners.
The solo options operate in much the same way, though absent of the thrill of competing with real-world friends and relatives. The solo options are Single Player and Story Mode. Single Player is great for those players that just want to get stuck in and avoid the intervening story and narrative, with the player presented with a myriad of Clans to choose from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses: boosted food supplies, cold resistance, and hunting proficiency, to name just a few. Once a selection has been made, the player must set off on their quest for dominance over the North, with all other Clans competing.
As for Story Mode, it very much does what it says on the tin. Following the obligatory navigation through difficulty settings and the like, the player is treated to an exquisite backstory to the protagonist’s one-time kingdom community, setting the scene and culminating in the ambush of the protagonist’s father and High King, along with his loyal subjects.
Bloodied, beaten and unable to fight, the main protagonist, Rig, feigns death and vows to exact vengeance on the ruthlessly murderous and bloodthirsty Clan that took from him everything that he once held dear. The protagonist is then partnered with the commander of an embattled Clan, and it is from the forging of this fortuitous alliance that the adventure truly begins.
The player must take the helm and oversee the maintenance and advancement of his adoptive Clan, ensuring that their community is kept nourished and sheltered as an initial priority. Thereafter, the player is compelled into the undertakings of hunting, foraging, trading, building, cultivating and colonising, so as to allow their Clan to advance its numbers, enhance and diversify its skill-set, and conquer foreign territories before colonising and claiming them as their own.
This necessitates a degree of forethought and careful planning in deciding both if and when to undertake certain activities, with every action you pursue coming at a cost to your supplies: cultivating land and feeding your community depleting your food, erecting buildings and keeping your community warm depleting your wood and money, and neglect of your community’s overall survival needs coming at a grave cost to its all-important happiness. Happiness depletion, in turn, hinders advancement in all other areas, and so this is best avoided at all costs.
Fortunately, the game includes a knowledge/lore meter, which increases as you progress through the game, enabling the players to acquire ancient knowledge to assist them in their colonising exploits. This results in players being able to achieve greater crop yields, heal more efficiently, resist the tyranny of the bitter winters, and various other enhancements to their abilities.
In any event, however, the player must juggle the numerous and often conflicting needs and corresponding resources such as hunger and food, cold and firewood and danger and able warriors, ensuring that they can accumulate sufficient supplies and funds to expand into new territories, whilst also maintaining adequate reserves in order to sustain their community and see them through the more arduous and resource-poor seasons recurring throughout the game’s calendar-based timeline.
This aspect gives rise to a small criticism of the gameplay, being that of a sometimes painfully slow pace, necessitated by the frequent requirement to defer further development until resources have been replenished. This can lead to a degree of stagnation and, dare I say it, boredom, albeit only ever fleeting in nature.
Generally speaking, the gameplay on offer in Northgard is highly intricate and thoroughly enjoyable, if slow-moving at times. It feels wonderfully authentic, and at risk of embellishing excessively on what is of course a strictly virtual experience, one can certainly imagine the game’s tasks and focus areas translating well to a real-life scenario in which desperate individuals band together, pool skill sets and resources, and ultimately endeavour to forge some semblance of civilisation, whether it be by way of:
- Fame: Colonise enough Tiles (Territory) and bolster your Fame to obtain the title of King
- Trade: Accumulate Wealth and Resources to become the greatest merchant in Northgard
- Wisdom: Rediscover long-forgotten knowledge and become the wisest Clan leader in Northgard
Complementing the enticing gameplay is the game’s plethora of natural hazards and sentient adversaries, ranging from the resource-draining scourge of the bitter winters, to the threat posed by wild beasts and competing Clans. If the player fails to exercise vigilance, they are liable to have their precious resources depleted and their lands decimated by wolves, bears, and any number of more terrifying and fiction-based behemoths. In addition, there is the ever-present threat of entire segments of territory being conquered and colonised by rival Clans.
It is essential – and fortunately, addictive – for the player to utilise all means at their disposal to ensure the continued advancement of their Clan, and this will see them establishing mines and training miners, stationing training camps and indoctrinating warriors, erecting scout camps and recruiting scouts, cultivating land and assigning farmers, and many, many more such strategic builds, of which there are over 22 variations.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable mode of advancement throughout the game, with only a few areas open to criticism. Firstly, the building limitations per tile of land restrict the number of buildings per colonised area to two or four, depending upon the size of the area. As a result, the various factions of your Clan can only ever grow so large.
Second, there is a distinct lack of tutorials and a corresponding excess reliance on a control / buttons menu, with the player being largely left at the mercy of trial and error and / or memorising the extensive controls menu.
Last, but not least is the annoyance caused by not being able to physically move clansmen to where they are needed, often resulting in new-builds sitting unfinished and of no use to the player until such time as a clansman happens across it and finally decides to get to work on construction.
These shortcomings are more than atoned for by the game’s many positives, most of which have been touched upon already, though it is also fair to say that Northgard benefits from audio and voice acting that is of a high quality, and well suited to the genre of the game. The viking-esque music, the gruff and stoic voice acting, the anguished yell of the Clan in response to hardship, and the metallic ringing of clashing blades all come together to constitute a solid audio package.
The game’s graphics, as alluded to earlier, would have much to be desired were this game to be centred around visuals and crisp graphical renderings. As it happens, this is simply not the case for Northgard, which more than pulls its weight to the extent necessary to offer an immersive gaming experience.
Despite the fact that the characters are absent any discernible facial expressions or gestures (other than swinging an axe or hammer), it is actually rather pleasing to see that the developers have paid homage to the series by keeping the picture based cut-scenes in favour of animate video cut-scenes. Furthermore, the landscapes and indeed, the buildings are very well finished.
The same can also be said for some of the other noteworthy visuals, such as the transition from the grassy plains, golden leaves and fertile fields representative of Spring and Summer; to the barren terrain, opaque fog and snow-laden wilds that descend with the drawing near of Autumn and Winter.
Not only is the level of detail here appreciated from a quality standpoint, but it also adds to the sense of threat and foreboding that is part and parcel of preparing for and enduring the fluctuating conditions in which the player must navigate their way to victory.
Lastly, despite the picture-based cut scenes being relatively low-tech relative to more visually focused games, the illustrations are vibrant and charming, with a notable fidelity to the settings and characters which fans of both the series and the wider genre have over the years come to know, love and expect from titles such as Northgard.
Northgard is a game packed with enticing stories, inspired buildings, diverse character roles and a whole lot more. It is a well-conceived game that carries with it demonstrable execution of the developers’ hopes for what is a fantastic end product. The gameplay is varied, intricate and challenging, whilst also being intuitive and purposeful.
The graphics, whilst average in the grand scheme, are more than adequate for an adventure/builder title such as Northgard, with the vibrant terrains and cut-scenes serving to complement the narrative that ultimately drives Northgard forward as a veritable competitor within its genre.