Publisher: Sometimes You
Release Date: 6 March 2018
Price: $2.99 / £2.69
Reviewed by Phil Myth
North is a peculiar piece of software, and one that's difficult to review in the traditional sense. The game, if you can call it that, isn't really designed to be a game per-se at all. Rather, it attempts to depict the unease felt by asylum seekers arriving in strange new lands, albeit through a sci-fi, steampunk aesthetic.
You play as a peculiar alien dude who has fled the ravages of your homeland in search of safety and a better life in the big city up north. You have an apartment and a job, and must set about meeting the various requirements in order to gain asylum. It's an unusual premise for a video game, but it should be commended for tackling such heavy subject material head on.
Please read the letter
As you wander through the city, you'll come across the various areas where you can demonstrate your eligibility for asylum. Each time you encounter something significant, a letter pops up that you can then mail back to your sister. With each letter you send, some backstory is filled in, you learn more about your characters thoughts and emotions as they acclimatise to their new environment. Plus, the game gives you hints as to what else you need to do in order to proceed. It's a fairly cleverly implemented way of giving you a bigger picture of what's going on, and where you need to head next.
Unfortunately, the tasks you have to complete are spectacularly simple. There's no real challenge to any of the puzzles you have to solve, and those that do have you stumped at first are explained away immediately in the letters to your sister. There's no sense of satisfaction in figuring something out, as the game basically just gives you the answer.
Moving around the city can be somewhat of a chore too. Your character doesn't walk particularly quickly, and the whole thing is so dark it's difficult to see what is and what isn't a corridor or doorway at times. One area in particular had me messing around with my TV's settings for 10 minutes to try and bring a platform I knew had to be there into view.
Uneasey Does It
As well as being dark, everything looks incredibly uninteresting. There are some minor visual clues at times to give you a hint at places that may be of importance, but by and large it's bleak and basic. As a result, it can often be difficult to get your bearings, even in a world that isn't all that big. This does however, help add to the uneasiness of the entire thing. Coupled with a pretty cool yet dark, synth-pop soundtrack, you certainly feel somewhat on edge from the beginning of the game, right through to the end.
This feeling is clearly what North is setting out to achieve above all else. It really wants the player to experience that sense of fear and bewilderment that refugees in foreign lands must feel. However, accomplishing it through poor level design, alien-like characters and dark music, feels like a cheap way to do so. I didn't feel uneasy because I was a foreigner, or I wasn't sure what it was I had to do, it was just because the policemen were massive trash blobs and the soundtrack was throwing industrial diminished chords at me.
Likewise, the way the game tries to take a jab at the hoops asylum seekers have to go through - or at the people who want asylum seekers to jump through more hoops - is similarly clumsy and heavy handed. One mini-game for example saw me having to prove I was gay and thus was legitimately on the run in fear of my life. This was the first and only time my character's sexuality was brought up, and wasn't mentioned in any of the other correspondence that discussed why I'd fled my homeland.
In trying to fight a battle on two fronts, the game confuses itself. It wishes to present your character's new surroundings as hostile and unwelcoming whilst at the same time suggesting that being there is entirely necessary. Unfortunately it undermines this, by hinting at one point that your homeland isn't all that bad after all.
As the game itself points out at the beginning, North is an hour-long, continuous experience that pitches itself more as an artsy social commentary piece than a game. Unfortunately, it undermines it's goals through a combination of heavy-handedness, shoddy visuals, and cheap emotional manipulation achieved through simplistic means. A worthy attempt, with some success, but ultimately the game falls short of it's noble and lofty ambitions.
Pros & Cons
+ Impressive soundtrack
+ Interesting themes
- Bland visuals
- Uninteresting gameplay
- Undermines it's own objectives