Bad North is an oddity, as it's quite a niche game wearing a casual game's clothing. It's a rogue-like real-time strategy game, but don't let that scare you off -- it takes a minimalist approach, throwing out a lot of the fiddly stuff associated with the genre in its pursuit of purity. The result is an extremely lean experience that finds an interesting balance between speaking to both veterans and novices of tactical titles.
The main way it achieves this is by stripping everything unnecessary away. All you really need to know is that vikings are invading your tiny settlements, and as they approach the coastline, you must defend the islands by strategically positioning up to four groups of soldiers. You're given a wide view of each isometric island to keep an eye out for ships emerging from the fog. Then it's simply a case of selecting a unit and telling it where to stand, and they'll fight the vikings automatically once they're in range.
It starts off easily, but the difficulty soon ramps up as you head further east on the map. Successfully defending an island means not only defeating the viking threat, but also protecting its buildings that grant you a monetary reward. At the end of a battle, any gold you've earned can be divvied out to any of the commanders who took part, and you can then upgrade them in a few ways. Initially you'll need to upgrade a basic set of troops to become one of three specialised classes -- infantry, pikemen, or archers. Infantry units are your basic soldiers, armed with swords as well as shields to defend against enemy arrow fire. Pikemen are very effective at protecting a specific area, but can't attack while on the move. Archers of course offer ranged support, but are vulnerable to close quarters combat.
From there, classes can be upgraded further to make them stronger and more effective, and you can also invest in special abilities or items you can find on some islands. You won't ever have enough money to go around, so figuring out who and what to put it towards becomes part of the strategy, and it only gets more difficult. As you travel further along the map, you'll see the flags of new commanders you can potentially add to your ranks. Once you have a larger number of commanders and various items to utilise, it becomes a juggling act of where to invest money. Do you risk taking weaker units into the fray in order to start building them up, or do you rely on your stronger teams knowing they'll stand a better chance?
There are a couple of other things to think about before you decide, too. The islands, commanders, and item drops are procedurally generated, making each run of the campaign unique. Flat islands are easier to read but are much harder to defend than ones with high cliffs, and because vikings are just as likely to begin torching houses as attacking your men, you'll also need to consider the layout of buildings when thinking about unit placement. Handily, you can preview any level before you deploy your army, as well as get a bird's eye view from the map screen, so you'll know what you're in for before you start.
As mentioned, gameplay boils down to selecting a unit with the shoulder buttons and then selecting a square on which to stand. Positioning is key -- pikemen are best placed at choke points, archers should be on high ground, and infantry can be moved around a little more to meet incoming boats. It's incredibly easy to get to grips with, but this is a game that likes to keep you near the brink in terms of difficulty, especially after the half way point. New enemy types are introduced, numbers begin to increase, and vikings start to attack islands from multiple angles, keeping you on your toes as you scramble to meet their forces with yours. It's a simple game to control, but it's deceptively complex, and you'll need to adapt on the fly if you're to stand a chance.
It can all quickly spiral out of control if you get caught out. Sometimes, enemies will run away from your troops, but you'll need to manually chase them down, which can be a frustrating hiccup in your plans. Units can be sent to recover in houses if their numbers are dwindling, but it takes time, and this can easily trip you up if you're not careful. Commanders who die are lost forever, and if you lose your cool, things can quickly escalate, leaving you with very few options.
It can be an unforgiving game, but Bad North is somehow quite a serene experience. This is a combination of the simplistic controls and the gorgeous presentation, which mixes hand drawn sprites with muted 3D environments and an atmospheric soundtrack. It runs smoothly at 60 frames-per-second most of the time, but there are some bugs that can occasionally hamper things. Hopefully the developer can squash these in subsequent patches, as some of them will even force a restart.
Bad North succeeds in making real time strategy accessible to everyone with easy to grasp controls and a straightforward set of tactical choices. However, some may be put off by the difficulty of the latter half, and with just one mode of play at launch, it's a pretty light package. Aside from the occasional bug, the game runs very well, and the miniature battles make for a compelling experience. If you're looking for a streamlined strategy title you can play in your downtime, Bad North is an imperfect but solid solution.