Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Spirit of the North: Enhanced Edition

When I first heard about Spirit of the North, I was intrigued by the Iceland landscape-inspired visual style and the playable fox protagonist, which happened to line up with a couple other fox-themed games I was interested in at the time (the others being The First Tree and Endling). I didn’t play it when it came out on PS4 because there were a number of other games coming out at the time, however I was reminded about the game when the PS5 re-release, Spirit of the North: Enhanced Edition, was announced, which I eventually received as a gift. I generally enjoyed my time with it, though it’s not without problems, among them how it isn’t the best representation of what the PS5 can do.

An unknown fox wanders through a frozen tundra, making its way to an ice cave where it comes across the Spirit of the North. The game doesn’t feature any dialogue, however it does explain the backstory through visuals in Chapter 2, with names extrapolated from Trophy descriptions: The Shamans maintained peace in the land, until the land was invaded by a mysterious Plague that wiped out the Shamans. As it learns this, the fox succumbs to the effects of the Plague and seemingly passes. Following this, the Spirit of the North heals the fox by lending its power.

The bulk of the gameplay involves solving environmental puzzles with Spirit abilities to advance the story. Such abilities, which are acquired over time, include Spirit Bark, Spirit Dash and Spirit Form, which require Spirit energy to use. In addition to jumping and running, the fox also has dedicated buttons to bark and wag its tail, which can be used at stone monuments to manipulate them or charge them with Spirit energy. Spirit energy can be recharged by barking at blue flowers with Spirit Bloom, which comes in handy as Spirit Barks and monuments that require tail wagging come at the cost of your Spirit energy. While you can run and jump, the fox cannot do so on water, rather it automatically swims forward across the surface if its deep enough and you can use the stick to move faster, though Spirit Dash can be used if you have Spirit energy. This also extends to standing on water or wetlands, both of which lock the fox into walking and Spirit Dash for movement.

The fox with the power of the Spirit, who follows as a wisp.

The game’s eight Chapters themselves have varying lengths and the middle Chapters can go on for a while, however your progress in each Chapter is auto-saved upon passing through spots with dream catchers hanging nearby, tying into the spiritual themes of the game. Tying into this is an optional sidequest where you can return a staff to each of the 28 Spirit Shamans’ remains, advancing which unlocks different optional cosmetic skins for the playable fox, though I should mention there are a few instances where returning staff is required to unlock the next area. I will also note here that the Enchanced Edition includes two additional skins of its own that are exclusive to this release and unlocked at the start.

While the gameplay works well, I did run into a few hiccups. For starters, bringing up the Options Menu doesn’t pause the game, which can get annoying if you’re genuinely trying to pause without putting the game into rest or exiting to the main console menu, though the saving grace is that you don’t have any enemies to fight. In Chapter 4, there was a point where, when I fell into a hole and realized I needed Spirit energy to leave, there was no way I could see to go back and get to more Spirit Bloom, forcing me to restart from the last checkpoint. Chapter 5 is easily the longest and features some amount of misleading environment design, mainly around one area where it’s also possible to accidentally go through its puzzle out of sequence and have to start all over again. This Chapter is also where you obtain the Spirit Dash, and so one section immediately after requires you to use it to go through a launcher in order to advance. While I knew what I was supposed to do, I couldn’t get the timing right, however I did figure out a more roundabout solution in which I used Spirit Form, leaving the fox’s body behind to weigh a button down while summoning an astral projection of the fox to move through the launcher, upon which I happened to pass through a checkpoint, and so I then quit to the main menu and restarted at said checkpoint, allowing me to finally advance the game.

Without spoken words or onscreen text at any time, the narrative relies more on visuals to carry it and succeeds in this aspect. Whenever the story needs to be explained, the visual aids are detailed enough that you get a good impression of what happened. The lack of dialogue also allows the music to stand out more and, while limited, it is well done and does do its job effectively.

The environments are pretty nice to look at as well.

The physical and emotional state of the fox is shown entirely through body language, allowing the player to connect with it thanks to some very realistic fox animations. This includes small details such as the fox’s leaps and swimming matching that of a real fox, plus if you emerge from the water after swimming long enough, it will shake itself dry. Waiting long enough without any input sees the fox sitting and then sleeping, running long enough leads to the fox audibly panting and the fox will sneeze when near excessive amounts of Plague. Due to their smaller size, fox vocalizations are generally higher-pitched than other canines, however they are capable of barking, which is reflected accurately in the audio and accompanying animations.

The fox’s interactions with the environment, however, can get rather dodgy at times. When picking up a Shaman Staff, it will often just float into place in the fox’s mouth even while the fox goes through its one picking up animation and sometimes the fox’s placement in physical space can remind one of the horses in Skyrim. Other interactions are resolved by having the fox visibly float above an object, which looks ridiculous when viewed from any angle other than directly behind.

That's one way to solve collision issues.

The environment design and camera work are good at pointing you in the right direction, however it’s not perfect. There was one section of Chapter 4 that was laid out in such a way that it took me way too long to figure out my next destination and there were some parts of Chapter 5 where I needed to consult a walkthrough to make sure I was doing it right, though it should say something if even the walkthroughs I found included a lot of wandering around. Admittedly though, some lack of progression might have been on my end, as there are times where the Spirit Form ability would have helped me sooner and I didn’t think to use it for whatever reason until a walkthrough told me to.

Despite the PS5 version of the game being labeled the Enhanced Edition, I’ve observed that the game doesn’t necessarily take full advantage of the PS5’s capabilities. Aside from rumble features that can presumably be found in the PS4 version, the DualSense isn’t really utilized as well as it could have, since the controller’s immersive haptic feedback could’ve been used to great effect across different surfaces. I will also mention that despite running on PS5, there are loading screens between Chapters, though said screens are thankfully short.

While flawed, Spirit of the North: Enhanced Edition is otherwise an enjoyable, if mildly frustrating at times, puzzle game with a good presentation and some interesting ideas. If you’re curious about it, I would say it’s worth trying out, though don’t be surprised if you end up having to consult a walkthrough at any point.

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