NORTH, we’re told before the experience has even started, is “rather short” and has been created with the hope that it is played continuously in one session. It’s clear that these admissions are to warn those that are to likely feel shortchanged once you reach the ending. But, after the dark synth-pop soundtrack kicks in and the story starts to unravel, it’s clear that we’re in for an experience that’s unlike any other that you will have had on Nintendo Switch so far.
That’s because NORTH deals with a contemporary refugee crisis, casting you as a man who has traveled north to seek asylum in a sprawling, foreign megacity. We learn more about his experiences reading letters that he has addressed to his sister, which, early on, cover the unforgiving heat that he had to endure in the desert and the difficulties that he faces in overcoming the language barrier.
It feels like an alienating experience at first. But then, that’s the point. Developer Outlands has looked to replicate the sensory overload that happens when you find yourself in a new country for the first time. Luckily for many of us, that’s simply when we travel abroad on holiday. But for refugees, more often than not they find themselves in situations where they must flee their homes – fearing for their own safety.
NORTH is all about discovery, in being explorative by design. You can walk into the Church of the Watching Eye where everyone is, as the name suggests, blindly worshipping an all-seeing eye. There are drug bottles that your roommate is taking. Hutt-like creatures linger in a nearby elevator. There’s a radio that you can interact with. Your character can even die working in the local mine.
These interactions don’t immediately make sense but all serve a purpose, in giving your character something to write to his sister about and, in turn, more letters for you to read. This not only helps you come to understand more about how he feels in his current situation but also offer pointers on how to progress. We hear stories about the protests, hunger, and disease happening where he came from, or how his roommate is taking pills to control her dreams to manipulate the doctors. But, we’re also told to be spotted by every surveillance camera, or that the character must prove that he can work in the local factory to access the upper levels of the city.
This lends the player some direction to pursue, but NORTH can still feel needlessly obtuse. It could be argued that the sense of feeling lost and confused matches the tale that it wishes to tell, but, ultimately, it serves to pad out an experience that will take most under an hour to complete. The lack of clear signposting will lead many to turn to an online guide, drastically reducing that time.
NORTH carries an important message that it wants to impart, but whether it manages to successfully convey it to the player is debatable. The cyberpunk atmosphere helps it to stand apart from other games on the Nintendo eShop. But, with the developer having exerted more effort to create unpredictable and trippy scenes, you soon come to the realization that it is reading the letters sent from brother to sister that beat at the heart of the experience. In comparison, everything else feels meaningless.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Sometimes You