Bad North is one of those games that defy expectations. Simple in its elements, you'll pick up the basics within 30 seconds, start to do a bit of island-hopping, then look at the clock and realise three hours have passed. It's a stripped-back and focused RTS where a good run can build slowly and become overwhelming, or end in an instant through a silly mistake.
You play as up to four commanders on diminutive 3D maps that are often built around verticality. Left-click a commander to select, at which point the (realtime) action slows down, then right-click where you want them to go. Each commander is surrounded by eight soldiers, and as you upgrade there are three basic types of unit: melee, archers, and pikes. Nasty little viking types come in to invade your island and try to burn down the buildings, you defend it until a final wave, then gather up all the loot and sail on - away from the ever-encroaching 'Bad North' of the title.
Now, Bad North was always great. But much like FTL, one of its obvious inspirations, the more you played the more the little things started to niggle. Some tactics and upgrades felt way too effective, while others felt pointless. There was no overarching structure, so every run starts afresh, which is of course a perfectly fair way to do things, but it did make the frustration of ending a two-hour run all the more acute. You'd get bored of the same old items and the same patterns and the same opening half hour. These are issues, I stress, which only occur after you've sunk a lot of hours into the game.
Nevertheless, developer Raw Fury seems to have its own keen sense of the original's few weaknesses, because a new and free expansion for PC, titled 'Jotun', focuses on not just adding stuff but on making repeat playthroughs more interesting (Steam page). It adds a new enemy type that's particularly effective against the slightly OP pikemen, it buffs the rather weedy skull archers, there's a bunch of new items, there are checkpoints, and, best of all, you get to earn certain starting bonuses over multiple runs.
A pattern here is that it's the small, judicious tweaks that end up really refreshing Bad North. In the original the gold you earned from each island defence was split between your units, and each unit's gold was locked to being spent on that unit. Now you just get a big pot of gold and can spend it as you wish: doesn't seem like much, but it's a huge quality-of-life change.
A new enemy type is a replacement for and major variant of an existing one that was basically ninjas with shields. The original was a beefy melee enemy, but now the ninjas have lost their shield and started to dual-wield shortswords: the killer difference, literally, is that they can now leap into the midst of your units from a distance. High-level infantry can go toe-to-toe with them, and archers can annihilate them given enough time, but if they get anywhere near your pikes or archers it is a slaughter.
It is amazing how quickly these hopping sods can collapse your whole house of cards. One fairly good run was brought to an abrupt halt when a group of them weaved around my otherwise-engaged infantry and went straight for some pikemen and archers holding a choke. The archers whittled off a couple but the mass soon barrelled into my units and, as my infantry struggled to get over and help, the ninjas simply sliced and diced two entire groups and their commanders. Losing one commander is a disaster. Losing two on a single island defence is nearly always terminal.
What's great about this dual-wielding unit is that it hard-counters one of the player's most effective strategies, which is sticking pikemen in chokepoints. When you see them coming, you're forced to rearrange your army so that your infantry is engaging them and the pikes / archers are out of harm's way: when they're part of an invasion force that includes something like brutes (which demolish infantry) you have to do some serious manoeuvring or take serious damage. Any defence has to be more fluid, because you simply can’t sit there and allow them to start flanking and jumping about. In the best possible way, they’re a nightmare.
This is one of the reasons Bad North's lategame feels refreshed. The game's core element is positioning: every single island defence comes down to how well you use the terrain. So you can end up with some fairly static levels, where you basically place units, don't move them again, and watch incoming waves of vikings march into your weapons.
This can still happen, but something as simple as a unit designed to mess up fixed defensive positions gives the later viking armies a much more dynamic composition, and the potential, if you take your eye off the ball, to break through and do game-ending damage.
The other big reason I've been enjoying repeated playthroughs is the new 'meta' structure. While nowhere near as involved a system as something like Dead Cells, the Jotun expansion adds both unlockable traits and starting items. Traits are acquired over multiple playthroughs by rescuing commanders with animal flags. They’re loosely animal-themed too: a rabbit means fleet-of-foot, a faster movement trait. A bear means mountain, a giant commander. A turtle means ironskin, higher defence.
The effects of these are mostly minor unless combined effectively with upgrade paths and items. Use fleet-of-foot with a command ring and fully upgraded archers, for example, and they’ll be zooming around taking out half the invasion force before it lands. Sure-footed, reduced knockback, is a beautiful fit with pikemen (or heavy weapons, which increases your own knockback abilities). As you find commanders with these traits, you’re randomly assigned one for each of your two starting commanders in new playthroughs.
Among Jotun's many mini-tweaks is an even better mini-map, which now provides more information about enemy forces and indicates where things like permanent items can be unlocked, encouraging the odd wild adventure to a far-away island.
There are also new items, my favourite being the Philosopher's Stone which rewards extra gold per map: I picked this up early in one run, immediately upgraded it to reward three gold per island, and surfed to the credits on a sea of coins. The other new tools are the Jabena, which lets you deploy a commander twice per turn and the Holy Grail, which resurrects a dead commander (thank you lovely developers). There are also some Mines, which blow things up, but I haven't managed to find them yet.
The final and almost lavish touch on this wonderful expansion is the addition of a Very Hard mode. Bad North always had something minimalist in its style, evocative yet spare, and this was always of a piece with its brutal nature. This is a game where one wrong move can, and usually does, ruin everything. So this makes the enemies even tougher and more numerous, because what is video gaming without a touch of masochism.
Bad North is a game of great purity, a stripped-back take on the RTS that uses each of its finely-honed elements to tremendous effect. This expansion shows the same kind of clear-headed judgement.
Everything it adds or tweaks is part of an overarching goal: Jotun makes the lategame less predictable, increases your tactical options in subtle ways, and adds value to repeated playthroughs. Bad North was always a great video game but, having been refreshed and re-jigged and added-to with the benefit of hindsight, it is now a model of diminutive brilliance.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.