Northmark show its quality in all the wrong areas
Northmark: Hour of the Wolf is one of a small group of games that work a tactical card game into a wider overarching framework of plot, blending in a few mini-games into the mix for good measure. Following in the grand tradition of the original Magic: the Gathering computer game from Microprose, these games can be extremely good. But that’s a pretty big set of boots for Northmark to fill.
You play the role of a fantasy adventurer, sucked into investigating an assassination by travelling to various locations across an overland map. But the meat of the game is the card-based combat that occurs when you encounter foes. You and the enemy have slots for up to three minions who take independent turns by having a card played on them. Most cards have one or more attack values across different elements, which are compared against the defense value of the target minion and excess taken as damage against their health. Other cards are heals or temporary buffs. This is repeated until all the minions on one side are dead.
The fights are broken up by visits to towns and other locations where you can talk to the inhabitants to further the plot or gain side quests. Not that you’ll be bothered about the plot after visiting more than a couple of these places. It’s standard fantasy boilerplate material with atrocious, adolescent writing. To add further annoyance, many of the conversations are excessively long, requiring repeated “next” taps just to build up to a feeble joke or other anti-climax. Fortunately there’s a “skip” button, too.
Some locations also allow you to buy cards which can be added to your deck. There are only twelve customisable slots available though, which limits the interest of this deck-building aspect. There’s also a relatively small pool of different card effects, with most just offering attack or defence bonuses against one or more of the elemental types. So for the most part you’ll just be ensuring your latest and most powerful acquisitions are on hand, although there is some value in looking for card power combinations.
The combat itself, which makes up the bulk of play, follows very similar lines. Depending on who you’re fighting there may or may not be a variety of powers and effects in play and this governs how interesting and how much fun it is. Sometimes it’ll just be a matter of repetitively waiting for and playing the right attack cards. Others there will be more variables in play to give you a bit to think about. A lot could have been added to the game with a greater range of card powers.
The paid version of the app unlocks more playable characters for you to try out, but as best I can see their card decks suffer from the same lack of variety that plagues the game generally. Some locations feature simple riddles which are fun the first time but won’t be once you know the answer. One of the elements seems overpowered, too. Those issues, combined with the trite plot and terrible writing, are going to put a severe cap on the replay value of the game.
One thing that did stand out as refreshing about Northmark is that it isn’t afraid to drop you in the deep end. Many times as I played I ended up squaring off against opponents who turned out to be too tough for me. You can easily save your game though, and you can quit and reload at any point if you get stuck in a tedious fight you're sure to lose. It’s easy to pick up the game and choose a different path, returning to the fight when you’re more powerful. There’s not much in terms of plot branches, but there are arenas and other adventure locations that are worth remembering for repeat visits to earn gold and experience.
Indeed presentation and interface is another area where the game shines. As a rule everything you need is no more than one touch away from your current screen, although the icons indicating places in locations you can interact with are annoyingly faint. For an indie title the artwork is excellent, rich and evocative of mystical lands in far-gone times and the world map is nicely traced and shaded.
Northmark is not a terrible game, but it’s not a great one either. For every tactically thrilling fight or interesting side quest, there’s a dull slog-fest and excruciating piece of dialogue to put up with first. The developer has the technical aspects down fine, but could have improved the experience greatly by hiring a professional writer and spending a bit more time varying and balancing the card effects.
- Lovely graphics and art, good usability, and fights are sometimes challenging and engaging.
- Trite plot and awful writing. Fights are sometimes dull and uninteresting.