Title: Spirit of the North | Developer: Infuse Studio | Publisher: Merge Games | Initial Release: 26th November 2020
While new console launches are often about a handful of highly anticipated AAA titles from huge development studios, they also welcome some little gems from smaller independent teams, and making it's way to PS5 this week is the Enhanced Edition of Infuse Studio's debut title, Spirit of the North. Created by a core team of just 2 people, the game is a beautiful adventure and this latest version sees the 2019 original from PS4 and Nintendo Switch brought right up to date with remastered textures, improved water, enhanced lighting, and full 4K resolution rendered at 60 fps. A title like this is simply not about technical specifications though, and should be enjoyed as the artistic expression that it is intended to be.
snowy mountains, underground caverns and interesting rock formations...
Comparable to something you may have come to expect from thatgamecompany, Spirit of the North: Enhanced Edition is a gorgeous and relaxing game of exploration that sees you play as a rather cute fox as he roams across a series of Icelandic landscapes. Deliberately free from any dialogue or written narrative, the Nordic folklore story is told purely though discovery and is set to tranquil piano music that evokes a feeling of the 1982 animated classic, The Snowman, with hints of Gary Jules' cover of Mad World. At times, it feels great just to sit and listen...
Game play mostly revolves around solving environmental puzzles that gradually grow in complexity as your mortal fox makes a connection to the spirit world and uncovers the mystery of a lost civilisation. There may not be quite enough depth to keep players thinking for too long, but the solutions are rewarding enough to add a sense of satisfaction as you clear each area. The game is not without its flaws though, mostly concerning the occasionally skittish controls that can make things such as correctly jumping to a platform quite unpredictable at times, but this is a title with an abundance of charm and one that makes the inclusion of a photo mode all the more welcome.
Read on to find out if the tools are perfect to capture the artistic style of this spiritual journey, or if they get lost in the ether...
Key Photo Mode Features:
Beautiful art style
Collection of fox skins
Highlight bloom & flare effects
on paper at least, the camera controls are quite sensible...
Controls & Implementation:
The photo mode is never far away in Spirit of the North with a quick press of down on the D-pad jumping straight into it at any time outside of a cinematic cut scene. In keeping with the game's narrative-free design, the photo mode is presented with a pleasing UI that relies on graphical representations of each feature and non-numerical sliders for each setting while also including a helpful thirds grid, albeit one that is ever-so-slightly off-centre. The exception to the graphical design is perhaps the heavy-handed control legends that come complete with darkening vignette across the top and bottom of the screen; it would be nice to see these fade away after a few moments for a cleaner view of the underlying image. Of course, the whole photo mode UI can be hidden by pressing △ to take the final shot, but it is unfortunately not possible to adjust any of the settings in this unobstructed view.
A big question for any photo mode is always "how does the camera handle?", and on paper at least, the camera controls here are quite sensible with lateral truck & dolly on the LS, pan & tilt on the RS, vertical crane via L1 / R1 and lens zoon on the L2 / R2 triggers. There is an issue though. The camera pan, i.e. the side-to-side "look" direction, operates with an inverted x-axis meaning that the left / right inputs on the stick are reversed on-screen. While this may be manageable in a third-person game camera view, it makes little to no sense at all in the first-person view of the photo mode camera, to the extent that I do wonder whether this is an unintentional bug, especially given that the state of inversion does not change with the game's x-axis options.
This is not to say that it limits functionality as such, it simply adds frustration to the composition of each shot and is something that I, and I suspect many others, cannot really get used to and probably shouldn't have to.
having one without the other significantly limits its use...
Overcome that niggle though, and the 180° centre-axis roll found in the UI, and the generous camera bounding sphere along with it's amusing "Too Far!" warning triangle, mean that achieving a variety of compositions is no problem. An aperture adjustment setting also applies a depth of field effect that actually renders a satisfying defocus as well as an elegant bokeh on specular light sources. It is however, let down in spectacular fashion by a complete lack of focus adjustment.
Depth of field and focus distance are so intrinsically linked that having one without the other significantly limits its use. In this case, the point of focus is essentially locked at a set distance from the camera, meaning that at any given zoom length, you must always maintain the same distance between the camera and subject for them to be in focus when a shallow depth of field is applied. This not only nullifies the use of depth of field but also naturally restricts the range of composition too.
The problem can be overcome to some extent by moving the aperture slider to the left to increase the field depth, but this obviously comes at the cost of no longer isolating foreground subjects from the background. Sacrificing depth of field for the sake of composition and focus is a huge disadvantage, but that lack of focal adjustment still has one extra sting in its tail. Move the camera too close to a subject, such as the ever-alluring fox, and it will be beyond the range of acceptable focus, even at the lowest depth of field setting. Such a shame then, that the only real way to get a close shot of that almost hand-painted fur is with a post-capture crop.
The rest of the UI options are thankfully more versatile and include the ability to swap between any unlocked fox skins without leaving the photo mode, plus a small selection of optical effects which can be combined effectively to take advantage of the available light sources.
Aside from a glitch in the slider that sees a dead-zone occur with each directional change and limits mid-range precision, something akin to mechanical backlash in engineering terms, the brightness setting can easily achieve an over or under exposed image in most scenes. An applied vignette is similarly effective, ranging from none at all to a strong darkening over most of the image with one simple adjustment bar, while the final option enables you to greatly enhance the game's glowing highlights.
the vivid luminescence of the folklore spirits that are linked to the Northern Lights...
It's hard to know exactly what to call the feature seeing as there are no given names, but I would say that it is a combination of bloom and lens flare. Bloom adding a diffuse glow that also softens the image in a recreation of the way that particularly bright light sources bleed into neighbouring pixels on a digital camera sensor; and lens flare simulating light scattering artefacts caused by reflections within the lens.
Experimenting with these options can result in significant variation in the resulting image, although it is unfortunate that there are no other colour filters or toning options to take the creative scope further. The photo mode-lite approach actually works for Spirit of the North though, but it would undoubtedly benefit from a little more attention to iron out the few issues and include the essentials needed to take advantage of what is already there.
Spirit of the North: Enhanced Edition is all about the art style when it comes to generating the inspiration to capture that next photo mode shot. Your furry fox companion has certainly been lovingly crafted, and it actually makes a nice change to have a creature like this as the starring role rather than just a lower quality world inhabitant. That dense red coat begs to be touched, the tail wags on demand, and some endearing animations such as a drying shake after a swim, or curling up to go to sleep when left idle will all add a sense of character to the subject.
Should the classic colour not be quite what you are looking for then the 9 unlockable skins, including the Enhanced Edition exclusive black marble and champagne colours, will help to add some variation to your star subject. With no other meaningful cast of characters though, there are only so many shots to be taken of a single fox and the next obvious subject will likely be the environments. Rightly so, as the Nordic landscapes are invitingly beautiful and include snowy mountains, underground caverns and interesting rock formations, all with a very apparent influence from Icelandic terrain meaning that black sand, geothermal vents and blue lagoon-style pools are often at hand to make up a world that is rich in detail.
By the very nature of the game though, there can be a feeling of isolation as you continue a solitary journey through forgotten lands. Although this can be a potential source of artistic expression in itself, it is something that may be uninspiring for some people during the game's slow early pace. Push on into the story though, and you will be rewarded with more mysterious locations, ancient structures being overrun by a malevolent force, and the vivid luminescence of the folklore spirits that are linked to the Northern Lights. Indeed, the lights in this game can be excellent at times, and the world will throw up some pleasingly intricate details such as elaborate snowflakes that will do just enough to invite experimentation with the admittedly limited photo mode tools.
What does the fox say?
Spirit of the North is a beautiful experience that is a credit to the tiny team behind it. The limitations do show through, but not enough to spoil the 8 - 10 hour story. The minimalistic implementation of the photo mode is actually befitting of the style and direction of the game itself, almost making it a perfect place for casual photographers to get some feel-good shots, or for a new virtual photographer to learn some techniques. Unorthodox controls and the odd missing essential make that harder than it should be, but with a little bit more work (primarily on adding focus adjustment), this could be a photo mode that is just as charming as its subject.
[ Disclosure: Spirit of the North: Enhanced Edition reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a digital copy provided by Merge Games ]
Full Feature Set:
Photo Mode Access: D-pad Down
Camera Movement: Free (bounding sphere)
Fox Skin: 9 unlockable & hide fox
Roll: -90° to +90°
Aperture: Non-numerical slider
Brightness: Non-numerical slider
Bloom / Flare: Non-numerical slider
Vignette: Non-numerical slider