The Steam Survival Festival may be over for this year, but I am still having a great time playing some of the amazing survival games I found during the festival. Last week, I was trying to rebuild society in the excellent Surviving the Aftermath game. And now I’m just trying to keep warm in the early access survival simulation Northern Lights.
Northern Lights, like many of the games I found during the festival, is still in early access. And at GiN, we don’t score games that are still in early access. So, this review will take a hard look at the game and comment on some of the good and bad things that it does, but we won’t give it an official score because so much can change before a game officially launches. That said, Northern Lights is completely playable right now, having been in development for about two years according to its Steam page.
The game is set in the arctic, somewhere in northern Siberia, so your main enemy is going to be the freezing temperatures. This also means that comparisons will have to be made to another game which has been a longtime favorite of mine, The Long Dark, which also features winter survival. I do love The Long Dark even though the developers are slow as molasses in a blizzard at releasing new episodes to the story part of their game. We did get a new episode this year, but the last one before that was in 2019, and the game has been out since 2015. Check out my review of the original game’s first episode from eight years ago. I even recorded two Let’s Plays with The Long Dark. Admittedly, The Long Dark is the best cold weather survival title out right now, but the development process has been so stagnant that it’s no wonder someone else wants to take a shot at that snowy crown.
Northern Lights presents a really interesting world to explore. In a lot of ways, the world of Northern Lights seems more realistic than the one from The Long Dark. It’s filled with places that you would probably find in an aging Soviet province including hunting cabins, weather stations, old military bases and other manmade places as well as natural wonders like frozen lakes, caves and mountains. There is a story mode that assigns you objectives as you wander the frozen wasteland and also a pure survival mode where you just explore and try to survive.
Graphically, Northern Lights is on par with The Long Dark even though it uses a slightly different style. The Long Dark has cartoon-like graphics while Northern Lights tries to be more realistic in its depiction of a frozen world. Both work as they portray the feeling of endless winter quite well. Which looks better to a player may come down to personal choice and which style they prefer. For me, I thought that Northern Lights exteriors looked better, but the insides of its structures looked a bit generic at this point in its development.
One area where Northern Lights totally beats The Long Dark is how it allows and even encourages the player to explore its snowy world. For one, you can actually jump, just like in real life. This seemingly minor ability gives players the power to fully explore the world of Northern Lights. You are not held back by a three-inch lip of land around a pond or a tree root blocking a path you want to explore as you are in The Long Dark. Just like in real life, you can hop over small obstacles and are not fully anchored to the ground. This also gives developer MadGoat Studio the ability to craft a much more realistic world to explore in Northern Lights because the player can get almost anywhere they can see within reason. However, you can’t abuse the power of the jump in Northern Lights because doing so might cause a sprain or a laceration. This keeps the game from becoming “Skyrim in Siberia” with players power jumping up the sides of mountains.
Northern Lights even has the ability to traverse the terrain in a vehicle. In story mode, you can find a snowmobile fairly early in the adventure which really opens up the map and allows you to travel to distant parts of the world more quickly. And it has a fairly detailed map (which shows your location on it) that also greatly helps with exploration. You can find interesting places on the map by using your binoculars to scout ahead, which also makes getting to high ground a good strategy because you can look around and get a feel for what is nearby, at least in favorable weather conditions. Of course, running into new locations also adds them to your map, and you can also find pieces of the map scattered around the world. Northern Lights does a great job of presenting players with a huge world and then keeps tempting and enticing them to further explore it.
Crafting is a key component in the game, and you have a large notebook with recipes written in it that fills up more as you play and learn new things. You use the book when starting to build something. For example, if you want to start a fire, which is a recipe you begin the game with, the book says to gather eight sticks. Once you do that, you can push the “Craft This” button to make a blueprint appear in the world at your feet. You then place sticks into the blueprint until you have a proper base for a fire. The game then asks you for tinder and an ignition source. So, you add something like pine sap or an old bird’s nest you have collected, and then you’ll beat some rocks together to toss sparks into it. And pretty soon you’ll have a little fire that you can then maintain with larger logs, or to use for cooking and warmth.
As you learn about the various plants and fungi that you find, your crafting book also expands. You can even use the book to make weapons like knives, spears and a bow, although there are modern weapons scattered around for the taking in a few places as well. The weapons are mostly used to hunt animals and to protect yourself from their attacks. You can set how aggressive the animals are in the options menu, so the world of Northern Lights can be as deadly or as peaceful as you desire. Right now, combat is a little bit clunky, but it works, and players can quickly become skilled at hunting as a means to survive.
The game keeps track of your hunger, thirst and cold levels, but it shows the player this using a smartwatch interface. So, you constantly have to bring up your watch and then flip over to the hunger, thirst and temperature settings tab, which is not the default that comes up each time. It would be nice if we could place those bars on the HUD for convenience while playing, or at least have the option to make the watch display what you want each time you look at it.
There is a mysterious story in Northern Lights where the entire landscape has been abandoned. And there are dead people scattered around as well (be sure to loot them to aid in your survival). You will have to try and figure out what happened. This is not unlike a similar story in The Long Dark. Most people don’t play games like this for their deep story, but it’s nice that most of them have some kind of plot to pull things together.
While Northern Lights is fun to play, and seems to be coming along nicely, it’s clear that it has a ways to go before release. For example, the clothing system is a little bizarre, as is inventory management. For clothing, you can only wear one piece of clothing on each body part, so one jacket and one pair of pants, and one hat and one pair of gloves. Worn items degrade over time, but you don’t have the ability to repair them. Instead, when you find a better item, you simply swap it out, leaving your old one behind. And in a very bizarre move, you are restricted from carrying any clothes in your bag, so if you find a good jacket but like the one you are currently wearing, you can’t take the new one along as a backup for later (or layer them together), which seems really odd in a winter survival simulation.
The inventory management system is also odd, stacking items in groups of five and not making it easy to carry what you want or need. I understand the weight concerns but having to move things around in your pack is a mini game that we don’t need in a survival title.
If given a bit more polish, Northern Lights could become the next great winter survival title. It’s got all of the elements in place to achieve that, but just needs a bit more work. Hopefully, the developer can simplify inventory management and come up with a better clothing section. Both of those are areas where The Long Dark has long since perfected things. Also, combat in Northern Lights could be streamlined, and the voice acting is pretty bad in that it lacks any kind of emotional inflection to match the situation, which surprisingly pulls players right out of the story every time the narrator comments on something, which is quite a lot.
Northern Lights is currently on version .9, which suggests that it’s close to release at this point. And that feels about right. Despite some flaws, I had a great time exploring the world of Northern Lights and can’t wait to dive into the finished product once MadGoat puts the finishing touches in place for their snowy and deadly wonderland.