Enter Flintlock Studios Universal, and their title, Northern Regime Early Access.
The studio is a 2-man team; Alex Anderson, the Lead Designer, and Seth Boulianne, the sound composer. Now, given the fact that their competitors found success in providing Steam’s demanding Early Access communities scale and depth in Open Worlds, through impressive bundles of features, crafts, and discoveries, all aimed toward making the most of gameplay that is the blend of adventure, online play, and of course, strategy, it’s safe to say that these two ambitious folks have chosen Northern Regime to be a challenging project to see through.
The game opens with a union soldier during the Dakota War of 1862, a fascinating era of America’s Civil War that doesn’t often get discussed -- in fact, the concept of a hardcore survival game in this time frame was very appealing to me. A student of American History, I knew the Dakota states had a fairly rich heritage ridden with tribal wars and territorial conflicts, and despite the fact that I never could find evidence to support an active Confederate military presence in the region, I was to appreciate Northern Regime’s settings and was most curious to find out how Flintlock would have tackled and incorporated into its game factual elements of a conflict between the U.S. Confederate soldiers and bands of Eastern Sioux.
As such, the experience would warn of danger from all directions.
Dakotans themselves wouldn’t deny the dangerous wildlife one has to contend with to survive their land, such a Grizzly bears, which some northern schools, these modern days, allegedly still have firearms on site to fend off. Couple that with the looming threats you’d expect out of everyday life in 19th Century Rural Dakota, and of course, the dramatization assuredly brought by survival games: hunger and the bitter elements, your most immediate threats.
Northern Regime’s description offers a ‘hardcore’ survival experience, which I took to mean a realistic and rich adventure. Titles in the genre such as ‘The Long Dark’ do this very well, and this is something that we may be able to expect from Northern Regime as the early access develops.
In its current iteration, it doesn’t. Odd mechanics and sparse features detract from the experience, making “hardcore”... Nearly impossible.
If you’re going to survive in the wilderness, you need some tools as well as a fire to keep warm. In every survival game, and in reality, the first thing you do is pick up sticks whether for kindling or smaller tools. In Northern Regime the ground is littered with sticks, but you’re unable to pick them up. Then are small ones you can occasionally grab, and while rare they make for your only source of wood until you craft a hatchet or loot it off of an enemy body. The other standardized option would be to use stones.
Here the next option is surprisingly iron, which you can mine, albeit the lack of animation. A timer runs, and then the material is added to your inventory. Note that with a recent patch that functionality was removed, and you are now required to make a pickaxe to mine iron, which needs iron to craft. The pickaxe was then adjusted to use the stone to craft, but that material hasn’t been added to the game. Building a hatchet also takes 35 pieces of wood, which is again, very difficult to find.
Too early Early Access.
Even at this stage in development, not to have a jump function or animations when picking up materials is problematic. The grizzly animations seem okay from a distance, but as you get closer, it's clear that the textures are in really rough shape and the animations show the bear skating across the ground. Then when it attacks, there’s no sound, just your health going down and a small blood smear across the screen. It's no bother, though; you can nearly outrun the creature, which maxes at around 30mph, by swiftly walking backward.
Then is the menu: bare-boned and poorly implemented. When calling it on screen, part of it won’t load, and changing its settings won’t record and display your customizations.
Then are the awkward fluidity of the world environment. It takes but few minutes in-game for the rough edges to become apparent. Northern Regime has very little in the way of collision detection for large objects, such as trees, tents, and tables. On the other hand, there’s too much of it when it comes to the rocks beneath your feet. In short, you’ll be walking right through trees, but you’ll have to circumvent small stones lying on the ground.
Last but not least, are game elements I naturally want to know – first and foremost, why your character has been left all alone, to the point that his joints are frozen so stiff he can’t even bend to pick up a stick. I wouldn’t necessarily ask to be “storied” into a game, but considering that when you first launch Northern Regime, you’re presented with a screen, 'Chapter 1: The Anger Within,' I consequently expected to be transitioned into gameplay through the thread of some brief epilog, at least. The fact is, if Northern Regimes developed with a robust and guided narrative, it could have the potential for an engaging and immersive experience; that of an unknown soldier.
Flintlock Studios presents us with a fascinating and entertaining concept, one that could bring a much-welcomed spotlight to a period of American History often overlooked. Yet considering the fierce competition out there, the limited size of the studio, and more importantly, the current state of the game, Northern Regime isn’t off to a promising start. I’m rooting for the British Columbia-based studio, but it’s got a long way to go until it's ready for a full release. A significant amount of work has to be put in before Northern Regime can be considered a quality Early Access game.