Indie gamers are generally very forgiving people. We play games for the fun of them, and we are willing to overlook many flaws for the sake of having a good time and supporting a small gaming company. However, sometimes a game comes along with too many flaws, and even an indie gamer has to look at a game with disappointment and regret. Northmark: Hour of the Wolf, by Rake In Grass, is one such game.
The plot of Northmark, billed by Rake In Grass as a role-play card game, is similar to other games in the fantasy RPG genre. Someone has attempted to assassinate the duke by shooting him with a poisoned arrow. The hero, chosen from four options, must first find an antidote to save the duke’s life. While traveling the hero hears whisperings of a greater evil rising, and he learns that the dwarves and the elves may have renewed their hostility against the humans. The hero adventures all over the world, gaining information that leads him to track down the mysterious Wolf. As he travels, the hero fights bandits, monsters, and dragons before a confrontation with the Wolf himself.
The combat system for Northmark is where the card aspect of the game comes in. As the hero ventures around he finds new cards or new places to purchase them. There are two types of cards: units and incantations. Each participant in the battle can bring up to three units that start the game in play. Units can use their own unique abilities to attack other units, heal, buff, or debuff. Once a unit has used an ability, that ability is unavailable for a few turns while it recharges. Alternatively, any unit may instead use an incantation from the player’s hand, drawn from his or her deck. When one side’s units have all been defeated, combat is over. This system is easy to learn, yet there are a some tactics to be learned. The game features nearly 200 cards, so there are various options for customization.
Combat can be fun, but there are some concerns about the overall design of the system. The game is supposed to include five different elements: basic, fire, ice, poison, and magic. As the hero levels up, the players can choose which elements to increase in either the area of attack or defense. While that level of customization may be nice, the cards themselves are not balanced. Most of incantations use the basic attack and defense, with just a few using ice, poison, and magic. Fire cards are extremely rare. Some cards refer to bonuses against demons, but after playing through the entire game once, no demons presented themselves to be fought.
One area where Northmark suffers tremendously is its atrocious writing. The game features weak dialogue lines such as “now get out of my way or you’ll be sorry” and “you’re on.” The dwarf king is named Ironbutt, and interactions between the hero and characters such as the paladins are just painful to read. One starts to wonder if Northmark was written by someone with the maturity of a fourteen year old. At one point the game completely breaks all character when the following line appears: “You hear him muttering something about indie developers reusing graphics because of their limited budgets.” It is understandable that indie games aren’t going to have the money for high-end graphics, but it is almost inexcusable to release a game with writing this awful. If Rake In Grass wants to release quality games, they need to either scrape together a small amount of money with which to pay writers, or at least find talented writers who will work for a credit line. As of the version 1.1 release there is no credited writer, leading one to possibly believe no one wanted to put their name to this literary disaster.
The other unfortunate area where Northmark doesn’t succeed is in the overall value. This game can be beaten in just a few hours, and there is no reason to go back and replay the story again. There are no forks in the plot, and each starting character has access to the same content throughout the story. There is a quick battle function, but this is very limited and not really worth playing, especially if you have already beaten the story side of the game. Simply put, the replay factor for this game is very low.
In the end, Northmark: Hour of the Wolf just isn’t worth the $15 Rake In Grass is asking for it. The combat and card collecting features can be enjoyable, but these cannot make up for the atrocious writing, banal plot line, mediocre graphics, and low replay factor. Fortunately, Rake In Grass offers a free demo of the game so you can judge the game for yourself without paying anything.