The biggest problem with Nox is not its gameplay, nor the graphics: its the unlucky release schedule. Diablo II came out in the same years, only five months later, and was also an isometric click-click-click-more-clickedy-click game, where one picks up loot and one kills monsters. That’s where the comparison ends, I think. It got a fair bit of criticism due to this unlucky comparison, which to be honest is very unfair, since the game started out as a wholly different concept: fast-paced multiplayer wizard battles. The second and third class, Conjurer and Warrior, including the singleplayer campaign, where added later. And that is remarkable: the most enjoyable part of Nox for me is playing through the singleplayer campain with all three different classes!
1. World Design
This will prove to be a difficult comparison review. To start off with, the world is very linear. It is even more linear than Dungeon Siege, since in that game it is technically possible to travel all the way back. Here, the game is divided into chapters, of which future parts are firmly shut. For instance, the game’s “Crossing Roads” is a place you visit four times. Each intersection is another chapter: mines, village of Ix, Field of Valor (crypts), northern wilderness. I do like the fact that it gives you the illusion it is connected, when in fact, it is not.
Since this is a twenty year old game, do not expect fancy dynamics such as weather effects. Although in villages, townsfolk do wander about - maybe a bit too much, to the point where it gets hilarious: hearing constant squeaking doors from people entering and leaving isn’t uncommon. The world of Nox is extremely charming, although small. Towns, wilderness, tunnels and mines all have secrets, walls are breakable, you can jump (!!), and the unique magic system makes this one of my favorite “Diablo clones” - provided it actually is one.
You are Jack, a young lad that - whoops - gets zapped into a TV (huh?) - only to come out on the other side, close to the village of Ix. The game plot luckily doesn’t take itself too seriously. It simply oozes with charm: fully voiced, amazing pixel art, and unique classes. No wait, the choice between a warrior and a wizard isn’t exactly unique. But the fact that 1/3th of the game is unique depending on the class, is.
The 2D engine is serviceable, maxing out at
30FPS with drops to
20 when things get a bit crazy, such as the attack on Castle Galava with all the fire demons. Oh, and speaking of fireballs: expect to die a lot. Some enemies are capable of one-shotting you, and they are not that uncommon. This game is a speed assessment, a dexterous test that flexes your hotkey muscles. The game map is basic but instructive, and certainly better than in Dungeon Siege.
Equipping your character does change your visuals. The fact that Jack still wears his T-shirt and sneakers you can sell (worth more than other clothes) of and/or trade for a medieval shirt says a lot. The interface is clean and intuitive, and you have your easy access spell slot at the bottom, which is scrollable with the mouse wheel. Then there’s mana, health, and the
Z hotkey to cure poison. Those poison clouds are impressive, too - as long as you don’t step into them, especially in the Swamp chapter… Enemy casters can be invisible and you’ll have to cast a TrueSight spell, which is also cool and reminds me of Baldur’s Gate’s True Sight, although I doubt it was inspired by D&D rules.
Enemies and Mobs
I’m not exactly sure what to say about what we’d call mobs in hack and slash games when looking at Nox. There are none. Well, okay, there are hordes of undead, commanded by the occasional necromancer. But this game is not designed for farming, for magic finding, and for whacking mob after mob. The ten hour long singleplayer campaign (multiply this by three, for each character) is set (not procedurally generated) and multiplayer is PvP (player versus player) - that’s it.
So, no unique, elite or whatever groups - just urchins, ogres, wolves, and undead. This is more akin to an action RPG in this respect. If you chose to play as a conjurer, you can charm enemies - provided you acquired the correct beast scroll. Later on, you can also conjure them out of thin air. Bosses feel challenging enough, although I had to resort to cheap tactics a few times, casting stun, firing off an arrow, running, and casting stun again. That said, playing this game as a warrior feels just wrong. Do yourself a favor and pick one of the two spellcasters.
In a few occasions, you’ll be accompanied by an NPC on your quest. Sadly, this only lasts for a very short time. The AI is more than competent enough, and I liked the company of a wizard on my dangerous trip trough the Dismal Swamp. If you fail to rescue these guys from their attackers, they die and you’re stuck on your own.
On your main quest to rescue everyone in Nox from the evil queen Hecubah, you’ll venture trough swamps, castles, caves, villages, fields, mines, and so forth. Every chapter looks and feels completely different. However, calling this section quests would be stretching it a bit too far. There are only a handful of sidequests, and they are completely meaningless. They feel tacked-on, as an afterthought one day before the release of the game. Yet, all NPCs have something funny and/or interesting to say, all fully voiced. Talking to guys and gals in an inn just to hear what kind of silliness they have to say kept me entertained enough.
Still, I don’t mind the lack of subquests. This is a game that keeps me entertained, that is long enough but not too long, that is varied enough but not too varied, and above all: is engaging and charming. I can’t quite explain it, you’ll have to play it in order to fully understand it.
Again, this ain’t that kind of game. The more I replay Nox, the more I cannot understand the resemblance between Nox and Diablo 2. Indeed, there are things to pick up and equip in Nox. Conjurers for instance start with a Flimsy Staff that evolves to a Stury one, a Mighty, and perhaps a Grand one, with additional modifiers such as the Mighty Staff of Force that pushes enemies back. That’s about as far as loot variation goes.
There are interesting twists in the game, though. For one, things break. First, your inventory will color yellow, next red, and next, it will simply break and you’ll be left in your undies. So, instead of selling off all unused staves as I did, try to keep a few ones as spares! Otherwise, deep inside the crypts of Valor, you will end up with a broken staff and thus no melee weapon. In more than one occasion, quivers were also scarce, and that was okay: I sometimes had to make deliberate decisions on either shooting and possibly missing an arrow or casting Ra-Ra (Meteor) with my limited mana supply that does not regenerate that fast.
Coin is in short supply: repairing equipment, buying new spellbooks to upgrade spells and beast scrolls to be able to control them as a conjurer, … I simply resorted to picking up as much crap as possible and hauling it to the next available merchant. Pro tip: when you’re overburdened, keep the bigger shields of the skeleton knights, and leave the round iron shields for what they are. I found each store to sell compelling items, but I also found secret nooks and crannies to contain them. Breaking every single wooden barrel and container there is is quite satisfying!
3. Character Progression
Nox is quite simple in this regard, even compared to Dungeon Siege. As seen in the screenshot below, there’s health, mana, strength and speed. That’s it. Furthermore, equipment can modify speed (boots of speed) and health regeneration, but there are no iconic +x skill items. That also means there is nothing to gain here for powerplayers who like to min-max their characters, as there are no points to distribute yourself.
The same holds true for skills: there are none. That said, there’s more than enough variety to be found in the spell books, and warriors do have “skills”, which are actually toned down versions of spells, categorized in green instead of blue. These spells/skills do level up for each time you can get your hands on the same manual, that’s why these magic shops are also of paramount importance. The spell Pixie Swarm for instance casts two pixies at power level one, and three at level two. To be honest, for most spells, the difference between level one and two/three does not matter.
Also, leveling will only happen nine times at most throughout the single player campaign. Most power instead comes from learning new spells and gathering new equipment, from the flimsy sword to the grand one. It is not possible to “dual class”: everything is set in stone, since the campaign is also uniquely tailored to your class, which is one of the strongest aspects of Nox.
Sound and Music
The atmosphere of Nox is sublime, and while the background music (haunted noises in the crypts, a bouncy jam in the ogre encampment, a jolly violin in the village) is certainly a nice addition, it is not one of the strongest aspects of the game. Compared to Diablo 2 (are we really doing this?), not many games match the Crypt Soundtrack.
Still, the various sound are great, especially the spell casting part. Every spell consists out of a series of hand gestures, of which each gesture is also a syllable. Mix and match and voila: a new spell. You can’t design your own, but it’s a pleasure to cast stuff just for the fun of it. Hovering over a character to initiate banter results in a “Huh?” or “Ha!” sound echoing through your speaker. It’s all part of the Nox charm.
There’s an opening and ending cinematic, done in very low quality pre-rendered things, resulting in a rather bad and goofy looking pair of movies. Luckily, the voiced narrative in between chapters is very pleasant, as are the artful progression screens as seen below. It feels like someone is reading a medieval scroll that instructs me what to do next. Again: it’s part of the charm. Contrary to Sacred, I did not have the urge to skip these.
Let’s be clear on one thing: Nox deserves more attention. It’s a bit of a shame that it got overlooked thanks to Diablo 2. Both games could work complementary - why choose one when you can play both? To me, they both serve a different purpose. And to me, Nox has far more charm than Diablo. It is what one could call a hidden gem, and it’s perfectly re-playable because all character paths are partially unique. Now, is Nox a hack and slash game? You do hack and slash a lot, but there’s no conventional loot system, no proper mobs, no farming, and not a lot of leveling.
But don’t let that stop you from discovering this amazing Westwood adventure.