Nox is possibly one of my favourite games of all time. Needless to say, it’s a lost gem — an action-RPG accused of being “just another Diablo clone” at the time, it was made by Westwood Studios and vastly overshadowed by their more successful Command & Conquer franchise. Nox still brought its own unique flair to the table though, and the world is a worse place for having let this game slip through its fingers.
Why do I think and say this? Well…
The Way of the Warrior
The funny thing about Nox is that it’s probably a lot less of an RPG than advertised.
I mean, the campaign is so incredibly linear as to render what few statistics the game does have pretty meaningless. Character starting stats vary between the three classes (Warrior, Conjuror and Wizard), but you don’t just play the same game as either one — each gets a hand-crafted campaign, treading mostly the same plot beats but squidging the levels, enemies and equipment to suit.
The player does not get to select anything about them, either; your stats improve statically in the background as befits your chosen campaign. Indeed, with so few side quests and diversions, even experience points and therefore levelling up are basically gated by the narrative rather than player activity — there is no grinding respawned enemies to get you ahead and there is little to miss to let you fall behind.
And yet! Nox‘s hand-crafted nature means it is tight. Levels have a sense of direction and progress that is arguably far more powerful and memorable than the aimless chunks of its procedurally generated brethren. Combat remains weighty and — dare I say it? — visceral as you climb the ladder, rather than being endlessly samey as the enemies scale in power to consistently match you.
Nox does not unleash a constant flood of enemies, instead preferring a more measured approach, with plenty of tense exploration and mild environmental puzzling to punctuate the rush of combat. Enemies are placed with care into the levels, taking advantage of the unique line-of-sight system to hide behind corners, ready for the unwary trespasser to stumble into danger.
Of course, new enemies that look and feel more powerful are presented as you travel, but these remain backed by more basic opponents that are much more easily dispatched, giving you a tangible reminder of your progress in the face of new challenges. Even in later stages, however, basic enemies in greater numbers can still corner you and pack enough of a punch to warrant care. Nox is not a game that can be sleepwalked.
Since you first encounter enemies in smaller numbers and controlled circumstances, you get ample time and space to appreciate the behavioural quirks of each, and therefore to appreciate what damage they can do to you. Larger groups of enemies are not the norm until later, where they are an escalation that increases the challenge by remixing the circumstances rather than muliplying hit points to dull your own advancing capabilities.
For example, having faced a few spellcasters solo by the time you reach Castle Galava, nothing can prepare you for that cat and mouse chase of murdering your way through the entire world population of wizards — in their own home. Wizards are physically weak, so they run away and toss spells over their shoulders to stun and confuse you, but even with that it’s easy enough to track one rogue spellcaster. Five or six, however, all dashing in different directions and into rooms that may in turn contain more wizards, is a total riot. Throw mad traps and unexpected teleporters on top of that, and you have what is quite possibly one of the most tense, exciting and hilarious dungeon crawls in the history of gaming.
In turn, Nox‘s approach to items is exemplary. Because the levels are all hand crafted, items spawn in meaningful places, and you are never “rewarded” with an item your class can’t even use. There are enough variations to keep things interesting, enough items that are obviously better or worse than each other, but not so many that you spend half your time sorting the good stuff out of a massive pile of junk.
Again, here Nox does its best to hide the numbers and let your heart rather than your head lead the way — because the capabilities of an item are completely denoted by its name. Take, for example, the Mighty Titanium Breastplate of the Scorpion’s Bane:
- Mighty means it offers better defence than a Sturdy or Flimsy item
- Titanium means it will degrade more slowly because it’s made of god damn titanium, which is clearly better than steel and iron and bronze and copper
- Breastplate means it’s body armour and breastplates are cooler than chainmail tunics and leather tunics so that must be better
- Of the Scorpion’s Bane means it has a powerful poison resistance enchantment, more powerful than the Spider’s Bane or the — snort — Wasp’s Bane
Numbers are still present to power the simulation, but you don’t need to look at them — your basic real-world intuition means you can know at a glance if an item is worth considering.
Though one of my (perhaps controversial) favourite elements has to be equipment degradation. Items become damaged with use, disintegrating completely if they go too long without repair. Some dungeons take you a long way without a shop to fix your things, so you may not be able to keep using your favourite long sword for too long — you might have to swap down to a short sword, or worse, use that awkward battle axe you just found. No longer is there a single decision about what to upgrade, but you must also worry about what to keep in reserve.
The early levels keep you dipping in and out of civilisation in short enough bursts to get you twitchy, but ultimately keep your kit in good repair. However, it becomes truly terrifying when you head towards the finale — and have to forge on alone save for a few nomadic merchants cowering in dark holes. This is masterful escalation of challenge, not just throwing more enemies with bigger sacks of hit points the further you go, but adding new dimensions of challenge by stretching your resources to breaking point on top of the moment to moment battles.
You know, for all you’re just clicking on things until they die, Nox manages to feel very physical about it. There are numbers and there is equipment management, but the numbers are kept light and hidden, so that conscious mathemagical wrangling doesn’t drag you away from the fiction — of being a hero on a quest to save the land.
With a spring in its step and a gleam in its eye, Nox is a devilishly well-built game that still shines despite its age. It’s a tragedy that this game is so lost, and that we’ll never see sequels to refine it further, but hopefully with my words here, and my terrible skills on show in the video, I’ve encouraged you to track it down and give it a go.