Of Olden Tymes: A review of Nox Archaist

It has been a while since I’ve been asked by the editor of this blog to write review for the retro-CRPG Nox Archaist; since then, some things have happened that pushed my experience with the game into the hinterlands on my memory. A vacation in Norway, for one, a gruesome accident as well, but – which is most crucial in the context of this text – the reception, discourse (and playthrough) of Baldur’s Gate 3, which is now hailed as the resurrection of the CRPG as a cultural force. The jury is still out on that one, but I am fairly confident that whatever wave of classic roleplaying is rolling towards our shores will not look like Nox Archaist.

No, Nox Archaist wants to take us back into a time in which it was alright to demand of your audience to draw their own maps (look at my masterpiece up there!), write their own journal (look at my masterpiece at the end of this article!), and figure out which keywords to type into compact and weirdly one-sided conversations.

Cast aside ye mice, for Nox Archaist is the real 1980s-underground, even more proper than the (great) retro-offerings of Grimrock or Stagland. In fact, it was written for and on an Apple II computer („‘member Ultima when gargoyles were still evil?“) and is running on a packaged emulator if you play it on a modern machine. Apparently, the developers have written an entire book on how they managed this feat and squeezed out every inch of power out of those old machines, if you are interested.

Synths and silence

Using technology that old naturally comes with quite a few limitations. Developers have to make concessions. Cut stuff here, add workarounds there. Some things are obvious: Nox Archaist uses precious few colors, a very low resolution and minimal animations. Some less so: the game’s soundtrack just plays once for each track before it becomes silent. Something with the memory. There is a bit of lag after each input. Other things take by surprise: the sheer size of the world. Relatively complex stats. A separately sold DLC.

In the case of Nox Archaist, some concessions decidedly work better than others. The graphics are wonderful. Small hamlets, ruined castles, deep caverns and the high seas look different from each other despite mostly consisting of the same vague, mono-colored shapes. The spell-effects and attacks are minimally animated, but they feel crunchy and satisfying when they connect. The UI is surprisingly sturdy given the circumstances.

Some things, however, are plain detracting from the experience. The music is a big one. The soundtrack is wonderful, but short; since the tracks do not loop, you will play the game in silence for most of the time. After a while, I’ve begrudgingly turned on some Dungeon Synth in the background. If fits the game very well, but it is such a waste of an otherwise good OST. The lag was worse. You can work around it by letting your emulator run on about four to eight times the normal speed. Since everything in the game works turn-based, you will notice the additional speed mostly by sped up animations and quicker AI turns, as well as sped up sound-effects. But honestly, it still is a terrible solution, but the lag felt even worse. For some it is nostalgia, but for me, it was a nuisance. Sorry.

And here is the thing: both of the gripes that I have mentioned could have been entirely preventable by not insisting on programming on and for an Apple II. The developers (and fans) will wholesale reject this sentiment, and rightfully so. They care a lot about the technical side. Some of you will as well. I don’t. Some of you won’t. Your tolerance for memory- and lag-fuckery will largely depend on whether you view Nox Archaist as a product of particular technology or on the sole merits of being a role-playing-game. I concede that these merits can go well beyond technology: nostalgia is a strong driving factor, and for some that were used to immerse themselves in the silent landscapes of Britannia in the 1980s it will surely help immersion here as well.

McLuhan goes into the arcade

But this is my soapbox right now, so let me soap up my argument really quick. In may ways, supposedly obsolete media technology is anything but obsolete. In fact, while new media technology can do things that former tech couldn’t, they often also retrieve things that were lost somewhere in the process on the past, precisely because there were aspects that were – objectively – lost in translation. An example, courtesy of Marshall McLuhan, the dude who came up with many of these ideas before me: radio might have lost the written component of former media technologies such as print, but it retrieved the oral component from waaaay in the past, which was partially lost during the transition to writing. You get the idea. McLuhan is far from perfect (and there has been plenty of very warranted criticism regarding his theories) but here he was onto something.

Developers who play with obsolete technology, such as Nox Archaist’s 6502 Workshop, retrieve things that were lost in the process of more pixels, polygons, 3d-graphics, and full cinematic voice-acting à la Baldur’s Gate 3. Typically, people now think of things like the engagement of the viewer’s imagination (to make sense of the rough pixels on screen), or the advantages of reading over listening when it comes to the potential lengths and complexities of texts. You can also do things with narration that you could not do with realistic graphics: describing impossible structures, for example (Alexis Kennedy’s games Sunless Sea or Cultist Simulator do this beautifully), or heavily utilizing internal focalisation. Disco Elysium is a great example for that, although they eventually got voice-acting once their game sold its third metric ton.

For these aspects, it is important that we go back to older technologies of representation, to promote diversity in articulation, so that those particular aspects do not get lost. There is also an economic component here, but I will leave that to the ride-or-die Marxist main editor of this blog. I do struggle, however, to come up with things that mandatory lag brings to the table. Of course, the difference between ‘worth retrieving’ and ‘rightfully obsolete’ is blurry and subjective; but using old technology robs the developer of every choice. You have to eat the entire meal, instead of just picking the tasty bits. I wonder if that is worth it.

Since this will soon become an even larger part of the public conversation around RPGs – I mean, we have a juggernaut with the weight of over 100 million dollars of modern technology and manpower crushing smack into the middle of the scene – it might be worth considering that there are two sides to the retro-coin. There are things worth retrieving from the past. But using modern technologies and engines to do so allows us to leave other things buried, depending on the developer’s individual vision. Whether you feel like lag belongs into a RPG or not, should be your choice, I feel.

Wizards and warriors

Nox Archaist is, despite these gripes, a great RPG. The plot is fairly straightforward. You are part of some kingdom’s equivalent of the secret police (charming!) and have to apprehend an evil cult that questions your queen’s authority. As you might have already guessed, you really aren’t here to make prisoners. So while you slaughter yourself through a small archipelago, you recruit a bunch of people that are little more than a collection of stats and a primary motive for joining – there isn’t much more interaction with them beyond that – and solve other people’s problems, usually by brute violence against whoever causes them.

There are three paths of violence to choose from: the warrior, who invests into strength and can therefore carry larger weapons and armor due to a larger carry capacity. The thief, who shoots from the back, flanks enemies, and dies instantly when struck. And the mage, who carries the team in the latter half due to the same ability to shoot from the back-row, with the additional advantage of spells that go way beyond the abilities of your other characters. The system encourages specialization, at least for mages, since you can get the best spells only by investing all your points into intelligence. There are combinations of classes, and some players have apparently made quite effective builds with that (a bow or crossbow for example needs both strength and dexterity, while purely dexterous characters are limited to throwing weapons), but my party of specialists fared fine until the end.

Sadly, itemization is a mostly linear thing, at least as far as I could tell. Bigger weapons lead to bigger numbers that lead to more pain. Some weapons might have special abilities, but the game never bothered to communicate them to me, so I never bothered to check. In the late-game, fighting for me mostly boiled down to either summoning a bunch of archdemons while I hoped to survive the nukes going off on the battlefield or to shooting smaller enemies before they reached my frontline. It was all very simple, and I am still not sure whether this was due to me not properly understanding the tactics or due to the simple combat system. It was, however, fun enough, in large part because of the great sound-design and snappy controls.

Apart from the primary stats, trainers will train you in various skills from shooting bows to picking locks. There are not many puzzles in the game (more in the DLC, some of which even include typing out answers, which was very cool) but what was there beyond sheer combat was very engaging, interesting and just right in terms of difficulty. Sometimes I wished that the developers leaned more into the adventure-aspects of the game and less into combat encounters, but that is mostly a matter of preference, I guess.

Woods of the wyrd

The biggest highlight of the game is the open world that you will explore during your about forty hours of gameplay. It feels less British than Ultima’s Britannia, and feels slightly less medieval, mostly due to the heavy inclusion of piracy, towns that are not called Britain, and gigantic ships built to cross entire oceans. But, in the best sense of the word, it retains the distinctive quaintness of these old titles. There is a lot of cozyness to be found between old ruins in the middle of deep woods, between small hamlets in which simple people live off the land, all framed by large mountainsides with deep dark castles and towers that hide powerful magic.

There is a large underworld as well. I’ve mapped out the entire thing, and at some point realized that each dungeon converges into one large dungeon on their deeper levels. This aspect is not only very cool and innovative. It also allows you to travel beyond islands and locations by using the underground tunnels and adds a feeling of weight when you dive deeper and deeper towards the heart of the world; you are not only climbing down some cavern, but do some proper Jules Verne exploration in this game.

The menagerie of monsters leaves little to be desired as well. On your journeys, you fight barbarians and jesters, bandits and guards, dogs, orcs, witches and giants, dragons and death knights, and towards the end you hunt down some really powerful beasts as well. Some of the enemies demand you to find and notes with clues on how to wound and defeat them. Dope! Sadly, some of the balance was really out of whack. I feel like a maxed-out warrior with some of the best gear in the game should survive a bit more than one or two hits. But you’ll probably manage. I have, despite not engaging too much with min-maxing.

The writing, quests and the overarching story was okay. You could tell each twist for hours in advance, and I feel like that was the developer’s intent, but it does not make for a particularly engaging narrative experience. 6502 emulated the simple, straightforward hero-tales of way back when, which is, surprisingly, a breath of fresh air between all the subversive, morally grey tales of more recent CRPGs, but it also makes you realize why video-games developed that way. Some quests could have really needed some alternative ways of solving. There is really no excuse for having to kill some relatively friendly NPCs just to get a mandatory key. I’ve bought the walkthrough, so yes, I know that there is no other way!

The latter have, by the way, recently announced a Patreon for Nox Archaist 2. I hope that they develop further into the direction of the DLC and will definitely stay tuned for updates. And regarding using Apple II once again, because of course they do – you do you, but I wonder whether there is the possibility for a proper port next time.

A road towards the future

In the end, Nox Archaist is a great experience that more than once stumbles over its own meta-quest of being just like the old times. Not in the sense of user-friendliness, since it works easy enough, but in some aspects of sheer engagement: some concessions made due to the game’s technology very explicitly hurt the otherwise pristine atmosphere of the game, and some design-decissions my general engagement with the world, such as some design-choices and the very simple story.

But it does many more things right. I loved the puzzles, the exploration, the atmosphere of diving through deep caverns and talking to magic doors, I have loved the graphics and the general ethos, the spirit of the game itself, too nostalgic or not. I also feel like the developers are aware of some of the problems that I have mentioned, since the DLC, which was released many months after the original release, offered a new emphasis on story and a heavy focus on puzzles and unique items instead of combat. Nox Archaist is absolutely worth your time and money and I hope there is space in the future CRPG-landscape for both Larian’s and 6502’s approaches to the medium.

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