Saturday, 2 January 2021

[BEYONDE] Nox Archaist, the Hottest Apple ][ Game of 2020/2021

Nox Archaist
A little known but useful Internet fact: Ultima fans and their money are quickly separated. Yes, Gentle Reader, YOU too can make good money selling more Ultima to people who were once into Ultima (most likely back in the 1980s), and now want more Ultima (most likely in the style of the 1980s). That is: in its day, the Ultima CRPG series had elicited so many positive feelings, and built such a fanatically loyal audience that even today, thirty-something years after the heyday of the series, and more than twenty after the days the Ultima Dragons (an overactive fan group who seemed to run half the late 90s Internet), pitching an Ultima project to the Kickstarter audience is sure to start a stampede. The fans will pay, and they have deep pockets – so make sure to open up those “name a Pirate/Barkeep/Lord after yourself” reward tiers, and design a stretch goal where Lord British and Iolo will personally deliver your boxed copy, and sing Stones right in your living room.

Indeed, Yours Truly (although a Johnny-come-lately, and not an Ultima Dragon) has spent generously on various Ultima-inspired Kickstarters. There was Unknown Realm for the PC and Commodore-64, which, three years after its proposed date of delivery, increasingly looks like either a very unsuccessful game development project, or a very successful scam. There is Skald: Against the Black Priory, which has released multiple increasingly impressive demos, and seems to be late but firmly on track. There was Underworld Ascendant, a game… no, come to think of it, that one did not exist, and I did not foolishly waste $100 on a boxed copy that never even shipped in any form people were promised. Yes: too many failures can harden a man’s heart, and make him wary of funding Yet Another Ultima-Knockoff Kickstarter. Thus, I missed out on Nox Archaist, which promised all the usual things these projects tend to promise (a new Ultima homage game! an endorsement by Lord British! pixels! a game box! a thick manual on real PAPER! a CLOTH MAP! some useless renfaire gizmo related to the game story!), and then I forgot all about it. But Nox Archaist came out just as promised, game box and hand-sealed letter and all – and you can still buy a post-Kickstarter version, along with the T-shirt and the spiral-bound notepad. (Or you can buy an inexpensive digital version if you make your saving throw vs. Temptation. Go on, I will wait.)

The following review is the result of around 8-10 hours of play, encompassing the “first act” of a highly open-ended and obviously much larger game – certainly not the whole picture, but a reasonably wide one.

For a hundred dollars, you also get a dongle

If you are asking yourself, “Did he really write ‘Apple ][?’” or “Isn’t that something very old?”, the answer is “yes”. This game was developed for an early 1980s computer system, and although it was done with a lot of hindsight, and pushes the system’s capabilities beyond the limits possible in 1983-1985, it is not just a game with a vaguely chic retro aesthetic – it is a real approximation of a major, no-expenses-spared Apple ][ title. On your PC, it will run on an emulator (no special computer wizardry required), but if you are so inclined, you can make a disk image on a handful of Apple ][ floppy disks, and play it like it was really meant to be played.

Shipwrecked in CGAland
To say Nox Archaist has “crude” graphics, or that its speaker-based beeps and boops (lovingly emulated on your sound card, running in a high-end Windows 10 environment) is to miss the point. Nox Archaist has varied and fairly sophisticated graphics for 1984, with sprites to simulate your character swinging his (or her, or xir – yes, there is an “other” gender, and weirdly enough, that’s not woke posturing, but a loving homage to Ultima III: Exodus) sword, or sitting in a chair, or swimming in shallow water, or sinking into quicksand. This is the best simple tile-based graphics can offer with its weird colour artefacts and reliance on basic symbols to carry its meaning. Modern games depict; old games symbolise; and this lost art is new again in Nox Archaist. From simple props come surprisingly meaningful and distinct places – the crude hovels of a wayside village, the throne room of a castle, or the depths of the Mythical Underworld. In fact, the game even features bits of modulated speech, something which would only come to Ultima with Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992). This is, if anything, a game way before its time.

On the trail of the orcs
Behind the archaic fa├žade runs a remarkably complex game. It has a rather intricate user interface with very Ultima-like quirks – you still e(X)it your horse to dismount, (I)gnite a torch to illuminate your surroundings, and execute a series of Tabs and number keys to bring up inventory and character sheets – but it is not really hard to learn, and quickly becomes second nature while allowing a fairly good level of environmental interaction. The charm of the early Ultimas often comes from layering a dozen small “tricks” on a simple basic system of movement, fighting, and conversing with NPCs, and using them to build a rich world and a complicated game. Nox Archaist has this stuff in spades – lockpicking, jumping over obstacles with horses, engaging in ship-to-ship combat with cannons or boarding action, day/night cycles for NPCs, line-of-sight vision (and the cover of nighttime/underground darkness) for your party, excavating rubble with a pickaxe, falling into quicksand, and all these individually tiny little things – make for a rich and fascinating game environment.

***

NAME! JOB! BYE! NAME! JOB! BYE!
At its core, Nox Archaist is a game of investigation. Sent by Queen Issa to investigate a mysterious cult that has taken foothold over a cluster of islands, captured by your enemies and imprisoned in a ship’s brig, but saved in a shipwreck, you will have to uncover a way to an unseen and powerful enemy while building a powerful and well-equipped adventuring party on the side. Your first clues will lead to a small town, then an increasingly open world crisscrossed by clues and leads. This is Ultima in its best sense: talking to NPCs, you hit on capitalised KEYWORDS, which lead to other places and people you will find in a different corner of the world.

There is a “quality-of-life” feature in the form of a simple quest journal, but to untangle the leads in Nox Archaist, you will have to take notes in a real notebook, and spend time poring over your player map (this is missing a whole lot of locations you will gradually discover, or get pointed to). Perhaps you will have to journey to Castle Suurtheld and consult Nox Yvviar on CULT activities. Or you will have to visit one of the Queen’s agents in Knaerwood and ask him for HELP. Perhaps you will also seek out one of the local trainers to improve your skills. Or the answer may lie in a book in some library (these are small, brief vignettes high on local flavour).

8 AM. Lord Hraakvar is still asleep
The essence is the sense of an interconnected milieu, one whose locations you will revisit again and again, getting deeper into a labyrinth of sub-quests, references, and mysterious finds. Like Ultima, the world opens up gradually. First sticking to the overland and the proximity of settlements, you eventually start exploring the wilderness and smaller dungeons; then find that these dungeons open into enormous multi-level affairs that feel like OD&D’s “Mythical Underworld” megadungeons (and they might all be connected on the bottom in a deep interconnected realm: at least this was the case in the greatest of Ultimas, Warriors of Destiny). You will acquire new ways of navigating the world: horses which let you easily ford rivers which were once hazardous; skiffs to sail shallow waters; and ships to brave the stormy seas and visit distant islands (these larger ships can store up to two skiffs to make landing convenient). The setting expands as you play – and there might even be a flying carpet at the end.

Buxom
The Isles of Wynmar is a high fantasy setting. In our ultra-modern age of ceaseless deconstruction, this vaguely positive Merrie Olde Englande hodge-podge of benevolent monarchs, wise-cracking peasants and chivalric nobles looks almost avant-garde. The isles have their troubles with corruption, mountain orcs emerging from their strongholds to raid human villages, and the scheming cult that’s spreading tentacles across the land, but it is a place where good and evil are distinct and well demarcated. It loses some shades of grey, but it gains playfulness and colour, something refreshing in a more cynical era where mediaeval worlds are usually presented through a ubiquitous mud-filter. Wynmar scales back some of Britannia’s “thee and thou” pretension, but it has its jocular bards, stout bowmen and saucy tavern wenches in the best traditions of the genre. Public order is maintained vigorously: I once attacked a cloud of buzzing insects near a rural outhouse, and was soon attacked and decimated by the local militia. Now that’s law and order!

***

Nox Archaist’s character building is nominally free-form – you can advance your characters in any direction from hand-to-hand combat to archery, assassination and magic – but the difficulty curve encourages strong specialisation. You are better off with three niche heroes than three generalists, as they will be able to wield better equipment (there are strong stat limits) and dish out better punishment, while a jack-of-all-trades group of PCs will find themselves in a serious difficulty trap.

The Goblin Shaman: Attempt 32
After the first few battles with hooligans and rabble-rousers, the level of challenge goes up. Your first dungeon foray will bring you against a group of wolves, and here, the need to toughen up will be made obvious after the first few utter defeats. The true test of your offensive and defensive abilities will be the mini-boss of the first serious dungeon, the Goblin Shaman. If you can beat him and his band, you have built your adventuring party correctly – if you can’t, you may want to earn some more experience, or reconsider your options. And it will get harder: just venture a bit beyond the shaman’s cave to find out.

With these considerations in mind, the stat/equipment accumulation game is simple but satisfying. You do not have Ultima’s fascinating reagent-based magic system, but there is an abundance of stuff to obtain, equip, and go to town with. Armour goes from cloth, leather and brigandine to chain, scale, and plate, and right up to frost, storm, drake and dragon (for the mightiest heroes). For the start, having the requisite Strength to equip a pair of chain gauntlets feels like a reward well earned.

***

A round for the local lads
As I have outlined above, Nox Archaist is a worthy successor to the Ultima tradition. Here, you will find a large and deep game comparable to Quest of the Avatar or Warriors of Destiny (although with the graphics of the older Exodus) with all the quirks of something out of the early 1980s. This is an important qualifier: the game is from a tradition that predates a lot of the games that established the way modern CRPGs are made, and while it makes numerous improvements to make the formula easy on gamers today, it comes with CGA-tier aesthetics, bizarro discoloured fonts, and antediluvian ideas about game design. That is to say, I can’t recommend it highly enough to fellow old-school gamers. If this is the particular experience you are looking for, Nox Archaist will deliver in spades; if you are too young to have experienced the old Ultimas in their time (this also describes Yours Truly), this is a good occasion to try.

Some well-deserved rest