Pox Nora has some history. The collectible card game inspired tactical role-playing game was originally released on PC in 2006 and in 2011, it gained Steam integration. Now, in 2017, it’s been released on the PlayStation 4 as a free to play game that challenges players to cleanse the world of evil and pit their warriors against others online. Pox Nora isn't for the faint of heart as it is saddled with a unique complexity and difficulty that feels unforgiving even on its “Normal” setting.
Pox Nora arrives with very little fanfare--I wouldn't have known the game was out if it weren't given to me for review. Apart from its quiet launch, the game itself is pretty low key. There is no eye-popping CGI cutscene that dramatizes the history and conflicts that make up the world of the game, all set to an epic, sweeping orchestral score that makes Carmina Burana sound like a lullaby. At startup, there's a flash of a developer logo, a “connecting…” screen and then you're taken to the main menu. The lack of presentation jives with the rest of the game’s straightforward “get to the action” sensibility.
The game successfully blends two disparate genres into a surprisingly cohesive product. As a tactical strategy game, you'll be put into one versus one battles against the AI (or human player online) and take turns moving and attacking enemy units and, eventually, destroy their home base. Managing units, however, is treated very much like a collectible card game. Deck building is the overall key to success as you'll want to put together builds with the best fighters, equipment, and magic spells. Additional units and cards can be purchased with in-game currency and real money.
Inside the game, these cards are used to deliver units to a grid-based battlefield. Each map features different terrain styles, complete with various obstructions and environmental obstacles that can hinder the unit’s grid based movement. Each character’s actions are governed by action points (AP) that control how far they can move and how many times they can attack. Units cost nora, which is an in-universe source of special power that largely serves to prevent players from dumping all their units all at once. Nora is generated at the start of each round and any units on the field offer an additional bonus to nora revenue. There are also nora fonts that provides a boost to whomever controls them. Collecting Nora to spend on units and magic spells drives the game forward, giving each player the resources they need to push towards the opponent’s home base.
There are different game modes: the single-player has a good number of different campaigns to play, and the online mode has what appears to be cross platform functionality with PC players. I chose not to play online because of how much I was struggling with the difficulty of the offline campaigns. In short, I thought them to be quite hard. The tutorials are helpful and make it easy enough to grasp the mechanics because there are only one or two enemies to defeat. It's also helpful in explaining the functions of units, equipment cards, and magic spells. The main game, however, is an altogether different story. Despite the AI playing the same rules as me, I got stopped every time. I was routinely stymied by an enemy that was could quickly recover any of its destroyed units. I tried different solo campaigns, thinking that maybe the difficulty was front loaded. Sadly, that wasn't the case. You can switch the difficulty setting though the only options are Normal, Hard, and Expert. I shudder to think what the latter two are like. Try as I might, I just couldn't break through the wall Pox Nora builds around itself. This feels like a game designed for an enthusiast crowd that prefers their strategy games to be really challenging and difficult.
Visually, Pox Nora is a bit of a relic and looks like a game developed eleven years ago. The enemy sprites don't offer much in the way of complexity although the different character types are easy enough to pick out in a crowd. Well, some better than others. The level environments, on the other hand, look great and are easily the game’s most striking visual feature. Conversely, not-so-great PlayStation 4 optimization makes the game's most important detail, text, a challenge. My console gaming setup involves sitting on a couch about eight feet from the TV. At that distance, I could barely make out the small text that makes up valuable information like unit description, magic effects, and gear boosts. The information overload presented on the screen at any given time wouldn't be a problem at all on the PC because I'd be close enough to the monitor to make out the information. The controls don't fare much better on the PS4 because I really felt the absence of using a mouse. Switching between menus and moving around the screen is uncomfortable and clunky and I was always fighting with it. I also had issues with the game not responding to button commands, often hitting the attack button two or three times before the command was recognized.
Pox Nora offers an interesting take on the turn-based strategy genre. It offers the addictive nature of tactical strategy with the zen-like practice of managing all different types of party builds. The difficulty of the offline game means some people might lose far more battles than they win. Just like Dark Souls, every defeat is an opportunity to learn from mistakes and try different strategies. Unfortunately, what holds the game back, at least on the console, are technical issues that made me feel that I was struggling to tame this beast. To those interested in Pox Nora enough to try it out, it might best to take on the PC version instead.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.