"I felt disconnected from the characters and was not as engaged with the plot as I wanted to be."
Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood (though I question the validity of the word "true" in this case) is a title that resembles the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks of my youth where I had to make choices as I read the story and manage my resources. If I had to pick a game to compare it to, I would say it most closely resembles Inkle Studios' Sorcery! games. Nocked! also reminded me of MoaCube's visual novel Cinders, in that it provides unique perspectives on a classic tale we all know and love. Sorcery! and Cinders were both excellent games that set high personal benchmarks, but although Nocked! makes a valiant effort, it doesn't quite measure up to those two.
In Nocked!, you are obviously Robin Hood, a yeoman-turned-brigand who robs from the rich, gives to the poor, and is a thorn in the side of the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham. The classic plot beats, locations, and dramatis personae are there, but there are also new characters (including dragons, talking wolves, and other supernaturals), new interpretations of classic characters (e.g. different versions of Marian depending on some early choices), a more magical Sherwood Forest, and alternative takes on iconic events like the archery tournament. Like many modern visual novels, Nocked! gives players the choice of portraying either a male or female Robin and provides multiple romance options, both same-gender and opposite-gender. You can even choose to forego romance altogether. Yes, Robin Hood purists may cry foul at the presence of unicorns or love interests other than Marian, but this game is a reimagining of the mythos and not a retelling of the established tales.
Nocked!'s narrative was penned by a published author who has written fantasy novels in a more modern, contemporary style. It is clear that a lot of effort was put into the writing, and objectively, it is better than a lot of video game writing out there. Several reviewers and fans who have played the original iOS version found this "book" quite enthralling.
So why didn't I like it?
I suppose it all boils down to personal taste, really. For example, I was turned off by the meme-inspired modernisms peppered throughout the text along with the use of modern vernacular and speech patterns in the dialogue. Like the silly pop culture references Working Designs used to shoehorn into their games, the contemporary modernisms in Nocked! felt out of place in a story set during medieval times. I also felt that the narrative tended to drag and the dialogue was a little too stiff and laconic, lacking the flowery speech common in novels written from the 1800s, like Ivanhoe
and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
As far as visual novels go, Nocked! is more novel than visual. Playing this game is akin to perusing a gamebook, where you read pages of text until it is time to make a decision. Not only do your decisions affect which storyline branches you experience, but they can influence your resource management stats as well. For example, some of the stats influenced by your decisions include "Gold," "Renown" and "Men." Robin needs gold to pay for resources, renown to pay for favors, and men/recruits to delegate to various jobs and tasks. If any of these resources are lacking, certain decisions are closed off to you. Occasionally, Robin will engage in combat or stealth missions, and these sequences introduce new mission-specific stats like Attack, Defense, and Stealth. These stats rise and fall depending on decisions made during your missions. There is no Game Over if these stats fall below sea level, but it will hinder the resource-management and base-building aspects of the game. Yes, during a key juncture in the game, Robin establishes a base of operations in Sherwood Forest, and you need to allocate resources to expand said base. Given the high-stakes decisions and copious resource management in this game, there are four difficulty levels to choose from, so players can have as smooth or bumpy a ride as they wish.
The game's subtle yet dynamic visual design is lovely to look at. The lush yet soothing colors of the backgrounds and the use of shadow puppetry-influenced character graphics flanking the center page are very tasteful. The main thrust of this game is its text, so that is always front and center, easy to read, and the font size can be increased via a menu option. Although I appreciated the tasteful graphics, the lack of facial and bodily expressions on the portraits made the characters feel more like cardboard cutouts than people. More dynamic portraits would have elevated characters' personalities and given them some much-needed extra flair. Between the stiff dialogue and expressionless portraits, I felt disconnected from the characters and was not as engaged with the plot as I wanted to be.
The element I liked best in Nocked! was easily Ivan Oberholster's evocative musical score. The music captured the intensity of confrontations, the ethereal nature of magical places, uplifting heroic triumphs, and crushing defeats — all with aplomb. I loved the use of traditional instruments, and the compositions themselves had plenty of room to breathe and simply felt right for the game's setting. The music was truly the MVP that elevated this game above the mire of mediocrity, and I look forward to hearing Oberholster score music for more games.
Nocked! has some solid elements to it, but as a whole, I did not enjoy it. I found it to be a rather lukewarm Robin Hood game and would rather get my Sherwood Forest fix from the myriad of superior books, movies and TV shows out there. As far as games of this ilk go, Inkle Studios' Sorcery! games had superior interactive gamebook-style gameplay and MoaCube's Cinders was a more enchanting reimagining of a classic tale with its enthralling dialogue and charismatic, gorgeous graphics. Objectively speaking, Nocked! is not a bad game, but I've definitely played better.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.