Blending a free to play turn-based strategy with a collectable card game, Pox Nora has been running in various forms since 2006. The past decade has seen it change publishers a couple of times – at one point it was owned by Sony Online Entertainment, even! – and it has gone through various changes in that time. What is here now is an incredibly deep turn based strategy that, on PS4 at least, is ruined by technical issues.
Your deck is built from a selection of over 900 runes, as the game calls its cards, each of which falls into a few different categories. Hero runes are units that you can play onto the battlefield, who can then be buffed with spells, equipment, or relics. Each of these runes requires a certain amount of nora to play, which is a mana-like resource that you get at the beginning of each turn. You can increase the amount of nora you get each turn with relics like the nora mine, which grants you +5 nora each turn, or by capturing nora fonts on the map, which grant you +10.
Pox Nora gives the impression that it’s a complicated game, and it is. Even during the tutorial, which introduces you to the game’s basic mechanics quite well, the depth of the game is apparent simply from reading the cards in the starter deck. This is a mixed blessing, as with great complexity comes great difficulty curves, and Pox Nora’s is more of a sheer cliff face. Persevere in the climb, however, and the wealth of strategic options available is staggering after 10 expansions and a decade of development. As with all collectible card games, real familiarity comes from knowing your cards and the wealth of options available is almost overwhelming.
Unfortunately, this is also where the game’s technical failures start to come into play. When opening the deck manager and editing a deck, it takes an unreasonable amount of time to load the runes, so you are staring at a blank screen for literally a minute. It’s unacceptable in a game that – while 11 years old now – released on PS4 two months ago. This is especially true when the menus look like they are 11 years old, almost evoking nostalgia for Warcraft’s menus back when it was actually a strategy game.
Then there are the gameplay issues. Much like the menus, the game looks its age, but nostalgia may earn it a pass. What certainly does not get a pass is frame rate issues, especially in a game that doesn’t even begin to look taxing. Targeting a spell with a large area effect brings the frame rate to a crawl, as does casting many of the other spells or switching your view to grid mode, for some reason.
On top of the this there is the ever-present risk of the UI breaking down and just stop working. I was halfway through one match against AI when the top and bottom UI elements, where your hand and your unit’s abilities are, simply stopped responding. I could scroll through cards/abilities, but the game would not highlight them, so I was basically playing Nora Roulette and hoping the card I blindly chose was what I wanted. It made the rest of that specific match unplayable and forced me to quit.
Being free to play, Pox Nora is also always online. If you lose your connection while playing you will be booted unceremoniously out of your match, losing any progress and unable to resume. This didn’t happen to me, but what did happen was, ten minutes into a game, I got a warning that the servers would be shutting down in thirty minutes. I would have managed to finish the match, except they actually shut down four minutes before this timer reached zero, so I lost it all anyway. It was infuriating.
It is a real shame, because under the issues and dated visuals, Pox Nora really is a great card/strategy game. The animations, while dated, are well done and every rune appears to have its own animation, which is impressive considering how many there are. Once you top the difficulty cliff, the wealth of approaches you can take when building your deck is exceptional, and your hero cards level up as you use them and gain new abilities. The AI is unforgiving, making every single player match difficult, but victory feels all the better for it, like a card/strategy Demon’s Souls. It is a a strategy fan’s dream.
Even the pricing is decent. It’s £27 for 3000 coins on the UK store, though at the moment this is the only option there. 500 coins (about £4.50) gets you a pre-made and fully leveled deck from the game’s store, while the most expensive single player campaigns, which are in addition to the ones included with the game for free, cost 600. Hopefully smaller packs of coins will be available on the UK like they are the US store, where you can get packs as small as 500 coins.
In the end, it doesn’t even matter that the gameplay here is so good and delightfully complex. Pox Nora on PlayStation 4 is a failure in execution rather than concept; an excellent card and strategy game that few will likely stick with because of the frankly unacceptable technical issues. Even frame rate issues could be overlooked, but parts of the UI failing part way through matches rendering them unplayable and the usual F2P always online syndrome casts a dark shadow over the rest of the game. Maybe just play it on PC instead.
Version tested: PS4