REVIEW: Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood

More than six centuries after his introduction through poems and ballads, Robin Hood – the late-medieval outlaw of Sherwood Forest – barely requires an introduction due to his ongoing renown and fascination to modern audiences. In Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood you play as the legendary Robin, but this version of the folkloric hero is your Robin, a character of either sex reimagined by your own desires and choices, directly reflecting your personal responses to the central conflicts and friendships at the heart of Robin’s struggle.

Nocked! is rich in both small details and grand concepts, crafting a mature story built on relationships forged with the numerous fully formed characters who often possess animalistic traits and/or magical capabilities. During my adventure I met, amongst many others, the wandering minstrel Allen a Dale; built an ever-changing base of operations with the organised and resourceful Maid Marian; befriended Little John and his companion Sir Bedivere; enjoyed the humour and insight from Wolf; saved the life of the grateful Sir Pellinore; battled wits with the ambitious Sheriff of Nottingham; and frequently spoke with Amaranth, the fearsome Last Dragon of Sherwood, about intellectual matters of significance. These characters aren’t simply direct copies of those from the historic tales – here they all have a twist (or two) and can often aid or advise you in uniquely individual ways to help your cause and encourage progress.

Game designer and writer Andrew Schneider has built a gamebook of great structure that works on many levels. It’s not only an impressive piece of fantastical storytelling full of affectively descriptive passages, but it’s also a deeply tactical role-playing experience, where resource management and base building equally contribute to the story. Featuring 4 difficulty levels, you can play Nocked! exactly as you wish, determining the extent and importance of decision-making, which then also defines the strength of the resistance you’ll face when opposing the Sheriff and dealing with other adversaries. This is interactive fiction at its best, where the challenge of the game is firmly under your direction and the narrative can be given prominence by those who prefer less game and more story.

I thoroughly enjoyed the many risk versus reward decisions that I was frequently presented with, often deliberating for some time over what appeared to be critical decisions. These tactical moments operate in conjunction with your player stats: Renown (Robin’s notoriety with the common folk), the number of Merry Men and other allies who support your cause, and your available amount of money and influence. Carefully managing these stats is crucial to improving your fighting force, completing tasks, undertaking sorties, gaining information and further wealth, and ultimately attempting to defeat the Sheriff to remain free. My connection to the characters sharing my storyline meant that the risk was heightened when deliberating the likely benefits and repercussions of presented choices – any gamebook that generates a personal reaction of thoughtful care and responsibility is clearly doing something right, operating at a level beyond just system mechanics and endgame calculations.

You’ll regularly encounter moral ambiguities too, incidences where you can choose a code of behaviour for your version of Robin. The significance of these moments is that they are never strictly black and white situations, and are often interconnected with other parts of the game, mirroring the complexities of real life decisions. As an outlaw thief, Robin already walks an uncomfortable line between admirable deeds and acts of robbery and aggression – not all of which are completely justifiable when the cost can be significant to those not favoured by Robin’s actions. This is the type of adult dilemma that propels a narrative, delivering an experience with truthful weight and meaning.

Once you’ve chosen a location to build your base of operations, you’ll now play from this central hub, accessing a range of available options that follow your unfolding storyline or are unlocked via specific choices. This hub structure offers plenty of diverse gameplay, and at times places a high level of obligation upon you as you feel the ongoing need to manage your many relationships whilst balancing that duty with the requirement to expand your operations and position yourself for a final confrontation. As I’ve already noted in other GBN reviews where a hub-style system is in operation, this structure allows you to cover a lot of ground without frustration, giving you the ability to easily understand and manage the many issues and actions that are unfolding at any one time. The variety of tasks found within this section of Nocked! is exceptionally broad, and you’re able to prioritise them as you wish, following desired courses of action and deliberately ignoring others.

Robin inhabits a world where magic plays a significant role. The forest can be highly dangerous to those who do not respect this remarkable environment, and is a source of great mystery and fear amongst the unwise. The magical touches given to the characters and setting are masterful, elevating this version of the Robin Hood tale beyond any predictable restraints caused by the source material. Characters and situations in Nocked! have a delightfully enchanting supernatural aspect, with a touch of faery deception and a sense of deeper unknowns. Amaranth and Wolf are both fine examples of characters that are a joy to encounter and converse with, each contributing significantly to the high quality of interactions in the game. They are alive with intelligence and spiritual awareness, and share their understanding of the true nature of Sherwood and of the wider world beyond its borders.

Schneider’s accomplished writing has great energy, wit and style, which breaths ample life and spirit into this full cast of characters. Their various storylines are neatly intertwined with your own relationships and goals, creating a personal story that requires you to balance the desires and needs of others as you move toward one of the many conclusions. The dialogue is particularly noteworthy for its maturity and natural emotion, and the various places and spaces visited are atmospherically described, building a living, dynamic setting for the adventure.

Amanda Spaid’s prominent artwork is also worthy of mention, as it adds a harmonious visual element to every screen, significantly elevating the overall presentation. Her work contains an appropriate amount of artistic technique and handmade style, perfectly matching the tone of both the words and the storyline. One of the highlights within the many illustrations is the series of images that are altered to indicate the current season, with colour, mood and details reflecting nature’s shift and showing the passage of time as events unfold. The game would be much poorer without her creative contribution.

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Nocked! is so good, but I was amazed at how the game caught and held my attention for the duration of my journey. Genuine choice and realistic consequences can be difficult to successfully implement in gamebooks, and coherent storylines that accurately respect your decisions are often even harder to achieve due to the inherent complexities of interactive fiction. In Nocked! the world around you is compellingly shaped by your actions, and the conclusions to the various story threads will vary from player to player, and from attempt to attempt as you influence events and choose your destiny.

Crafting and executing such an accomplished game takes great skill, effort and dedication – all of which is on display within every moment of your adventure. Nocked! shines as an interactive story where truth and fiction merge to create an environment where real magic happens, all under the player’s direction. You may already know of the characters featured in the tales of Robin Hood, but you don’t know these characters, nor have you stepped into this version of Sherwood before, so for these two reasons I strongly recommend that you embark on a journey with Nocked! soon – I’m certainly glad that I did.

STORYLINE: We all know the tale: rob from the rich, give to the poor and rally the people to stand against the Sheriff of Nottingham. Explore the many myths of Sherwood as you build your base and plan your resistance – Nocked! gives you full control to play your version of Robin as you wish, culminating in a wide variety of endings. There’s more than a touch of magic in this world as well as some very intelligent creatures, and you’ll find yourself totally immersed in the detailed relationships with both friend and foe that ultimately define the game.

GAMEPLAY: An expertly crafted blend of fiction and gameplay, coexisting within a balanced system that equally respects both elements. Featuring multiple major story threads, numerous player choices and mature, character-driven decisions, Nocked! is never dull or limited, offering a high-quality quantity of interesting content throughout any single attempt.

PRESENTATION: The interface and screen design are perfectly functional and visually tidy, with constant background textures and many attractive illustrations to support the on-screen information. Your changing stats are easy to locate, and status pop-ups inform you of important progress made through the game – although some of this new information can be rather detailed and unhelpfully disappears somewhat rapidly from view. The overall presentation of Nocked! mirrors the game itself – effective and eminently pleasing with very little to complain about.

REPLAY VALUE: A game that just keeps on giving! There are so many different ways to play through Nocked! that you’ll simply not encounter many story threads on a single playthrough, and miss a whole range of other options too. Experimenting with Robin’s moral outlook then opens up further gameplay choices and consequences, and you can also try new approaches to your relationships, leading to very different alliances and outcomes. Nocked! is a sandbox-style experience where you decide exactly how you want to play – a broad game built for extended discovery via multiple attempts.

Review by Michael Reilly

PS – if you’ve not already done so, check out our earlier Preview+Interview to learn more about the unique features and gameplay of Nocked!

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