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Omikron: The Nomad Soul (PC) artwork

Omikron: The Nomad Soul (PC) review

"In The Nomad Soul, you donít play as any of the main characters. Instead, you play as all of them. Sort of. In fact, you play as a person playing a computer game, in which the player plays as a soul who can transfer between different bodies. Yes. And itís all absolutely merrily acknowledged by the game. None of this is real, it tells you. Itís just a game."

Were you to try returning to Omikron: The Nomad Soul today, youíd probably find it to be problematic. Firstly, itís near enough impossible to get it to work on a modern PC (trust me, Iíve tried), and really, who owns a Dreamcast any more? But secondly, and perhaps more significantly, it feels so painfully old and creaky that youíd probably struggle to make it past the opening.

Thereís no point in trying to pretend otherwise. Itís a hideously unintuitive game whose ideas are buried beneath an abominable control system, hidden away in an experience that never quite settles on a consistent form or style. But at the same time, those ideas are wonderful, and visiting it now provides a window into the mind of one of gamingís true auteurs, before he finally settled into the type of game he really wanted to make.

Omikron: The Nomad Soul (just ĎThe Nomad Soulí in Europe) was the work of Quantic Dream, who went on to create Indigo ProphecyFahrenheití in Europe - I have no idea why they couldnít stick to the same names globally) and, later, Heavy Rain. I wonder how many people whoíve played through their twisting, non-linear recent work are familiar with the companyís origins. Studio head David Cage seems to have found his niche now, but itís fascinating to return to a time when he hadnít, and when he instead chose to throw everything he could think of at a game, seeing which ideas would stick.

So The Nomad Soul is a sort of action-adventure crossed with a beat-íem-up, set in something akin to a living city. Remarkably, that description makes the game sound a lot less strange than it actually is. Because thereís also a hefty dose of first-person shooter in there. And of point-and-click adventure. It doesnít blur the genre lines as such - perhaps it would have been more wholly successful if it had done - instead settling on an awkward, cluttered mess of everything. Itís a shame to say it, especially for a game so marvellously, madly ambitious, but The Nomad Soul often tries to do so much that barely any of it works at all.

The first-person shooting is a good example. Or, rather, a bad one. Aiming is catastrophically difficult. The camera is weird, not quite lining up at what youíd expect eye-level to be, and the gun in your hand looks ridiculous as you fire it. These sections only crop up once in a while, though, and much of the game is controlled from the third-person perspective. But itís the sort of third-person perspective that the early Resident Evils made famous, except worse. In The Nomad Soul, you walk into a lot of walls, over and over and over again.

Loading times are long, the graphics are now astonishingly low-def, and so many of the puzzles involve unseemly 3D pixel-hunting. The game is properly, fist-eatingly broken in a hundred billion different ways. Itís also one of the most brilliant, brave and fascinating games the world has ever seen, and hereís why.

In The Nomad Soul, you donít play as any of the main characters. Instead, you play as all of them. Sort of. In fact, you play as a person playing a computer game, in which the player plays as a soul who can transfer between different bodies. Yes. And itís all absolutely merrily acknowledged by the game. None of this is real, it tells you. Itís just a game. Itís a game created for a purpose, and that purpose makes up a portion of the story, but itís a game, and youíre a player. If you think that sounds ludicrously self-referential, youíd be right, but youíd also be being an unfortunate cynic, because it works wonderfully.

Every time your character dies, the soul whose player youíre playing as simply enters another body. The last body it touched. So while you begin the game as one man, who has a personality and a girlfriend whom he happily dry-humps in a cutscene, youíll end up inhabiting the bodies of a great many others. Game mechanics as narrative. And by acknowledging them as game mechanics, and working those into the narrative, it creates a world thatís totally logically consistent - even though itís completely mental, and silly beyond belief.

More impressive, though, is that the world within this computer game is one of the most surprisingly organic Iíve ever seen. Again, its effect is somewhat lessened by the fact that itís a twelve-year-old game which feels another five years older, but the picture it paints is still a delight. The city of Omikron drips with a sort of twisted cyberpunk ooze, with unusually shaped buildings stacked up on top of each other, and the streets plastered with cold neon signs.

Iíll be wrong, Iím sure, but I always considered this to be the first Ďliving cityí in a game: a place where people appear to go about their own business without you. In fact, itís almost certainly very carefully scripted to look that way. But still, it works. You can walk into buildings, you can explore the cityís nooks and crannies, and you can potter about with other pedestrians. There are hover-taxis darting about the roads, taking Omikronís citizens from place to place in a sort of high-tech, high-tempo haze. The game acknowledges that none of this is real, continually reminds you that itís all a big dump of virtual reality, but that never stops it from being an utterly captivating place to explore.

You really can explore, too. Within the obvious confines, the game encourages it. Several puzzles have multiple solutions, many of which involve deciding which place you might want to go to, or how you might want to get in there. Itís an extraordinary bafflement to play something that is so completely forward-thinking, yet so remedial in its execution. But Iím a complete sucker for these things. When you experiment and fail, you often get some of the most surprising and dazzling results.

Whatís most important, however, is that the game features a dancing David Bowie.

No, seriously.

Bowie provides the gameís elegant, drifting soundtrack. But heís also featured in the game itself, playing a concert. Youíll see posters for a secret gig, and if you go to the right place at the right time, there he is, singing and dancing away. In his underpants.

Itís the example every Nomad Soul fan uses when trying to explain why they love such a broken, battered game. But thereís a reason for that. Itís not because we all love David Bowie, or men wearing thongs. Itís because it encapsulates just how far Quantic Dream were prepared to go to make something weird and wonderful. They failed, in oh-so-many painful ways, but they dared to go there. They were brave enough to dream up a hysterically strange concept, and decorate it with a thousand hysterically strange pictures. And actually get it released. By Eidos. On a huge, multiformat, global scale.

How the industry has changed.


Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (December 30, 2011)

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