"Soul Nomad, much like Phantom Brave before it, tries very hard to tell a serious story while also purveying the jokes that it assumes Nippon Ichi fans can’t live without. The result is a game that lurches awkwardly from dramatic to goofy moments, and often expects the audience to laugh at characters who are about to do or experience something legitimately horrifying (to the tune of genocide, infanticide, or rape, as the case may be)."
As a newcomer to HonestGamers.com, I feel obligated to start this review by pointing out that, under normal circumstances, I really like Nippon Ichi strategy games. Not just the crowd-pleasers like Disgaea, either. Even the widely-disparaged Free Move system that showed up in Phantom Brave and Makai Kingdom struck me as enjoyable, and I actually liked Disgaea 2’s storyline. Before Soul Nomad, I would have said that while you may be able to criticize Nippon Ichi’s titles for being overly-similar, the company had still never really made a bad game.
Soul Nomad breaks that track record. It is a bluntly terrible game, full of ill-conceived ideas that are poorly presented. Aside from a few interesting story beats and some occasional bright spots in the sprite-based graphics and sound design, there is absolutely nothing defensible about it. The gameplay, although striving to be original, is an absolute turkey that doesn’t work on any level. Writing this pains me, to be honest, because ordinarily Nippon Ichi’s games reliably offer a tactical RPG fix few other developers can consistently deliver.
Honestly, it’s hard to know where to start describing what this game gets wrong. Take the story, for example. It wants to be an old-school throwback to the days when an RPG protagonist was meant to be nothing more than an extension of the player in the game’s fantasy world. You can pick your protagonist’s gender and name, an N1 first, and your choices have a mild effect on the content of certain cutscenes and ending sequences. You can even make decisions during the game about what to say, or what to do in certain situations. This sounds like a really great addition to the N1 gameplay, because if properly executed, it would be.
In practice, a player makes roughly four meaningful decisions throughout the duration of a 40-to-60 hour game that matter, and it’s very obvious what “order” you’re supposed to be making your decisions in. N1 clearly wants players to first play through the 45 minutes or so it takes to unlock the Normal Path’s “bad” ending, then the 40 hours or so the “good” ending requires on your second cycle, then unlock the “Demon Path” and get its “good” ending with your next 20 hours, and then replay the Demon Path for the “bad” ending with another 10-20 hours. Attempting to do just about any of this out of sequence either renders the plot nonsensical or the gameplay unapproachably unbalanced.
In most tactical RPGs, you deploy so many individual units and use them to take out somewhat larger groups of enemies. Soul Nomad hearkens back to the earlier days of the genre, and has you form groups of up to nine characters called Rooms. You generate Rooms to place characters in at random, often hammering the generation button for hours as you hope for something useful to spawn. How each character functions in a Room depends on which of the three Rows you place that character in, and there’s no cost associated with using any of a character’s combat abilities. You merely have to unlock the move by placing the character in the right position in a Room. Note that you don’t get to control when or how characters in a Room attack once you choose to have them fight an enemy. The computer determines all of that, apparently at random, so battles feel very hands-off and sometimes quite frustrating. It’s quite possible to lose battles simply because the computer chose to have your characters target the enemy inefficiently.
Despite that frustration, the combat system still feels hopelessly broken within the first two or three levels. If you put a Cleric, one of the default classes, in their optimal position at the back row, you have a character that can heal 100% of the entire unit’s hit points at every turn, at no cost. Any unit with a Cleric in it is functionally invincible when fighting enemies that aren’t strong enough to one-shot the Room. There is a mechanic called Stamina intended to weaken this effect, but the game offers so many ways of neutralizing the ill effects of low Stamina that it might as well not be there. You can easily just stomp through the game with one Room, provided there’s an optimally positioned Cleric in it. Because a single unit can be so invincible with an optimally placed Cleric, there’s really no reason to bother with making multiple Rooms. It’s easier to solo the game than it is to play it “correctly”.
The gameplay isn’t all bad. Consumable items usually play a very limited role in Nippon Ichi titles, but in Soul Nomad, they’re called Gig Edicts, and can let a player manipulate a battle or other situations in an amazing number of ways. You can use certain Edicts, for example, to fight a Shop owner until they gain enough experience to level up and sell better items. You can use Décor items to further customize Rooms by “decorating” them, although at the cost of the Décor disappearing at the end of any non-random battle. The game departs from the usual Harada designs in favor of a new, more realistic art style from designer toi8, which gives Soul Nomad a very distinct look, and some very interesting-looking characters and unit types. There are a lot of interesting mechanics intended to reward a player for building unusual Squads, perhaps consisting entirely of a particular type of unit, but they don’t reward a player nearly as much as simply optimizing a single Room does.
Soul Nomad, much like Phantom Brave before it, tries very hard to tell a serious story while also purveying the jokes that it assumes Nippon Ichi fans can’t live without. The result is a game that lurches awkwardly from dramatic to goofy moments, and often expects the audience to laugh at characters who are about to do or experience something legitimately horrifying (to the tune of genocide, infanticide, or rape, as the case may be). Gig, the demon the Protagonist has to try and keep under control, is a particularly uncomfortable character. While clearly patterned after earlier megalomaniacal-but-ridiculous protagonists like Laharl and Zetta, Gig has the distinction of being clearly depicted as a legitimate mass-murderer… and often between scenes that are trying to make him seem hilarious. This could perhaps work in a game that was trying to be a black comedy, but the story is too mired in Nippon Ichi’s love of anime clichés to aspire to that level of irony.
Soul Nomad feels like Nippon Ichi trying so hard to do something different between Disgaea releases that they forgot to make sure it was good. The game systems obviously don’t work as intended, and aren’t even abusable in interesting ways. Ultimately Soul Nomad’s game design seems to be as conflicted as its storytelling. This is just not a game that knows what it wants to be, and in the course of trying to please everyone it renders itself unlikable. Getting a good game out of Soul Nomad would require drastic overhauls of the Room mechanics, more meaningful choices for a player to make, and a total overhaul of the story that settled on either drama or comedy as the main thrust of the plot. As it stands, Soul Nomad is a depressing mess that gets just enough right to make the flaws all the more blatant and saddening.
Freelance review by Alicia Ashby (September 25, 2007)
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