Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Release Date: September 25, 2007
Though Nippon Ichi was a totally unknown company back when it released Disgaea, the strategy/RPG development company has expanded its hold on American gamers, becoming almost as notable in the RPG industry as Square Enix. While very few of their games stray from the grid- and turn-based tactical roots, and even fewer stray from the comedic, tongue-in-cheek influences of Disgaea, each and every one of Nippon Ichi's games has had a little something new thrown in, something that makes it drastically different from its brethren. Take, for example, Soul Nomad and the World Eaters.
The latest of N1's games, Soul Nomad deviates drastically from the universe that is home to titles such as Disgaea and Phantom Brave. The story starts on the continent of Prodesto, where an ancient, unimaginable evil was sealed away two centuries ago by a sorceress and ruler of considerable power named Layna. After a fair bit of backstory, you're presented the option to choose the name and gender of your character. Sadly, yes, this does mean that your main protagonist is of the expressionless mute variety, playing as a paper doll for your own choices and being railroaded throughout cut scenes.
On the other hand, unlike other games that place the player in this role, Soul Nomad presents a lot of choices but subtly deigns to remove from you the most drastic choice in the title. Near the beginning, the now-aging elder Layna offers you and your childhood friend Danette two very special weapons. Danette gets her choice of various implements of destruction, but you have no such choice. Instead, you are given an elegant, deadly looking sword — a sword that is ever so conveniently the weapon within which Layna sealed the spirit of Gig, the god of death, 200 years ago.
Just like that, the fate of the world — and your own soul — has been thrust upon you, a hero destined to use Gig's power to defeat the World Eaters, three titanic monstrosities that were previously employed by Gig to unleash havoc and chaos upon the world. The catch? Gig is hardly a complacent pawn in these plans, speaking out quite often and only offering the hero his powers at a price. The more of Gig's power that is used, the more the evil god will take over the human's body.
Gig is the source of most of the game's choices, as well as most of its humor; Soul Nomad's sense of humor may be significantly darker than that of most Nippon Ichi games, but it's just as unrelenting — when it shows up. Unfortunately, aside from Gig, who is a self-proclaimed badass in the vein of Makai Kingdom's Zetta, the game presents both slightly lacking dialogue and voice work. However, while most of the in-game dialogue reeks of generic NPC, there are certain moments that will make you laugh, and certain others which will possibly invoke a decidedly different set of emotions in you. From Gig's overwhelmingly casual, joyous view on massive genocide to a young boy trying to encourage his (surrogate) mother to increase her bust size due to his preference of "jiggly" chests to a rather awkward (and thankfully non-illustrated) scene involving Gig casually "checking out" his new female host body, a good half of the humor left this reviewer feeling like he needed a long shower to erase all of the sleaze. It almost comes across as a particularly raunchy anime, honestly.
However, the writing aside, the changes that Nippon Ichi made for Soul Nomad are both startling and well-implemented. Instead of having battle waged by single units like most strategy RPG games, each unit that moves around the tile-based battle maps is its own separate small troop of three or four units with a commander. However, aside from orders to attack and a commander's use of special skills, the only control the player has over the battles is before a stage even starts, in unit placement.
Each troop is placed in a 3x3 grid called a "room," with columns corresponding to the front, middle and rear. Different characters will have different attacks based on placement; a cleric, for instance, will smack a foe with his staff if placed in the front row, but will cast a healing spell that affects the entire troop if placed in the back row. This adds a fair bit of strategy to building your teams, and the entire deal comes across as a combination of Disgaea and Ogre Battle. In fact, the battle scenes are quite like Ogre Battle; in combat, the action moves away from the hex grid and onto a 2D side-view screen similar to Advance Wars, allowing each troop to launch his attack. Naturally, the attacking unit has initiative, and with it, a significant advantage, but the defending unit will always execute its own attacks, if possible.
While this allows for a very slight learning curve, it also makes much of the game ludicrously easy and makes battles an exercise in waiting. Grab a sandwich, enjoy a drink or whatever you will have, as each fight takes roughly 20 seconds and each stage will typically consist of 15 or more battles. There's also very little to do between fights. While towns and plot moments will allow you to talk amongst townsfolk and allow you choices that can affect the plot so that it leads to one of multiple possible endings, the game is heavily geared toward simply playing straight through, with your next destination clearly marked on a map similar to those from Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre, thus allowing little to no room for outside exploration.
Giving a little variety, you can purchase Gig Edicts, devices that allow you different choices in talking to people outside of battle (i.e., pick a fight with a shopkeeper, insult a random passerby) and allow you use of Gig's powers inside battles. In addition, various rooms can be subjected to "inspections," much like the Item World in Disgaea, allowing your units to level up against random enemies, and will even net you bonuses such as upgrades to the room in question.
Graphically, Soul Nomad is sub-par, even considering Nippon Ichi's sprite-based focus on game design. Outside of battle cinematics, stages are played on an almost painfully drab literal grid, almost as if someone scribbled on a piece of graph paper and then started moving miniatures around it. While graphics are hardly the forte of this genre, such presentation makes the package seem kind of unprofessional, like a homebrew game that somehow got a $50 price tag attached to it. Luckily, in the battle cinemas, sprites are well animated, detailed and colorful, placed on a fairly well-modeled (if a bit stark) 3D background similar to that found in other Nippon Ichi games.
Voice acting, as stated, is less than optimal, too. While some voices (Gig, for instance) are perfectly fitting if a little obnoxious (which, one would argue, does fit Gig), others, like Danette, just make you want to reach for the mute button. Doing so would be a mistake, however, as the soundtrack is easily one of Nippon Ichi's best, surpassing even the scores to Disgaea and its sequel. In addition, should you get tired of the English voice acting, an option to switch it back to the original Japanese is available.
Soul Nomad & The World Eaters isn't a perfect package. It seems like the game punishes you for seeking out the endings in an order other than what is "suggested," either by drastically powerful enemy units or ludicrously powerful ally units.
It has major shortcomings in plot, graphics and linearity, but the good points help to overcome the flaws. That said, it's not a strategy RPG for someone new to the genre; while it's a fair bit easier than even Disgaea, Soul Nomad has very little tutorial on how to use its varied systems, and even when using the manual as a guide, if you aren't solid on how this type of game works, it's very easy to get lost. In addition, people new to the genre will be turned off by the rather sophomoric graphics and stilted, decidedly Japanese tone. However, if you've played the genre for a while and want something new to whet your palate — especially if you want something from Nippon Ichi without Laharl in it — this might be right up your alley.