Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181424)
Written on  :  May 15, 2004
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.43 Stars4.43 Stars4.43 Stars4.43 Stars4.43 Stars

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Better git it in yo' soul!

The Good

Nomad Soul is the first creation of the extravagant French designer David Cage and his development team Quantic Dream. It is a hybrid game that is hard to categorize - an ambitious project that attempts to build up complex gameplay rooted in traditional adventure.

At its heart, Nomad Soul is indeed a pure adventure game: running around while completing tasks and solving puzzles occupies by far the largest portion of the game. Other elements, such as shooting and fighting sequences, appear as segments that have very little to do with the core gameplay, breaking the game's pace abruptly and providing a change from the rather slow gameplay. But Nomad Soul is much more than just a fancy 3D adventure with action mini-games. One of the game's main appeals is its open world and physical interactivity with it.

There are similarities to Shenmue, which was released shortly afterwards. Both games present graphically impressive, detailed, fully populated 3D cities with many realistic touches. In Nomad Soul, for example, you can eat in order to increase your energy level, buy books in stores and then read them, get a drink, chat with unknown people sitting on benches, visit striptease shows, and even make love to your girlfriend. However, the differences between this title and its Japanese counterpart are numerous; plainly said, Nomad Soul is a much better game. Its world is noticeably larger; its exploration possibilities much more varied thanks to physical interactivity (jumping, swimming, etc.); it doesn't dwell on menial tasks and instead keeps pushing the narrative forward; and instead of arcadish QTEs it offers real challenge both in puzzle-solving and in its action sequences.

As in most free-roaming games, the world is the star here. Undeniably, the city of Omikron is a masterpiece of game world design and one of the most awesome places you'll ever visit in a video game. The city is divided into several districts and there are some plot-related restrictions on exploration; but once it opens up to you, it becomes a vast area you can run around and explore to your heart's content. It is stylishly gorgeous, very busy, very detailed, and teeming with life. There are many buildings you can enter, and many items to buy or find. Tired of fulfilling an ancient prophecy or stuck at a tough puzzle with cryptic clues? Go to a bar and have a drink, look for fights, or spy on characters you can possess with your unique abilities. You can simply take a break from the main story almost whenever you want and see what the city has to offer.

The most famous gimmick of Nomad Soul is the ability to control multiple characters. There is no protagonist in the game except yourself - or, better to say, your soul. By extracting souls from other characters you can possess and control them. Some parts will force you to control a specific character, but for the most time you'll be free to choose which one of the available characters you want to control. The characters all have their own strengths and weaknesses, which is important, since you'll also be using them in fighting and shooting modes. Every character has their own background information including name, age, profession, and address. It is fun to control different people, from an ordinary female student to a legendary ancient warrior. The cool part is that in many cases you can visit their apartments and find unique items there.

The main, adventure mode of the gameplay in Nomad Soul relies on puzzle-solving. While not as heavy as in the pure representatives of the genre, puzzles do appear rather frequently and range from simply procuring an item needed by a certain person to complex assignments involving deciphering patterns, following visual cues, etc. The puzzles are mostly elegant and logical, although some of them can get quite tricky. Some of the tasks require careful observation, thinking, and lots of patience. The city's large size and lack of hand-holding encourage exploration and make solving those puzzles more rewarding.

The puzzle-solving routine is broken by two other gameplay modes in Nomad Soul: fighting and shooting. Fighting is fairly simple and fun. There are several moves and combinations you can perform while punching and kicking your opponent to oblivion, as well as offensive and defensive tactics. Battles are usually triggered by the plot, contained to small areas, and are always one-on-one. An interesting feature is the ability to improve your fighting skills by training. You can visit a master, train, and make your character stronger or quicker.

The first-person shooting mode is more prominent than fighting and shouldn't be taken lightly. If I recall correctly, there are only five or six shooting sequences in the game, but they are pretty long and quite difficult. Although you do control various characters, none of them is a super-powered tank who can barely get hurt. You also don't have an ultra-strong weapon that blasts everything standing in your way. The enemies are smart, relentless, and will waste no time tracking you down. Your goal in those segments is usually not just to eliminate the enemies, but to complete a certain mission, such as placing bombs to destroy a bridge, etc.. The layout of the levels can get rather complicated, and it is not always easy to find the correct path. I recall a particularly difficult stage where I had to jump on roofs and climb ladders in order to access a broadcasting antenna. It was very hard to find the way through the maze of roofs and ladders, and there were deadly robots wandering around that I couldn't kill. The final boss is also appropriately challenging.

Visually, Nomad Soul is astounding. It is one of the most aesthetically intriguing games I have ever seen. Each zone in the city of Omikron has its own distinct personality, modeled after popular scenarios such as a dark cyberpunk-like district with sleazy bars, or an exotic Middle Eastern area with low yellowish houses and palm trees. The powerful engine smoothly renders busy streets, a large amount of pedestrians walking or sitting around, as well as intense traffic in the form of futuristic light vehicles ("sliders") and hovering motorcycles. Apartments are lavishly decorated and offer quite a bit to explore. The game's strong sense of style and unique personality create a captivating atmosphere, ensuring that you'll be thinking about this world even when you are not playing.

The game's plot won't blow you away, but it is solid and doesn't have delusions of grandeur resulting in incessant cutscenes and interminable dialogues, like certain other games. Particularly interesting is the first part, where you control a police officer and the plot unfolds like a detective investigation: gather evidence, talk to suspects, etc. Afterwards it begins to focus on obligatory ancient prophecies and demonic showdowns; but even those parts are well done thanks to the rich lore and detailed background provided for the game's world. You'll study Omikron's rich history and culture, decipher mysterious writings, read books in the library, and so on.

The Bad

A far-reaching game like Nomad Soul is bound to put much at risk; it gambles and sometimes loses. One of its chief problems is lack of a smooth transition between the main adventure mode and shooting or fighting sequences. Once in a shooting mode, you can't do anything you used to do when in adventure mode, and vice versa; you also can't go back until you complete the sequence. I already mentioned the difficulty of those shooting parts. Clunky, consolish controls are tolerable during exploration, but really get in your way here. These segments become even more difficult because of the stupid saving system (see below) that doesn't allow you to save your progress at any place but in the very beginning of the level. Health kits are used automatically, which can be a pain in the neck, especially if you have nearly all your energy, but the AI insists on using a large kit on you.

The versus fighting sections are less frustrating, but there are way too few of them, and they tend to be too easy, negating the game's nifty training system and the necessity to hunt for stronger characters. I would have been more interesting if your character could just attack people straight out of the adventure mode, instead of having almost every fight dictated by the plot. The soul-switching device is generally underused - it is, for the most part, a cosmetic feature that doesn't affect the course of the story and has only minimal impact on the gameplay. Near the end of the game you receive the most powerful characters anyway, and the last few chapters are pretty much on rails.

The game's worst feature is probably its saving system, which is ridiculous. Needing specific "points" to save your game is one of console gaming's several dubious legacies. It is particularly harmful in a free-roaming game like Nomad Soul, where danger might await you at any corner. I want to at least be able to save right before a tough shooting sequence - but I can't do that: I first have to go to the hero's apartment or wherever else, and then make my way back to the crime scene. I want to save each time before attempting to solve a puzzle, or simply before crossing the street, since any car can hit me and I might lose energy for little reason. Even more annoyingly, you have to spend special magic rings at a save point. If you are out of magic rings, you can't save your game at all! To be fair, managing those rings isn't a big deal and hunting for them can even be fun, but still: who on Earth came up with this idea?..

The Bottom Line

Not everything works equally well in Nomad Soul, and not everything meshes well together. But the sheer scope, ambition, and originality of this title eventually make up for quirks and frustrations. A generous game that isn't afraid of taking chances, Nomad Soul is definitely worth getting acquainted with.