Soul Nomad is the latest strategy role-playing game from Nippon Ichi software, a company known for quirky but rewarding SRPGs such as Disgaea and Phantom Brave. Soul Nomad departs slightly from the tried and true NIS formula, and remains a rewarding experience despite its flaws.
The story begins as you and your partially bovine best friend turn eighteen. You are summoned to the chamber of your teacher, Lady Layna and given what you think are the weapons you’ll use to defend the city. Layna, however, has other plans for you. The sword she gives you contains the spirit of Gig, the self-proclaimed “asskicker” that Lanya defeated over 200 years ago. From that point forward your job is simple: Use Gig’s power to defeat the World Eaters (powerful monsters once controlled by Gig), while making sure that Gig doesn’t take over your body and destroy the world. Like I said, the job is simple…
Unlike other Nippon Ichi games, gameplay in Soul Nomad focuses on squad-based combat, not combat between individuals. Each squad is contained in its own randomly generated room, with decor that bestows stat bonuses. The use of the word “room” can be deceiving. Really, it’s just the way NIS choose to describe the formation and make-up of your squad. The squads themselves are made up of characters from the story as well as generic units such as clerics, pyremages, and soldiers. In all there are 27 different generic classes and 26 recruitable characters that can be combined in a near infinite number of ways to form your squads.
Much of the strategy of this game revolves around creating the right squads and using the proper rooms for each engagement. Players can look at the map and all enemy units beforehand, allowing them to create the optimum army for the upcoming battle. This job is more difficult than you may think, since the room’s configuration and decor are randomly generated. For example, if you’d like to go from a squad consisting of 4 members to a squad of 5 you need to generate rooms until you find one that matches the configuration and decor you are looking for. Later on, it’s possible to spend more time planning your squad than actually fighting the battle. You can use “room locks” to save rooms that you like but there never seem to be enough when you need them. Rooms can also be leveled up by fighting battles in random dungeons, much like the Item Worlds in Disgaea. This also serves as the best place to level your characters, as you are not able to go back and revisit past battles like in other NIS SRPGs. To counter this, you do have the ability to create characters equal to the level of the protagonist. But this ability is expensive to use, and the newly created character won’t be as powerful as a naturally-leveled character.
Once you have designed your squads the game shifts to a map screen where the actual battle takes place. The map itself is 2D but terrain displayed on the map affects movement, and castles and towns give status effects. When the battle begins, the protagonist’s squad is the only one available to the player. All other squads must be summoned into the battle at the rate of 1 per turn. The good news is that summoning can happen regardless of other actions taken that turn. The bad news is that summoning a unit costs the game’s equivalent of money, based on the strength of the squad. This can cause problems at the beginning of the game, but after a while you’ll be making more money than you could ever spend.
Fighting in the game is fairly straightforward. When you attack an enemy each of the units in your squad act in turn. Your healers will heal, your mages will blast the enemy, and your fighters will enter melee combat. Since squads can contain multiple rows of units it’s important to make sure your strongest fighters are in the front row and healers and rangers in the middle or back. One of the most annoying aspects of the game is the order in which fights are decided. Every unit in your squad will attack the front row of the other squad. However, casualties are not decided until after a full round of attacks, so a mage might deal damage to a target before the melee fighters do. And since casualties aren’t calculated until after everyone attacks, it’s possible for your melee fighters to waste their attack an already dead unit.
Besides gameplay issues like random rooms and the ability to waste attacks, one of the biggest issues with the game is difficulty. Soul Nomad goes from simple to very complex in a short period of time, and the documentation and in-game tutorials are more than a little lacking. I didn’t truly understand a lot of the game until I read a third party strategy guide. Even with that knowledge, I found the game much more difficult than other Nippon Ichi games.
Overall I can’t help feeling that Soul Nomad is a little rough around the edges. It’s a decent game that could have been much better with a little more refinement of the battle system and in-game tutorials. Still, strategy RPG veterans should certainly check out the game. Seven endings and the ability to reach level 2000+ mean that you can spend a lot of time with this game, although it also means it can be daunting for beginners. First time SRPG players may want to look elsewhere for an introduction to the genre before coming back for the full Soul Nomad experience.