Soul Nomad starts off with one of those long, drawn-out introductions that seem to afflict every uninspired, shamelessly derivative RPG. It's full of scrolling text, barely moving images, and a verbose mixture of cliché and piffle - what's a "clarion vesper", for example, and what's it doing in a videogame? But then, just as you're expecting to be unceremoniously dumped into the usual blend of boring stereotypes and po-faced solemnity, it changes tack. As the game introduces its sardonic and offensive anti-hero, it dawns on you that the whole thing has just been another one of Nippon Ichi's excellent jokes.
For anybody unfamiliar with Nippon Ichi's idiosyncratically offbeat sense of humour, the whole thing will probably be desperately bewildering. But there's a lot here that fans of, say, Disgaea, will already be familiar with: the basic but beautiful graphics; the brilliantly bratty characters; and umpteen different game endings (including one bad one after just half an hour of play). Above all, though, the thing that distinguishes Soul Nomad as a resolutely Nippon Ichi game is the way it takes traditional turn-based mechanics as merely the springboard to start a journey into the farthest reaches of originality and occasional brilliance.
Initially, though, the turn-based strategy on offer is so unlike the vast majority of other turn-based strategy games - or tactical RPGs, or whatever you want to call them - that it is just baffling. It's all so far removed from the norms established elsewhere that navigating the menus and exploring your tactical options occasions the sort of perplexity that an old person might experience while trying to transfer their contacts to a new mobile phone. It starts to diverge from the norm right from the very outset, because instead of representing a single character, each unit in the game represents a 'room' that exists in a different dimension and contains a squad of characters (a bit like Games Workshop's Epic rules, with a bit of inter-dimensionality thrown in just for the heck of it).
The basic gist is that your character has been possessed by that aforementioned anti-hero, who was last seen a couple of centuries ago trying to eat the planet. Now you have to guide this odd couple on a quest to save the planet from being eaten by a couple of his old mates. And so you play through a series of battles punctuated by some cursory stopovers at towns and villages (so cursory, in fact, that these towns and villages are represented by just a series of menus).
The battles themselves are fairly straightforward, with your squads duking it out across a series of grid-based maps, but the game is bristling with some very cool features. You can decorate your rooms with a bunch of stuff that grants special powers and effects. You can hire new units to wait around till you summon forth their room to battle - and since you can recruit pre-levelled characters, level-grinding is almost entirely absent. There's also an equivalent to Disgaea's Item World called Inspection, which allows you to enter a series of randomly generated battles that power up your rooms. And each different character-type will perform according to their position in a room's formation, using different attacks depending on whether they're at the front, or the rear, for example.
Talking of formations, however, brings us on to one of the game's more annoying features: trying to change your squad's formation. The way it works is that when you want to change a squad's formation, you cycle through them at random. You might be looking for a nice cruciform layout, for example, but the game's random room layout generator might be determined to throw up a succession of squares and diamonds. Indeed, the whole thing initially seems much more complicated than it actually is - partly because in its own, inimitable and offbeat way, Nippon Ichi doesn't make much effort to actually explain what's going on.
More fundamentally, there simply isn't enough strength or depth here to compete with the developer's other games. The voice-acting - available in both Japanese and English - is excellent: the freewheeling localisation does a magnificent job of capturing Nippon Ichi's unique brand of humour, and it says a lot that its bitmapped characters and static artwork generate a sense of character that is every bit as (if not more) compelling than the latest CGI blockbusters from Japan's preeminent RPG houses.
But, unfortunately for a game so rich in character and brimming with originality, there's simply not enough strength or depth here to compete with the likes of Disgaea or Makai Kingdom. And so the sense of originality and novelty turns out to be the game's undoing. It's certainly what keeps Nippon Ichi from ever really troubling the consciousness of the mainstream masses (until, hopefully, the next instalment of Disgaea comes out on the PlayStation 3).