Throw me tomorrow, now that I really have a large medkit…
We’ve seen how in the nineties various novelists got involved in the development of videogames. That’s not all, many popular musicians got in the business of videogames as well. Looking back now, we really missed the boat: today Soulja Boy is developing a console (I’d chalk that up as “definitely maybe”), back in the 2000 we had David Bowie writing the soundtrack for and appearing in a videogame. Eidos really gave a lot of credit to Quantic Dream, the studio headed by David Cage, for their first game, The Nomad Soul. The team would subsquently go on developing arguably better titles like Heavy Rain and, most recently, Detroit: Become Human.
Let’s find out if this game still holds up or if it’s a crash course for the ravers.
Omikron bye, ta-ta!
The city of Omikron on the planet Phaenon is under attack by an unspecified force, a police officer by the name of Kay’l reaches out through your (yes, YOUR) monitor to call for help. The player will inhabit his body while trying to solve the mystery of the serial killer running around the city, along with why Kay’l has been framed for the murder of his partner.
The moment where the main character reaches out for your help, breaking the fourth wall, is the main idea behind The Nomad Soul and why it should still remembered today. The whole nomad soul mechanics is a brillant idea, giving a whole new layer of respect to “guy in his underwear playing videogame in front of a monitor”. To be honest, the same idea can be found in a pretty mediocre 1997 sci-fi italian movie, Nirvana, since that whole movie is about a videogame character reaching through the monitor to his creator for help. But since this is a game, that brilliant idea could and should have been used to greater effect, instead it’s just there to set the premise for the whole “shifting bodies” mechanic.
Give me money for a change of gameplay
The Nomad Soul, at its core, is an action adventure game featuring an especially vast open world that can be freely explored. The “virtual reincarnation” idea means that you can possess any “body” in the game as the main character, until you die or get bored.
This should have been the main focus of the game, instead it’s little more than a gimmick: everyone plays basically the same except for a few fighting stats, there’s no change in the main story regardless and the city doesn’t have many great places to explore. Still, the main problem, made even worse by 1999 technology, was the ambitiousness of making a free roaming action adventure in 3D with shoehorned fighting and FPS sections. Quantic Dream must have thought the fighting part was such a good idea, since it also rears its ugly head in Indigo Prophecy.
If you found those sections in that game tiresome, in Nomad Soul they’re even worse. Not even setting the difficulty to “easy” will make much of a difference since, in the FPS sections, enemies tend to shoot at you from a distance that the game hasn’t rendered yet. Or, worse, they spawn behind you and shoot you in the back.
Talk about badly aged game mechanics…
Sneak’s a bit and sometimes you die
While appreciating the ambitiousness of making an open world adventure/fighting/shooter game in 1999 is easy, it’s clear this went a bit over Quantic Dream’s capabilities. The game should have been deeply focused on the interesting sci-fi plot, touching on subjects like Orwellian-control of governement and life beyond death. Instead the player is busy dying from randomly spawning enemies or spamming punch and kick to defeat a demon, thus the “pretty plot goes to hell”.
The adventure gameplay is slightly better, even though it does sport some of the typical frustrations of its time. The inventory is managed through a sort of Fallout-like Pip-Boy smartwatch, the “Sneak” which allows you to empty your inventory, sell things you don’t need or just delete them from existence.
Typical nineties adventure design means the player never gets told if an item is required, so you might end up drinking a beer and then realize five minutes later you needed it in order to drug the lieutenant. While it’s true there are multiple approaches to puzzles, it also means you’ll probably be forced to fight.
There’s no way to know your health level unless you’re already fighting, which means you can die almost instantly as soon as you enter combat. Also, the save system is limited by how many “save rings” you possess, which was a really awkward choice for a game that was first released on PC (later on Dreamcast).
Only for you, I don’t regret, that I was Quantic Dream’s child
As you might have guessed, the involvement of David Bowie in the game was mainly for advertising reasons, his contribution doesn’t sound like it came out of a parallel world. This might explain why most of the songs, still very good, ended up on the Hours… album, the one where Bowie seemed to reflect on his getting older. Most of the songs you’ll end up listening to on the soundtrack were composed by Xavier Despas.
Listening to Hours on its own, there’s no clue at all that most of the songs on it came from a videogame, which I guess makes sense. Interviews at the time mentions how the english singer was working closely with Quantic Dream and, well, forgive me if I doubt it. This is clearly not the soundtrack to Labyrinth.
Nomad Soul also features the appeareance of the first “virtual actor”: there’s a band, the Dreamers, whose singer has the Thin White Duke’s likeness, awkwardly playing songs from the album, like Seven. If you’re asking, no, you can’t play with Bowie as the main character, like you would in Apocalypse on PSX starring Bruce Willis and his comically bad lines.
We are the dead FMVs, we take the blame
Beside the english singer’s involvement, The Nomad Soul featured an interesting, if slightly flawed, array of design choices. As an experiment in virtual storytelling, breaking the fourth wall, giving freedom to the player, I think it’s a success. Quantic Dream’s vision was way ahead of its time, in an era still reeling from the indigestion of FMVs with more “real actors” than one can count, David Cage decided to go with virtual actors.
The “nomad soul” mechanique wasn’t utilized to its full potential, but it was still unique, even though the plot didn’t really serve that idea. The technlogy in ’99, while dated by today’s standards, was amazing and the game shines with it’s futuristic/Philip K. Dick atmosphere, giving the player a real “detective on the job” feel. Most of the gameplay flaws could have been easily fixed for a better game, had the studio kept on its course.
Seeing my future to let it go
Quantic Dream unfortunately never fixed the game’s flaws. For the “sequel” Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, released in 2005, gone was the FPS gameplay: in its place, quick time events. Oh joy! Another badly aged game mechanique.
They also stripped away the open world, taking away the player’s freedom. Gone was the big city to explore, instead the main characters are stuck inside houses and offices. While the first ten minutes of the game looked ripe with possibilities, everything else is pretty much a plot already written, little changes with the player’s input.
One thing Cage retained from his first experience, though, was the “virtual actor” idea. When yers later Sony gave him a big budget, Ellen Page and Willem Defoe, among others, were cast and their likeness put in game.
Cage also decided that the perfect design for his kind of“interactive movies” was just that, an action adventure with quick time events, resulting in flawed experiments like Beyond: Two Souls, arguably the worst game they’ve released so far, with a disjointed plot, bad use of virtual actors and limited gameplay.
The game can be found on GoG and it’s pretty easy to run on most modern machines, even if some people reported crashes when trying to save. There is one ideal candidate if you want to play a much better gameplay experience similar to the mixture found in The Nomad Soul: Beyond Good and Evil, also found on GoG.
Obviously, the latter is lighter in atmosphere, even though the situation is much more dire. The player is given some freedom to explore but not as much as Quantic Dream’s title. Still it has aged surprisingly better, featuring memorable characters and different, fun, gameplay styles in one package, even though I was never a big fan of the overtly long stealth sections. That is definitely one game I will be showcasing on the blog.
Thanks to Stephan Venker for the box shots of his Nomad Soul collection!