Upon first glance, Soul Nomad looks just like some of Nippon Ichi's better known SRPGs. While they share the same interface and both can be considered SRPGs, Soul Nomad plays a little differently than what you would expect from the people who brought you Disgaea.
The story begins with an evil overlord, Gig, being sealed up within a sword. It just so happens that our hero (you) are the only person who can contain Gig's power and use the sword. Naturally, Gig jumps into your body and lends you his power to defeat his three overpowered minions left throughout the world. Yeah, it doesn't make much sense to me either. Gig's "godlike" power enables you to gain thousands of levels instantly, should you call for it (you can beat the game's last boss within 30 minutes of starting the game), but by using his power like that, you give him your soul and end up getting a bad ending almost immediately. That's what happened to me when I became a little too power hungry; I had to restart the game in cycle 2.
Exploration happens on a world map, where there are paths to different towns and events, much like in Final Fantasy Tactics. Icons on the map depict what certain places will trigger: a battle, a plot event, a bad ending, etc. Plot events come in simple 2D cut scenes with dialog on the bottom. Battle transports you to a large terrain covered with a grid with enemies spread out on it. Movement is confined to the grid and your squad moves as one unit. When you get close enough to fight with an enemy, you're brought to a split screen fight scene (like in Yggdra Union) where your troops duke it out with the opposing troops.
The heart of the game lies in setting up your troops while in the world map. Your allies are represented by mannikins, little versions of themselves that you can organize into formations in things called rooms. Rooms provide various stat increases and formations. More rooms can be unlocked as the game progresses. Mannikins can be put in front, middle, or rear positions and their attacks and skills change accordingly depending on their jobs: putting a cleric in the rear will let it heal all teammates every turn, putting it in the middle will let it heal one teammate every turn, and putting it in the front will let it use a melee attack against enemies. Direct orders can't be given to individual troops during battles, so careful placement of the mannikins will determine the battle's outcome. Characters can't equip items, but rooms can, which means you can equip a room with an object that boosts all the characters' attack stat.
Perhaps I'm too used to Nippon Ichi's other SRPGs, but I felt the learning curve in Soul Nomad was a bit steep. I was overwhelmed with the customization options of the rooms in the beginning and the many menu choices, but after an hour or so and dying a couple of times because of poor mannikin management, I felt more at home. If you're a fiend for squad based management, this is definitely the game for you.
The anime-like sprites misled me into thinking this was a game for people of all ages when that's far from the case. The dialog is definitely rated R for adults (is 'numbnuts' a bad word?) and the theme, trying to find a balance between how much of your soul to give up to Gig and how much of his power you need to borrow, is more mature than previous Nippon Ichi games I've played. I suppose parents wouldn't want their kids to play a game where plundering a village and wreaking havoc is a valid choice.
The strategy and customization in this game was not lacking but sadly I can't say the same about the graphics and sound. The game's sprites and maps look primitive — like something out of the PSone days . The music is fairly generic and forgettable. The English voice acting is not going to win any awards. I was also a little annoyed that the beginning of the game can't be skipped, which makes restarting the game after a bad ending a bit time consuming.
Let's face it: no one is going to buy a Nippon Ichi game for its graphics. If that's what you're into, you'll only be disappointed by the game. If it's strategy, a few bad words, and over-the-top special attacks you're craving, Soul Nomad may just be what you need.