Original Release: 1999. Platforms: PC (reviewed), Sega Dreamcast. Developer: Quantic Dream. Publisher: Eidos Interactive (physical), Square Enix (digital). Available on GOG, Steam.
I wasn’t expecting to stumble into a David Bowie concert a month after his passing. And I certainly didn’t expect it to happen in a video game.
At the time, my experience with Omikron: The Nomad Soul wasn’t going well. Technical difficulties had consumed my first save file, and a second playthrough was only reinforcing the game’s awkward mechanics and limitations. My current objective was to find a specific electronics repair shop without knowing the address, forcing a manual search of each building in the zone. I uncovered one interchangeable bar, strip club, and sex shop after another, without so much as a random encounter to spice up the search.
Entering yet another bar, I started to turn back – but hesitated. A crowd was gathered here, intently focused on a strangely dressed NPC on a nearby stage. Curious, I stepped closer, and realized this was David Bowie himself. He started to sing “Survive”, and even if this wasn’t an unskippable cutscene I couldn’t have looked away. Hearing him say “Who said time is on my side” – or hell, repeating “I’ll survive” – felt like a punch in the gut. All the annoying glitches, limitations, and mission objectives were quickly forgotten, and I suddenly felt like part of the game world.
Objectively, I know this scene aged as poorly as everything else in Omikron: The Nomad Soul. I probably wouldn’t have given it another thought without the tragic context of Bowie’s death in January. But in a strange way, the experience was like Omikron on the whole – an awkward and clearly flawed experience that somehow surprises you with moments of genuine creative spirit. Or a soul, if you prefer.
Omikron takes place in a dystopian parallel universe, where humanity is ruled by an oppressive totalitarian government. As the game opens, a futuristic police officer named Kay’l breaches the dimensional barrier and requests your help. His world is in danger, and needs a player from our world to upload their soul into Omikron to stop it. You are literally the Nomad Soul of the title, exploring a strange city and fighting the demonic forces which threaten it.
Let’s get this much out of the way: Omikron‘s PC edition has some major technical problems on modern systems, even in GOG.com’s patched executable. Higher display settings might run perfectly well in-game, only to crash once you restart. If this happens, there’s a Settings application which lets you switch resolutions, but no options were displayed on my Windows 10 system. Manually deleting the configuration file resets the issue, but for some godawful reason Omikron stores your saved games in the exact same file. In short, once you’ve tweaked your settings, restart the game to make sure it works and never touch them again.
Once you’re sure Omikron is working, you’ll “upload your soul” to explore its fully realized world. And we know this is a fully realized world, because that’s what other characters tell you. Kay’l even claims Omikron is a real place where progress cannot be saved, forcing you to live with the consequences of your actions. It’s certainly a unique concept with great gameplay applications – that is debunked within 10 minutes.(The fact that you actually can save the game kinda gives it away.)
Oh, Omikron certainly looks like a self-sufficient world at first glance. It presents you with a fully-explorable city, bookshops, grocery stores, apartment buildings, and more. The streets are filled with civilians and vehicles going about their business, some of whom you can interact with. Omikron even uses some parallel universe language which resembles English with distorted fonts. But Omikron‘s “this is a real world” premise falls apart almost immediately. Wandering NPCs and vehicles never actually go anywhere, making U-turns on the map’s edge and refusing to enter buildings. Dialogue options explaining crucial details – like your partner’s murder or wife’s name – can be skipped while the game assumes you’ve figured it out.
That’s not to say Omikron‘s world isn’t engaging – just limited. Exploring the game as Kay’l has great potential as you hunt down clues and interview witnesses. It’s also possible to grab open cases as side quests that other officers weren’t able to close. Omikron also has various hidden secrets that reward your imitative – such as tracking down an underground fighting tournament without any quest arrows guiding your path. Sadly, Omikron‘s most interesting secrets are few and far between me, forcing you for focus on the core game. Which is something of a mixed experience.
Omikron‘s gameplay switches between three primary modes: Exploration, fighting and shooting. Exploration treats Omikron as an adventure game, as you search a huge city for solutions to puzzles or obstacles. Fighting switches to one-on-one combat against specific opponents, with all the health bars and combo moves the genre entails. Finally, shooting flips gears to an FPS as take on multiple enemies with futuristic weaponry.
Each mode certainly has its moments – I enjoyed the Fighting leveling system in particular, where each combat (win or lose) improves your moves and combos. But Omikron clearly suffers from splitting its attention three directions. Shooting suffers the most as a clumsy and obligatory afterthought which adds little satisfaction to the game. Exploration is a little better, but the city’s size and usual design make for awkward navigation. What’s more, the controls for each gameplay mode are completely different, forcing you to customize each key or juggle each clumsy configuration.
Omikron does have one fantastic new element: Its resurrection system. Since you’re not a body, but a soul which crossed the dimensional barrier, your character can’t die – you transfer to the next NPC who touches your corpse instead. The process resets your combat stats and abilities, but lets you continue the game with a brand-new body. You’ll find yourself inside a morgue employee, a journalist, or one of the strange alien beings inhabiting Omikron. In some cases, it’s possible to visit their homes and learn more about the identity you’ve assumed. Even ignoring their backstories, treating bodies as disposable resources is a wonderful sci-fi concept with all kinds of unsettling implications.
That said, I’m a little mixed on the notion that the protagonist is your soul. Sure, it’s appropriately meta, and lends surprising weight to certain plot twists. But it practical terms, it’s a gimmick Quantic Dream uses to artificially raise the stakes. “It’s not just the game world that’s in danger,” Omikron‘s characters tell you, “it’s your very soul! If you lose the wrong battle, your enemies will trap you here forever!” Yeah, no. Unless you actually believe your soul was sucked into the game, this threat doesn’t hold much weight. Even if it did, Omikron has a save system in place – you could just reload and try again. The better approach would’ve been fleshing out Omikron‘s characters so we feel upset when something happens to them.
Not that I fault Quantic Dream for trying something different, but every element of Omikron is competing to be unique instead of functional. That means gameplay quickly descends into a mish-mash of genres and mechanics that barely fit into a coherent whole. And I haven’t even had time to cover other annoyances with the game – such as how those rare magic rings are automatically spent at save points without telling you they’re a limited resources. (Believe me, this is a problem when you’re at a crucial juncture and realize you don’t have enough rings to continue.)
Yet despite its “everything but the kitchen sink” design, there’s a real creative spirit in Omikron that’s hard to miss. Somewhere beneath these awkward controls and half-baked gameplay modes is a drive to push the boundaries of what games can accomplish. With a little more polish, Omikron could’ve pushed open world games in new directions instead of being relegated to the status of a quirky classic. That’s something I’d love to see more developers attempt, because maybe someone will actually accomplish the impossible and make us feel like our souls have travelled to another world.[amazonwidget]