Blocks, Planes, Drain, and Kain: Well Played for Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
Are you tired of juiced up, armored space marines fighting aliens? Do packs of zombies and post-apocalyptic landscapes no longer arouse your senses? Are you sick of little kids wearing green and women with boobs so big they shouldn’t be able to stand up straight? Do you pine for a simpler time when a vampire-turned-wraith that harvests souls to keep himself (somewhat) alive. While also gliding through the material and spectral realms by using wings that his boss ripped the bones out of. All while killing dozens of vampires in classic (sunlight, water, fire, stake through the heart) and not so classic (glowing blade fused with his arm that can take on elemental powers) styles to quench his thirst for vengeance? If you answered yes to any of these questions (especially the last one) come join me on a trip down memory lane and into the land of Nosgoth to chat about Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.
Legacy of Kain Series Background and Overall Story
I will move as quickly as possible through this information as it is important for those unfamiliar with the series or who played any/all of the games long ago. Even though the Legacy of Kain series has a notoriously complex story it is sufficiently spoiled in this and subsequent sections. If you know about the Legacy of Kain series, don’t know about it and don’t want it spoiled, or are just impatient, feel free to skip ahead to the next section.
Before I jump in I want to let you know that I have not played completely through all of the games in the Legacy of Kain series, only Legacy of Kain Soul Reaver which is commonly referred to as Soul Reaver (note that the games in the Legacy of Kain series are commonly referred to their name minus “Legacy of Kain”), and Legacy of Kain: Defiance (Defiance). I have dabbled in the other games in the series but I am not an expert on them.
The first game in the Legacy of Kain series was Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, which was released in November of 1996 for the Playstation and would later be released for the PC. It was developed by Silicon Knights and published by Crystal Dynamics. The gameplay is considered to be “hack-n-slash” (like the Diablo series) but it has also been called both an Action-Adventure and an RPG. The story in Blood Omen follows Kain, a murdered noblemen-turned-vampire, on a quest through the land of Nosgoth to avenge his death and slay the corrupt guardians of the Pillars of Nosgoth, mystical pillars that protect the land. After several double-crosses and at least one travel back in time the game ends with Kain as the last vampire and the guardian of the Pillar of Balance, the final pillar. He has two choices: sacrifice himself and allow the land to heal or save himself and let the pillars fall to the detriment of all. The selfish bastard chooses (via cutscene, not a player choice) to let the pillars fall and dooms Nosgoth.
The second game in the series is the focus of this review, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. It was released in August of 1999 for the Playstation and the PC and January of 2000 for the Dreamcast (the Dreamcast version is the one I played for this review). Soul Reaver was released again to the PlayStation Network in November of 2009. It was developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Eidos Interactive. I will be discussing the mechanics and story in the next sections so I won’t cover those here, I will just tell you that the vampire-turned-wraith is called Raziel and his boss is Kain. Soul Reaver is thought by many to be the best game in the series and has the highest Metacritic score out of the games in the series with a 91. It was also the best selling game in the series and found a place on the Sony Playstation’s “Greatest Hits” list.
The last three games in the Legacy of Kain series are: Soul Reaver 2, Blood Omen 2, and Defiance. Soul Reaver 2 was released in October of 2001 on the Playstation 2 and November of 2001 on the PC. Blood Omen 2 was released in March 2002 on the Playstation 2 and PC and December 2002 on the Gamecube. Defiance was released in November of 2003 on the Playstation 2 and Xbox and then in December of 2003 it was released on the PC. All three games were developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Eidos Interactive. Soul Reaver 2 is a direct sequel to the first Soul Reaver, Blood Omen 2 takes place between the events of the first Blood Omen and the first Soul Reaver, and Defiance follows Soul Reaver 2 in the storyline and is the current end of the series. These games were not as popular or well received as Soul Reaver.
Before I talk about some of the in-game systems and mechanics of Soul Reaver I want to bring everyone up to speed (or remind those who played it before) on the story of our hero in Soul Reaver. When the game begins a cutscene opens up and introduces the player to some of the stars of this blood-drinking soap opera. We learn that Raziel (the player’s character) is Kain’s first lieutenant (and they are both vampires) and that he has served Kain for a millennium. The player also learns that the vampires evolve over time with Kain always being the first to receive the change. Raziel, however, grew wings before Kain and the rest of the vampires. Kain was not a big fan of being shown up and decided to rip the bones of Raziel’s wings out and then have his other vampire minions (Raziel’s brothers) toss Raziel into a swirling abyss which burns his flesh...
Raziel then awakens a thousand years later and he is alive (kinda) but purple, emaciated, and missing his lower jaw. He is in a room with octopus tentacles on the walls (a.k.a. The Elder God, keeper of the Wheel of Fate) and a booming voice and it talks to him about revenge and oblivion. More specifically, The Elder God tells Raziel that his body is broken and he is not really alive but that he can still exact his revenge on Kain and the other vampires by becoming the Soul Reaver. The Wheel of Fate is slowing because it is fueled by a cycle of souls and since the Vampires can live forever they are removed from the cycle. The Elder God raised Raziel to kill the vampire minions and their masters and devour their souls, thus allowing them to fulfill their destinies with the Wheel of Fate. So souls for The Elder God, revenge for Raziel, it is a win-win. No ulterior motive or twists, it’s very straight forward,
Armed with this information Raziel is unleashed into the now dilapidated land of Nosgoth to kill some vampires and devour their souls.
The stuff that makes Soul Reaver worth playing
While there are aspects of Soul Reaver that have not aged well or were bad at any time (we will get to those later) there is plenty to still enjoy about this gothic, revenge soaked romp. In the following section we will take a closer look at these aspects of the game that distinctly fall into the “pro” category.
Besides the gameplay elements discussed here many players were drawn to the impressive graphics, sounds and theme of the game. The opening cinematic and vivid world design was certainly a plus on the game’s scorecard. As was the dark and rich soundtrack and the creative sound effects. The overall “adult” nature of the theme, gameplay, and story was remarked by many players as a breath of fresh air in the stagnant fog of fairy tale heroes at the time.
Story and Setting
The Legacy of Kain story has been praised for its themes such as fate, destiny, revenge and time travel. The non-linearity of the storyline mixed with a healthy helping of double-crosses and revenge leads to a rich and interesting experience throughout all the games in the series. The narration done by Raziel, The Elder God and Ariel in Soul Reaver is excellent and makes the story more personal while giving those characters more depth.
Nosgoth is a compelling setting any way you slice it. Besides the obvious, such as vampires and gothic or medieval technology and architecture, Nosgoth has a few other interesting components. The Pillars of Nosgoth tie the people and the land together while emphasizing the impact of corruption. The Elder God, hidden underneath it all serves well as a guide and headquarters for Raziel. The two realms, material and spectral, lead the player to always want to explore both to make sure there is no hidden treasure or secret entrance to an area.
Unlike our shiny vampires of today, the Vampires of Nosgoth are very bad-ass. They were not bitten by another vampire. Kain stole souls from the underworld and reanimated bodies to create them. They must drink blood to keep their bodies healthy. While they satiate their blood needs they will live forever and evolve over time. They are the top of the food chain and rule with an iron fist over the humans. Each vampire has his own region of Nosgoth where their minions have taken on special evolutions unique to their leader like the ability to swim, phase through gates and scale walls. They worship the dark gods and in return get all these gifts.
Humans in Nosgoth come in several flavors, if the player spares the first human vampire hunter he encounters the rest of the humans in the game will worship Raziel. This makes the subsequent human citadel level a breeze. However, most humans in Nosgoth have been domesticated. They have accepted their role as slave and food source. The humans that are feral and resist are fanatical to their gods and in constant war to resist the onslaught of the various vampire sects.
Kain is the constant throughout the entire series, hence the series being named after him. In several games he is the protagonist and in others he is the antagonist. Raziel faces him early in Soul Reaver to learn more about the story of both Kain and Nosgoth. During this meeting Raziel learns that The Elder God is not being entirely honest with him and that his destiny is entwined with the Soul Reaver blade (an actual sword wielded by Kain) and Kain. This early meeting of who will be the final boss is an interesting game design choice because in most games the final boss does not reveal himself until the last levels, they just mettle with the player from afar. Another interesting example of allowing the player to know the final boss is BioShock. In both of these games the player character has interactions with the final boss before the climax of the game. This gives their dynamic more depth and emotion. Also in a game with a story all about destiny and fate, the choice of having the player face and almost be defeated by the final boss in the second level just strengthens those themes.
Raziel’s ability to transition between the material and spectral planes is one of the cornerstones of this game and future games in the series. It is used as a plot device, death mechanic, and a platforming puzzle element. It gives a duality to the game world where Raziel can, and more often has to, explore both to continue.
The material realm is the real world. It is where the vampires and humans wage war. Where water has substance and gravity equally effects dirt, buildings and beings. The spectral realm on the other hand is Raziel’s home court. He always has the spectral blade when inhabiting this realm (after he faces Kain the first time). Water has no substance, gates are passable (after defeating the first boss, Melchia) and more usually the world distorts in an advantageous way.
As a plot device, it is used as the personal domain of Raziel. Sure there are some lesser bad guys hanging around but really it’s Raziel’s dwelling. It is where he goes to regain strength and to explore. On the point of regaining strength, Raziel shifts back to the spectral plane if he runs out of health in the material plane, a way to explain his very fragile material existence. Once in the spectral realm he can dispatch the ape-like spectral realm enemies because he can only return to the material plane at full health and at a proper transition point.
The realm transitioning is most often used as an element of exploration or platforming. Because Raziel can go into the spectral realm at any time and the actual geometry of the world changes between realms it is a perfect addition to platforming puzzles. A great example of this is when Raziel is hunting Melchia to find out what has become of his clan. The smooth wall of a room juts out in the spectral realm, allowing Raziel to climb out. The sense of exploration and duality that the realm transition gives is a fun mechanic because the player gets to see behind the curtain of Nosgoth while in the spectral realm, allowing Raziel to explore and gain access to areas otherwise impassable.
Health Drain Mechanic
The constant draining of Raziel’s health in the material realm (when he doesn’t have the Reaver) is an interesting mechanic that fits in well with the setting, story and character in the game. It gives the player a sense of urgency while reminding them of Raizel’s fragile material plane existence. The draining life mechanic is used in other games in the series to emphasize the thirst for blood that vampires in Nosgoth feel (balancing the need Raziel has for souls with that of his more alive brethren). At the time, the idea of constantly draining health was new and health bars were the norm. It has since been used in other games such as the Lost Planet series.
Health draining works in sprawling world of Nosgoth because nearly every enemy is potentially a source of health for Raziel so the player does not need to hunt around for health power-ups, just beat up some vampires and get back to full health. Also because there is not a huge consequence for Raziel losing all this health (he shifts back to the spectral plane) if the player’s health does drain completely Raziel just regains strength in the spectral realm and returns to the material realm. In puzzle areas where there are few enemies and the potential for serious health drain Raziel usually needs to shift into the spectral realm to complete the puzzle anyway. Health draining adds a sense of urgency to any exploration or puzzle solving in the game, early in the game before Raziel gets the Reaver the drain mechanic is a much larger part of the game. It is a great design choice because it is during these early levels that the player learns simple combat and realm switching, lessening the consequences of the health drain.
Soul Reaver is a beat-em-up, meaning that a single button on the controller is used to attack over and over and over. Most of the enemies Raziel must face include Vampires that cannot be killed simply by beating them to death. These vampires must be dispatched using a finishing move based on a vampire cliché.
This makes fighting multiple vampires a mix of strategy and twitch gameplay, a great combination and a way to stave off the boredom of single-button attacking. The player must be aware of environmental objects like fires, sunlight, weapons (spears, tridents, etc.) and water as they can be used to finish off the vampires. One of the more interesting ways of impaling vampires is to use hooks or spikes attached to walls. Raziel can lift dazed vampires and throw them on these objects in a rather fun and crude manner. The vampires struggle like they are enduring a lethal wedgie, it is simple moments like this that make the case for good game design.
Once Raziel gets the Soul Reaver blade the combat changes slightly because the blade can be used to finish off a vampire, by impaling. However, since the Soul Reaver only manifests itself in the material plane if Raziel is at full health, many of the vampires later in the game are very adept at getting in a first strike and forcing Raziel to kill them without the use of the Soul Reaver.
Block and Switch Puzzles
Raziel has claws and his wiry, purple frame is actually quite strong. This combination leads to some interesting and challenging block and switch puzzles. Block and switch puzzles are nothing new, they can be found in games from Super Mario World to Portal. They are littered throughout Soul Reaver and in conjunction with platforming puzzles make up a nice counter-point to the combat system. They also are compounded in difficulty by the health drain mechanic forcing players to solve them under a time constraint or die and return to the spectral plane.
The most notable block and switch puzzle occurs before Raziel battles Melchia. The player must find and move several blocks to complete a puzzle that uses tracks painted on the floor, torches, switches and blocks. This includes using an elevator that is activated from a different level and multiple blocks that need to be stacked to complete the puzzle. At this point in the game the player has not yet been given the Reaver so they are required to complete the puzzle while under the pressure of the drain mechanic.
Zeldaesque Boss Battles
The boss battles in Soul Reaver are a great part of the game because they contrast so nicely with the beat-em-up gameplay that is prevalent in most of the levels. I have used the term “Zeldaesque” because in many ways the boss battles of Soul Reaver closely resemble the boss battles of the 3D Legend of Zelda games.
Throughout the game Raziel faces Melchia, Kain, Zephon, Rahab, Dumah and Kain again. None of these battles use the hack-n-slash or beat-em-up mechanics of the lesser vampires, they all require a special mechanic that is the foil of the bosses special power. Once Raziel defeats these bosses he devours their souls and gains their special powers, not unlike Mega Man or Kirby. He then must use these powers throughout the rest of the game to defeat enemies and complete puzzles.
The best boss battle in the game is Dumah. Raziel battles into Dumah’s region only to find that humans have defeated all the vampires. If Raziel spared the first human then all the humans will worship him instead of attack. Raziel finds his way to Dumah who is impaled with spears in his throne room. After removing the spears Dumah comes back to life and Raziel must lead Dumah to a furnace and burn him. This boss fight is great because it requires many of Raziel’s special abilities and platforming to complete. This gives the player the opportunity to flex their gaming chops doing all the actions they have learned throughout the game thus far.
Exploration and “Leveling up” Items
In what seems like another nod to the Zelda series, Raziel finds items throughout the world that increase his power and abilities, much like the heart containers and myriad shields, weapons, and tunics that Link finds in his travels. These items range from Warp Gates that allow for fast travel around Nosgoth to the ability to swim, climb, and items that increase Raziel’s magic power. All these items give a sense of Raziel “leveling up” and becoming more powerful. It is an easy way for the player to have investment in their accomplishments and see the benefits of exploring every nook and cranny of Nosgoth.
The not-so-fantastic stuff in Soul Reaver
In the same way the material and spectral realm combine to make a complete world in Soul Reaver, this section details the “cons” of the same game elements discussed in the previous sections.
There are several other valid criticisms of Soul Reaver. Like many 3rd person games of its era the camera has weird angles that have a negative impact on gameplay. One blind turn later in the game can remove the Reaver and force the player to stop and beat the crap out of a several vampires before moving on. In a game where the bad guys respawn every time you leave the room this can become a serious annoyance. Another criticism is usually levied on the world design itself. Nosgoth is fairly massive but the vast majority of the encounters follow the same flow: kill all the vampires, use either boxes or realm transition to solve the puzzle and move into the next room. Rinse and repeat. Couple the previous two issues with a game that can take over 40 hours to complete, a lifetime by today’s game standards and it was not every player’s cup of tea.
Story and Setting
The story in Soul Reaver is deep and intertwining but also convoluted and truly doesn’t have an ending (there is actually a “to be continued...” at the end of the game). Kain and Raziel with their accents and vocabulary seem pretentious, almost insulting at times, when they are explaining the story (e.g. thesis, here-to-for). While this makes Raziel seem like if was once part of high society it also can sometimes make him seem like a whiner, never a good trait for a hero.
Nosgoth has plenty of well used clichés (gothic architecture, fanatic humans, vampire killing methods), but the post-apocalyptic nature of the world and the weapons have all been seen before. The vampires are slightly tweaked versions seen in other media, but vampires have a long established history of gothic cliché. The vampires taking on specific special abilities along with themed areas, once again reeks of Legend of Zelda (there actually is a water temple in this game). While this can make players feel at ease in a slightly new setting it there are puzzles, encounters, and levels that give a sense of déjà vu.
Realm transitioning is the backbone of the game but it becomes overused and predictable due to its necessity as plot device, puzzle solution, and death mechanic. The player does not usually need to actually figure out the solution to a platforming puzzle, if it is not a block and switch puzzle it will be a realm transition that is used to complete it. This leads to players simply moving into an area and transitioning without even encountering the puzzle, just seeing the solution. There is also the need to explore every area in the game twice to see everything and get every secret. As a death mechanic realm transitioning is not a serious consequence for most players as usually the player dispatches a few simple enemies and then returns to the material realm at full health very near the spot of their death. Later games in the series change up how Raziel can shift between planes (by being able to essentially possess dead bodies), but the negatives remain.
Health Drain Mechanic
The draining health mechanic loses much of its importance after Raziel gets the Soul Reaver because it keeps him at full health while active. Since Raziel gets the Reaver before many of the most challenging puzzles and encounters the sense of urgency that the drain mechanic causes is usually addressed by players by just shifting into the spectral realm and getting to full health then returning to complete the puzzle with the Reaver and no time constraint. Also because Raziel does have a need for souls enemies have to respawn in already conquered areas which when coupled with tons of realm transition points for puzzles can make the drain mechanic more of a chore than an interesting game mechanic.
Block and Switch Puzzles
Like the omnipresent barrel in first person shooters, it always seems that action-adventures have block and switch puzzles and this is not an automatic con for most games. However, they are boring and now very outdated and Soul Reaver relies very heavily (even too heavily) on them as a counter point to the combat mechanics. There is only so much that can be done with dragging blocks and hitting switches. One of the most cliché block and switch puzzles is early in the game when Raziel must figure out that he needs to stack 2 blocks on top of each other to reach an exit to the area. This puzzle has been rehashed in many games from Ocarina of Time to Lego Star Wars.
Zeldaesque Boss Battles
Once the player finds the weakness of the boss, the strategy for every boss fight is just to repeat that same action 2-3 more times, that’s it. You can start to see the problem with the boss fights when more than one in the game actually requires Raziel to run like a coward from the boss so that they can get caught in some kind of trap (Melchia and Dumas). One of the worst offenders of the rinse and repeat boss killing method that Raizel usually employs is the fight against Rahab. Rahab has become immune to the detrimental effect of water and is swimming in his lair. To defeat him Raziel must jump from platform to platform breaking stained glass windows to let the sunlight into the room. How does Raziel concoct this strategy you ask? The Elder God tells him when he enters the abbey that Rahab and his brood are susceptible to the sun, so the solution to the boss fight is explicitly told to the player and even then it’s not like it is a hard action to pull off. Raziel doesn’t even attack Rahab directly, once all the windows are broken Rahab just dies. It is very anti-climactic for one of the later bosses in the game.
Exploration and “Leveling up” Items
While these items to give Raziel and the player a sense of empowerment they also have several issues. Several of the best items are rather well hidden (such as the elemental Reavers) which means that some players, probably the players that need it most, will miss them and not have access to them later in the game. Another issue is that movement around the world is accomplished by the Warp Gates which have cryptic symbols and seemingly random locations. This can force the player to double back and lose a lot of time to dealing with the trash enemies that constantly respawn.
Here rests the too long, didn’t read version of this review mixed with some of my closing thoughts. Soul Reaver does have a deep albeit convoluted story without a real ending. The rich but cliché-laden world of Nosgoth is populated with interesting beings and architecture. The characters of Raziel and Kain are interesting and well-developed, but in many instances come off as pretentious and forced. The gameplay in Soul Reaver was a mix of old and new. Realm Transitioning and Health Draining were new and innovative, but also repetitive and overused. The block and switch puzzles as well as the boss fights were not new, but proven and executed nicely.
Overall Soul Reaver deserves its 91 Metacritic score and is worth playing. It is a solid game in any time frame, although I found upon playing it again for this review that it had aged more than I liked to admit. The cinematics with low poly characters, the warp gates, the constant need to explore and save, I am glad these kinds of mechanics are outdated. However, the story, characters, setting, and many of the other mechanics would work today with little updating. The strength of Soul Reaver lies in the story, world and theme but it is the execution of the games mechanics that make it a truly great game worth playing, even today.