Released in 1996, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain is the game that started it all. What begins as a gothic tale of vengeance will soon evolve into an existential meditation on freewill and man’s relationship with fate.
Blood Omen concerns Kain, a disaffected and directionless aristocrat who ends up on the wrong end of an assassin’s blade and subsequently condemned to an eternity of suffering. His only escape is to become an undead creature of the night and wreak his revenge only to find that vengeance offers no deliverance and that the un-life of vampire brings little comfort. To his regain his humanity, Kain must bring order to the land of Nosgoth by killing her corrupted Guardians.
Okay, that’s the preamble out of the way, now we can jump right into the actual game. And by “jump in” I mean, “talk endlessly about the cutscenes”. The back cover for the PS1 jewel case proudly states that the game contains “23 minutes of full motion animation…” this being 1996 it’s easy to see why they would want to boast about that. For a mid-nineties production, the FMVs all look pretty solid; sure the animation comes off as a bit a clunky at times, facial expression is on a spectrum between “non-plussed” and “constipated”, and there is a distinct lack of motion concerning Kain’s lavish ivory mane but that’s to be expected.
That all out of the way, it seems as though the developers were hoping to hook everyone with the big animated prologue, and it is one hell of a hook. We start out with an ominous portent from Mortainius, the resident necromancer and then things kick off. In the first two minutes we’re treated to impalement, flaying and exsanguination as the sharp-dressed and sharp-fanged Vorador takes retribution on the Circle of Nine for their part in the vampire purges. Afterwards we get to witness Malek, their erstwhile bodyguard, suffer a terrible punishment for his failure to protect them from Vorador’s wrath. One detail I appreciate is how the scene takes the time to establish how the vampires of Nosgoth feed on their prey. Rather than the traditional neck bite, Vorador is depicted as telekinetically drawing the blood from his victim and directing it into his waiting maw. By rights, the whole thing should look ridiculous, but it comes off as deeply unnerving, more so when you remember that Kain can do this himself during the normal course of gameplay. Also, I love Malek’s reaction to his penalty; it’s hard getting crude CGI creatures to emote, particularly when they no longer have a face.
Moving on, while the visuals are acceptable, the audio is something else. How to describe the soundtrack? Overbearing, morbid, oppressive? Listening to it, you get a sense of just how deep Nosgoth’s wounds are; it feels as though you’re exploring a genuinely sick land that’s crying out for relief. I particularly enjoy Awakening to the World, because nothing quite sets the tone like the grim ambience of a slow-paced synth number.
Speaking of audio, the high point of the game has to be the voice acting. You have the legendary Tony Jay as the mysterious Mortainius, an early appearance by Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad, Deadwood) as Ariel, Kain’s forsaken mentor and Richard Doyle (Eternal Darkness, Cheers) as Moebius, the taciturn time traveller. Taking centre stage is Simon Templeman as Kain and it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling the role. Templeman brings a certain dark charisma to the character and fully embodies Kain’s indifference, his cruelty, and his dry humour in such a way that you can’t help but fall in love with an irredeemable bastard. That being said there a few pitfalls along the way. This being a voice acting gig, the main actors all play different roles and in fairness they’re all extremely versatile. Tony Jay himself is a man who had an incredibly amount of range, but it’s not exactly limitless. Jay could go from portraying a sinister manipulator to a kindly old man in a heartbeat but having a guy in his sixties take on the role of a boy in his mid-teens may have been a step too far. That aside, some of the minor characters sound as though they would feel more at home in an after-school special instead of the semi-theatrical atmosphere that the game attempts to cultivate.
I suppose I should eventually get around to discussing the actual gameplay. I suppose now is the best for that. It is, isn’t it? Then we’d best get it over with.
The game is a played from a top-down perspective where the player is free to roam Nosgoth at their own pace. Of course, most pathways are blocked off until the player finds the requisite ability or item, so things generally proceed in a linear fashion. Your main objective is to hunt down the insane Guardians that make up the boss fights. Each guardian has a corresponding Pillar that will be purified upon their demise and after every boss you’ll open up another part of the world. There are a number of side dungeons for you to explore to find upgrades, acquire spells and collect one-use items.
Combat is fairly basic by today’s standards; you swing at the enemy and they’ll swing at you. Some of the enemies have ranged attacks and some them can teleport. You’ll spend most of your time taking a couple of swings and then backing up to avoid retaliation or finding a sweet spot where you can hit them but they can’t hit you. You have a mana bar, that slowly regenerates when you’re not casting spells, and a health bar that slowly decreases over the course of time. As mentioned above, Kain can drain the blood directly out of his opponents if you can get their health down low enough without killing them. Because of this, you’re constantly moving forward looking for more enemies to drain. If there are no enemies in the immediate area, then Kain can always hunt down innocent villagers to drink from. Occasionally you’ll find some unfortunate souls chained up in whatever dungeon you’re exploring. Kain being Kain, he treats these amateur bondage enthusiasts as nothing more than a free refill.
You start with an iron sword and iron armour; these two pieces of equipment will remain relevant all the way to the end of the game. The sword does a modest amount of damage and gives you a free hand to cast spells; the iron armour is the only armour that actually reduces damage. Later on you’ll find additional weapons, such as the mace that barely scratches enemies but can stun humans, allowing Kain to go in for a quick drain, or the axes, which do an absolute number on whatever gets caught between them but will prevent you from using magic. Additional armours include the bone armour that will cause undead to ignore you and the chaos armour that reflects damage back at your attackers. Notably, none of your equipment ever becomes redundant; everything is designed to be used for a certain situation that could occur at any point in the game.
Offensive spells and items all function in the same way: you point yourself at the enemy, hit the use button and hope for the best. At certain points you’ll be expected to shoot diagonally, which is harder than it sounds when you’re stuck with a D-pad for movement.
Overall, it’s fine. Just fine.
Of course, the real heart of Blood Omen isn’t in the gameplay but in its story. For a mid-nineties console game it’s surprisingly deep. It goes from a man avenging his own death, to dealing with a corrupt cabal, to battling a demonic infestation, to fighting in an epic war and then finally travelling through time. It’s that last plot thread that will cause untold confusion throughout the series but now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Of course, this being a nineties action-adventure game there are a few issues present in how the plot unfolds. When a good eighty percent of the game consists of hacking and slashing your way through hordes of things there isn’t much time to spend on story development or character growth. Outside of pre-rendered cinematics, most of the story unfolds by having Kain exposit at the player; its masterful exposition courtesy of Templeman but it still comes off as less than organic.
The land of Nosgoth itself is a joy to behold. Ravaged as it is by war, plague and medieval mad science, there’s a true sense of hopelessness that spreads to every corner of the land, but the true horror comes from Kain flipping between indifference and contempt for the people he encounters.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Kain is at his best when his cruel apathy is on full display. This is a man who cares for nothing but his own needs and he still comes off as not exactly sympathetic but still endearing in his own way. This isn’t a story of redemption or atonement, it’s one ego learning to love its id as Kain begins to embrace his vampiric nature and reject the last vestiges of his humanity. The game offers you a choice of two resolutions and there’s a reason that the good ending is non-canon.
Next week we’ll take a look at the not-quite sequel; prepare yourself for some of the finest voice-acting you’ll ever hear, more cut content than you can imagine, and block puzzles, so many block puzzles.
Kain taking y'all to the boneyard.
Copyright: whoever owns the rights to this in 2020.
Iain is a writer for petershow.co.uk, and does other stuff as well. Probably.