Three years pass, there’s something of a dustup between Silicon Knights and Crystal Dynamics and the original plans for a LoK sequel are scrapped. Crystal Dynamics begin working on a new project named Shifter, partially scrap it and then recycle it into Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, the not-quite-sequel that more than lives up to its not-quite-predecessor.
Soul Reaver is a marked departure from Blood Omen, in both its gameplay and in the overall tone. A thousand years after Blood Omen, Kain (Simon Templeman) rules over Nosgoth as God-Emperor with his vampiric “children” as his lieutenants. Humans are either enslaved or fighting desperate guerrilla campaigns against their undead overlords. Over the centuries, Kain has become more powerful and his children have followed suit, manifesting new powers shortly after Kain. Enter Raziel (Michael Bell), the first of Kain’s new generation of vampires and his favourite son. Raziel breaks with tradition and develops a set of wings before his master. Seeing this as a threat, Kain mutilates Raziel and consigns him to a watery grave. Centuries later, Raziel is revived by the mysterious Elder God (Tony Jay) and released to seek his vengeance as an undying wraith and in the process save Nosgoth from Kain’s corruption.
Now that we have the preamble out of the way, let’s dive right in. As stated above, Soul Reaver marks a significant change in gameplay. We shift from a 2D top-down perspective to a full 3D metroidvania-style experience, and what an experience it is. As Raziel (is it RAZ-EEL or RAZ-AE-EL? They’re not very consistent) you travel across what remains of Nosgoth, battling both feral vampires and forlorn humans, with Kain’s lieutenants serving as boss battles. Whenever you kill a boss, you get a new ability that allows you to unlock another part of the map. When not fighting off vampires you’ll be tasked with solving a puzzle to continue to a new area. In fact, the puzzles tend to make up the core of the gameplay with the enemies serving as little more than a distraction. Unfortunately, an upsetting amount of the puzzle gameplay boils down to pushing blocks. You push blocks to reach platforms or push blocks to form a pattern; sometimes, you stack blocks on top of one another; sound boring? Well, it is.
Fortunately, there’s so much more to Soul Reaver than shoving blocks around. Now would be the time to talk about the game’s big selling point: dual world gameplay. At any point you’re free to release Raziel from the confines of the physical world and enter the spectral realm. Doing so causes Nosgoth to twist and warp into a surreal reflection of her physical self while your conventional blood drinking foes are replaced with soul sucking monstrosities. In practical terms, the shift in geography allows Raziel to traverse previously inaccessible areas in order to progress and find hidden upgrades. There’s also no water (which vampires dissolve in) in the spectral realm, so you’re free to explore otherwise hazardous areas at your leisure.
Of course, shifting in is easy, shifting out is quite different. To re-enter the physical world Raziel must be at full health and must be standing on a designated conduit. This ties back in with the puzzle element, you can’t open doors while in the spectral realm so knowing when to shift and where to shift becomes imperative. You can still be killed while in the spectral realm but then Raziel just respawns in the Elder’s chamber, where the game starts. To keep progress, you need to find and activate portals that are scattered around Nosgoth, serving as checkpoints, which is useful for when you dodge into an enemy’s attack for the fifth time in a row.
In combat, you can fight barehanded or with whatever weapons may be scattered around the environment. As most of your opponents are vampires, clawing and beating will only stun them for a short while, so you’ll have to resort to some less than conventional methods of ending the fight. Luckily, Nosgoth is full of environmental hazards for you to take advantage of. To dispatch your opponents, you can dissolve them in water, expose them to sunlight or impale them on any number of conveniently placed wall spikes, after which Raziel can consume their souls for a health boost. Your health slowly drains over time in the physical realm so you may find yourself picking fights that you’d otherwise rather avoid.
Combat is… awkward; it’s been designed in such a way that it feels as though you’re only supposed to be fighting one enemy at a time. You lock on to your prospective target and from there on you can dodge in any four directions. Understanding the enemy attack patterns becomes vital in order to end up as anything other than a greasy smear on their fists/claws/tongues. To complicate things, the enemies are also capable of dodging and while you’re flailing wildly at one guy, his buddies are jumping you left, right and centre.
Credit to the designers, they went all in on the horror when conceiving the vampires. Kain is still cursed from the events of Blood Omen and that curse has since passed on to his children and so on to their children. As a result, the vampires of the future Nosgoth have degenerated into near-mindless monstrosities and they more than look than part. You start out facing the Dumahim, who are covered in chitinous armour and are first introduced sucking the blood out of their victim via prehensile tongue; that’s not just a detail added for the cutscene, they’ll whip them out during combat to catch you off-guard. Later on, you go up against the Melchiam, who are so far gone that they’re little more than walking corpses who claw their way out of the earth to get at you.
And if the minions are horrific, they’re nothing compared to their masters. The first boss fight pits Raziel against his brother, Melchiah, patriarch of the aforementioned Melchiam clan. He’s degraded to the point where he’s in a constant state of decomposition which he compensates for by sewing harvested flesh into his body. When you reach him, he’s started incorporating entire corpses into himself and has been reduced to a lumbering pile of rotting flesh kept alive only by his dedication to his master; the poor guy practically thanks you for killing him.
The boss “fights” themselves are really just extended puzzles where you have to manipulate the environment in some way; on two different occasions this involves luring the boss into a conveniently placed death-trap so you can incinerate or mulch them. Kain himself pops up early on for a more traditional fight, in which you are expected to win even though Raziel loses in the following cutscene.
The purpose for this is for Raziel to gain the titular Soul Reaver, which I suppose I should get around to talking about at some point. Introduced in Blood Omen, the Reaver is the last sword that Kain finds and is extremely powerful at the cost of draining Kain’s mana with every swing. This game is the point in the franchise where the sword acquires its near mythical reputation and, in a meta-sense, truly becomes a part of the series iconography. During Raziel’s initial bout with Kain, the sword breaks because of One Massive Spoiler and the soul-sucking parasite that once lived within the blade affixes itself to Raziel’s arm. From that point on, you wield the Reaver in the spectral realm, but you can only equip it in the physical realm if you’re at full health. When it is equipped, Raziel will no longer lose health over time. Having the Reaver out has the immediate effect of making combat easier while also upping the tension; one wrong move and you’ll lose your only advantage.
All in all, the gameplay is decent enough; my only real issue with it is that for as big as the game world is, there are precious little in the way of directions and there isn’t a map. This is unfortunate given the amount of backtracking involved.
But this being Legacy of Kain it’s the story we’re all here for and as far as stories go it is… uncomplicated. Things unfold as Raziel makes his way from boss fight to boss fight and occasionally stops to ponder both the nature of his own existence and the world in which he resides. The Elder chimes in from time to time and when he speaks with the rapturous voice of Tony Jay it doesn’t matter whether or not he’s delivering exposition or walking you through a tutorial. Kain shows his face here and there and Templeman is still on top form. As a welcome surprise Anna Gunn returns as Ariel, who has developed something of a grudge against Kain during her millennium of purgatory.
But it just wouldn’t be Soul Reaver without Raziel. Having lost his wings, his dignity and most of his flesh, all he has left is revenge and the will to carry it out. However, as things proceed, we see a new side of Raziel, the “human” side, for lack of a better phrase. At first, he wants Kain and company dead for murdering him, then he wants justice for the massacre of his clan before learning of his former life before Kain revived him as vampire. It’s that moment, with Raziel standing in his own tomb, that Michael Bell takes the revelation, the anguish, and the existential horror of the situation and absolutely homeruns it. Given how small the cast is and the way things are structured, things quickly turn into a one man show with Bell as the star. It’s a tough job, given that Raziel’s face consists of a pair of eyes and a scarf, and the scarf is the only part that’s animated, but Bell still manages to endow Raziel with the very humanity that was once so cruelly ripped from him.
Although if there’s one other integral character then it’s the world itself. Nosgoth is very much a character in her own right; there’s so much detail baked into the very environment that you could probably surmise the current state of the world just by examining your surroundings. You go from abandoned fortresses and crumbling ruins, to forgotten monuments and desecrated tombs, all the way to the post-industrial remnants of an advanced civilisation. Search far enough and you can uncover the last human stronghold, whose inhabitants will either flee in terror from Raziel or fall to their knees in worship, depending on how you want to play it. And the best part is that you can explore the whole thing in real time; that’s right, it is completely devoid of in-game loading screens. Well, technically there are quite a few, every time you step through a portal or open a door the game sneakily loads the next area as the animation plays. This is more commonplace today but it was ground-breaking back in 1999.
Of course, perhaps the most interesting aspects of the game are the things that never actually made it into the final version. Soul Reaver was initially conceived of as being a much more extensive experience. The original concept would have involved additional bosses, a larger game world, multiple Reaver upgrades and for the game to end on a note of finality instead of a massive cliff-hanger. Indeed, both Ariel and Kain would receive a certain amount of closure, there would be no more time travel and things would conclude with the vampires being wiped out. I can only speculate what form a potential sequel to that story would have taken, and I’d rather not, given what’s coming up in Soul Reaver 2.
Would you reave him? He'd reave you. He'd reave you hard.
Copyright: whoever owns the game in 2020.