Just look at that title format; I did not put enough thought into this.
Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver hit the shelves in 1999 and was such a critical and commercial success (doing well enough to end up on Sony’s Greatest Hits label) that Crystal Dynamics just had to make a sequel. This is fortunate given the limp cliff-hanger that it ended on. Pursuing Kain through the time portal, Raziel finds himself in Nosgoth’s past, around thirty years before the birth of Kain and just in time to witness the corruption of the Pillars. What follows is a journey through not just the physical and spectral realms, but also time itself as his quest drags him through the past, “present” and future. Raziel must battle inquisitors, vampires, demons, and even his own destiny in his quest for… revenge? Absolution? Or perhaps even just an explanation of what’s going on with the constant time travel.
In gameplay terms, this involves traversing the land of Nosgoth in a fairly linear fashion although you are free to divert from the path from time to time in order to look for health upgrades. It’s similar to the previous game but a key difference is that boss battles have been replaced with extended puzzle sections; mercifully, there’s a lot more to them than just pushing blocks around. At certain points, you’ll enter a forge where Raziel can imbue the Reaver with elemental abilities such as Air or Fire. After unlocking an element at a forge, Raziel can apply it to the sword through elemental fonts scattered throughout the world. These aren’t useful for combat, but they are necessary for unlocking parts of the map and knowing which elements to use in which order forms the core of the puzzle solving. Mechanically, it’s similar to its predecessor: you retain most of your abilities from Soul Reaver so you’re free to climb, phase and swim to get around obstacles. Regrettably, this is a turn of the century action-adventure game, so the swimming controls leave much to be desired. Mouse-and-keyboard is the uncontested king of control schemes and I won’t hear a word against it, but if you ever play this then invest in a controller, if only for the swimming sections.
I have absolutely no investment in the combat so let’s get this out of the way: As always you can dodge enemy attacks or block them if you so choose. You can overwhelm enemies with a flurry of quick attacks or beat them into submission with heavy attacks; there’s something deeply cathartic about having Raziel boot some poor bastard halfway across the room at the completion of a combo. Aside from rending enemies with your claws you can use an assortment of swords, axes or whatever else you can get your hands on. Finally, there’s the Reaver which functions a bit differently this time around. Early on, a certain plot event happens which allows Raziel to activate the Reaver at will regardless of his health. It’s not unlimited as using the Reaver excites it and if the sword gets overstimulated it’ll cut off a big chunk of health. All in all, it manages to do enough things differently to avoid coming off as a rehash of the previous games combat.
The actual plot concerns (as stated) Raziel, his desire to kill Kain and his competing desire to avoid doing things on command just because someone in authority tells him to, be it the Eldar God, or his acolyte Moebius. First appearing in Blood Omen, Moebius was one of Kain’s targets who had been secretly manipulating him throughout the whole game. That particular plot thread resulted in a time-travel assignation gambit, the extermination of vampires throughout Nosgoth and Moebius himself losing his head. For simplicity’s sake, Moebius hasn’t been resurrected, not yet, we’re just dealing with an earlier iteration of the character. And this is where things start to go off the rails although arguably the track was mislaid back in Blood Omen with the time travel being hastily stuffed in at the end of the second act. But I’m either getting ahead of myself or possibly beginning to catch up, depending on how you perceive events.
You start out in the year of Kain’s birth and from there you’ll travel hundreds of years back into the past where the Circle stood strong and ruled over Nosgoth with the aid of the Sarafan, an order of warrior monks who were committed to the extermination of vampirism. Afterwards, it’s off to the future, although not the future that Raziel is familiar with, partially as a consequence of Raziel barrelling into a few time paradoxes along the way. Aside from being an excuse to reuse level assets, it provides an interesting look at Nosgoth through different epochs, with the future being a mutant-infested hellscape, the past home to the authoritarian Sarafan and the relative present being relatively peaceful, if you can ignore the constant fighting between vampire and vampire-hunter.
Visually speaking, the game’s a huge leap forward from past instalments and although it was never going to hold up it’s not exactly unpleasant to look at. The environments are fairly diverse, changing depending on time period and whether or not you’re in the spectral or physical realm. You start out in the Sarafan fortress-cathedral and from there you explore the surrounding countryside and settlements, with the obligatory ancient ruins and hidden temples popping up here and there. Of course, if we’re going to talk about the graphics then we need to talk about character models, specifically the faces. This time, they’re actually animated, and it is… about what you’d expect from a title released in 2001. At times they’re a bit over animated but it does the job and it mostly synchs up with the voice acting.
Speaking of the voice acting, well, what do you expect? Is it still good? Yep. Could I listen to an eight-hour audio play based on it? Probably. Faces may have some motion to them but that still leaves Raziel with what can only technically be called eyes and a distressingly turn-of-the-millennium style of haircut. Regardless, Michael Bell continues to produce the same grim tragedy and dark comedy that we’ve come to expect from his character. This is the point where Raziel begins to question the events that lead to both of his deaths and starts thinking for himself. No more will Raziel blindly obey commands, although unfortunately he still falls foul of reverse psychology, and will continue to do so for some time.
Templeman plays Kain as only he can and really brings out the humanity in Nosgoth’s decidedly inhuman monarch. We get to see a more mature version of the character, one motivated by something more than indiscriminate violence, unrelenting ambition or insatiable bloodlust. Here, Kain wants what’s best for not only Raziel but also Nosgoth and is even willing to risk his own life purely on the faint hope that things might just work out. The famous coin flip speech at the Pillars is quite possibly the high point of the whole series.
Special mention should go to Richard Doyle, the voice of Moebius; he imbues the character with all the charm and social grace of a well-heeled hookworm. The very minute Moebius opens his mouth you just know he’s going to screw you over at some point. It’s unfortunate that the developers saw fit to expose him as an obvious manipulator during the first twenty minutes. There’s a quick aside where, having talked Raziel out of killing him, the time-traveller monologues to himself in a sinister fashion. It does a real number on the suspense.
Finally, there’s the legendary vampire, Janos Audron, voiced by the even more legendary René Auberjonois (Odo from Deep Space Nine). Raziel’s journey eventually takes him to a point that predates Blood Omen by a few centuries. Here, he meets Janos, the last of the ancient vampires who has been waiting a very long time to meet him. If you’re a fan Auberjonois then you’re in luck, because he talks… a lot. There’s behind the scenes footage of the actor discovering precisely how much exposition he has to deliver, and it is something to behold. Although he goes on at some length about ancient history, ambiguous prophecies and a protracted explanation of how the vampires intertwine with the Pillars, it doesn’t drag on and Auberjonois delivers the sheer torture and loneliness that Janos has endured without overstating it.
What really ties all this together is the game’s synth-laden soundtrack. The series is nothing if not consistent in the quality of its music and this entry is no exception. Take the title track, Ariel’s Lament it’s fast-paced but hauntingly downbeat, with Anna Gunn’s dialogue overlaid at certain intervals. It immediately sets the tone and lets you know exactly what you’re in for. And then there’s the assorted ambient tracks that vary from location to location, all serving to heighten the tension before switching to a more intense combat variant. It’s not often I say this, but Legacy of Kain is the one series that knows when to use a synth and, more importantly, when not to use a synth.
So that was Soul Reaver 2, next up we have Blood Omen 2 where we’ll see Kain conquer Nosgoth, experience the side-effect of unregulated time travel and witness the death of all joy.
He wants to reave you like an animal.
Copyright: whoever owns the game in 2020.