Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver Review
By Michael Richter |
I just read somewhere on the net that someone brought this game back to the store because they felt it was so incredibly bad, that it wasn't worth their time, or money. I'd like to find this kid. I would like to go to his house, I would like to meet his family. I would spend the day with him, hiking, possibly even gaming or maybe just running around in bumper cars that we had outfitted with shopping cart wheels. Then, as the sun burned its way into the ground and we made our way back to my car, I'd finally turn to him and say thanks. Thanks for spending some time with me, and finally giving me a clear, concise view on what the life of an idiot is like.
Soul Reaver is one of the best games of the year, in my opinion, and anyone that doesn't give this morbidly fascinating adventure a try is missing out on a finely honed game.
Spoiler (highlight the text if you want to read a little about the ending):
Those of you that have read a lot about the conclusion to the game have heard that it's fairly abrupt, and kind of unsatisfactory. I'm not going to argue with that the team obviously couldn't put everything they wanted to into the final product, and decided to split the adventure into two parts, with the conclusion coming in Kain III. Jeff Chen from SCI-FI feels that this takes away from the entire game as a whole I'd have to disagree. If this was a movie spanning two hours, maybe he'd have a better point but after you've spent 20 or so hours running through some of the most incredible platform levels you've ever seen, it's hard to let the last five minutes of a game ruin it all for you. Besides, this is my review, which means I'm right.
When Crystal Dynamics first announced that it was going to develop the sequel to Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, and furthermore, was going to blow it up to 3D, fans were worried. Were they going to turn the game into Tomb Raider/Mario 64, like every other company seemed to be molding their franchises? Once scenes from the game were released, it was clear that Crystal Dynamics had a different plan altogether. Ever since those initial screens, I've been waiting impatiently for this game. Now that it's finally here and I've explored the corners of Nosgoth, and I still can't believe that Soul Reaver has finally arrived, and what's more, that Crystal Dynamics actually pulled off nearly everything they promised (what seemed like) a decade ago.
The game was designed from the start with the PlayStation and PC in mind, so it's all the more fortunate that Soul Reaver doesn't share any of the traits of some of Eidos' other PC/PlayStation pairings, like Tomb Raider. The movies, like Tomb Raider, FFVII, and other console/PC ports, is sad and fuzzy, but other than that, it's hard to tell that this was created with both systems in mind. There are some bad seams in a few tunnels, but texture-wise, this is top notch stuff. Unlike the Quake series, Soul Reaver has found a way to portray decay and dirge-like dinge without resorting to flat browns and greys. Brick facades, worn mountain ranges, and pristine churches all find themselves given the glamour treatment like never before. Shadowman portrayed a world more grotesque in design than Soul Reaver. Raziel's world goes beyond that, creating a world as engrossing as it is chilling. Wheel of Time has put a lot of effort into creating near photo-realistic levels. Soul Reaver, on the other hand, has designed a world that offers none of the comforts of reality, but gives you the opportunity to explore a place a lot sharper than Mario 64, and a whole lot more majestic than Tomb Raider. Speaking of which, we'll get to the blocks later.
I'm almost hesitant to ruin anything for you in terms of the brothers and the environments, but then again, if you were set on buying this game you would have already bought it, wouldn't you? In case you don't want anything ruined, I would suggest skipping the screenshots with the names of the brothers as titles. There. Now that my conscience is cleared, I'll ruin everything. Though the game has a free-flowing structure, it's still very tied to special areas inhabited by your brothers and their "children," who take on the traits of their environment. The children of Melchahim have been made from rotting bodies, so they resemble zombies, and can use the ground to attack, while the children of Zephonim are stick-limbed, spider-like bloodsuckers with a disturbing penchant for climbing walls.
Though Kain's minions would strike the fear of... "something more divine" as Raziel would say, into any normal human, you aren't normal. You're an undead spirit raised from the dead by a mysterious entity called "The Elder," sent to correct the circle of life and death. The process, fortunately, has a lot to do with killing, and even more to do with revenge. Since Kain, your creator and the damner of Nosgoth created you, then murdered you, he's your first and foremost target. On the way you'll combat your brothers and their minions, and discover just how much has changed in your world since your absence. As you'll soon find out, what was once a Vampire-ridden mess has slowly become a frayed place about to unravel completely. Your siblings have changed over the years, and the world has reflected their new statures. None of this, of course, is for the better but then again, you are playing a game and not watching My Dinner With Andre, so if conflict is what you want, then conflict is what you'll get.
As Raziel, you'll have the ability to slash at enemies with your claws, produce some fairly stunning jumps, and glide on what's left of your tattered wings. You can also lock on to enemies, which saves a lot of misery and helps you to perform some slick-looking attack combos. Humans can be slain with a few punches, but Vampires take a bit more work. Fire, impaling, water and direct sunlight will slay your fanged friends, so a simple fist or pole pummeling won't do. At first, you'll have to find the nearest flame, spike, pool of water or sunbeam to thrust a foe into, or a well placed pole to impale an enemy on. As the game progresses, you'll be given the Soul Reaver, Kain's sword that becomes your most powerful weapon, and allows you to explode enemies as long as your health is full. As you progress through the game, you'll also find hidden Glyphs which imbue you with special spells, such as the ability to cast waves of water, sound, sunlight or fire at your enemies. Though they look cool, you probably won't put a lot of time into using these spells, and in fact, will have a much better time actually finding them then you will casting them. Much more interesting are the special powers you gain through slaying your brothers and swallowing their souls. Swimming, climbing, and Telekinetic Force Projectiles are just some of the skills you'll master in your travels, and in classic adventure style, each one also gives you access to brand new areas and secrets that you couldn't reach earlier in your travels.
Because Raziel is a Soul Reaver, he cannot be slain. Instead, he shifts to the spectral realm, a twisted version of Nosgoth that not only allows him to regain his health, but becomes the format for some devious puzzles. Though the spectral world mostly resembles reality, there are times when platforms will pull from walls, or environments will change just drastically enough to allow passage to a new area. It's also a format for some incredibly Dali-esque sleight of hand, particularly scenes such as a tomb with a floor that oozes itself into a pit into the spectral realm, or pipes which lace themselves into a completely different configuration, like living snakes. I wouldn't recommend watching this underneath the influence of chemicals.
Nosgoth is separated by kingdoms, but each kingdom in turn is hidden beneath a labyrinth of tunnels, mountain, rivers and passageways that can be a bit confusing, especially at first. Without a map to guide you, directions such as "head East past the pillars to find so and so's lair" don't exactly help. You are offered specific clues however, and as long as you keep track of the inaccessible areas you come across, you'll usually know exactly where to head after defeating a brother and gaining his skill. The kingdoms reflect their master, so you can expect to journey through sunkey abbeys, skyscraper-sized cathedrals, and haunted morgues in your adventures. The focus of the levels is on adventure, so along with a lot of killing, you'll have to deal with some fiendish puzzles involving spectral plains, skillful jumping, and a lot of block pushing. The block quotient is pretty high in Soul Reaver, and there will definitely be time that you'll let out a sigh as you push your way through another session of block flipping (especially in Zephonim's lair), but even so, it never becomes unbearable. In fact, some of the visual puzzles are fiendishly fun, particularly if you like classic puzzlers. If not... well, they aren't that long, and at least you get to kill things in between block pushes.
Each building, structure, and altar is given a unique look and feel under a gothic, iron-age theme that never really gets old. Depressing, yes, but monotonous, never. Though you have to repeat areas to gain access to new realms, it keeps strictly within the Zelda school of thought, so you'll spent more time bent on a mission in an old area than just mindlessly wandering around, hoping for a clue. The areas range from cramped corridors to expansive building complexes that seem to go on forever, and at times, do. The best part is that you'll have the chance to explore every section of forever before the game is finished, and unlike most games, each new crevice reveals a satisfactory new piece of eye and brain candy. The music and voice-acting ensures that even while retreading those areas, you'll be thoroughly entertained.
Though Trent was quick to add System Shock 2 as a peer, personally I'd say that Soul Reaver has the best voice-acting I've ever heard in a game. The dialogue is not only lush and well written, but the acting can truly be called that acting. Raziel's speeches and observations about the world add just as much mood to the scenery as do the environments and characters. In particular, the first meeting of Kain and Raziel rivals any scene concocted in Interview with a Vampire, with Kain making an argument for evil so enthralling that Lestat would have grown slightly less pale in envy.
The music, which was scored by Kurt Harland of Information Society, doesn't sound anything like I Wanna Know What You're Thinking or Pure Energy, so those of you that were hoping to do a little dancing with your impaling can sit back down. The music is ambient, moody, and clicks with the dark environments. Which is isn't that hard thematically, since damned worlds tend to be in the universal key of despair. Though you'll tend to hear songs repeated often, they are just subconscious enough not to annoy, and just active enough to cause the odd chill when you have the chance to hear the random scream or desperate whisper.
The game deserves recognition not just because the sum total of the elements creates such a strong and compelling adventure, but because each of the components stands firmly on its own. Soul Reaver really is a crafted game, and though it took a lot of effort and time to get this out in a finished form, it was worth the wait. The team may have had to make some sacrifices in order to finish it (a couple of brothers and powers have been taken out, to be used in the next version because of time constraints), but the final product still shines as a complete adventure, and the time it will take you to explore all of its facets won't make you feel short-changed in the slightest.
As long as you're prepared for the life-denying, feel-bad story of the year, coupled with enough blood to fill a football field, than Soul Reaver should be just the thing to tuck you into bed over the coming holiday season. It's an epic adventure in a season full of epic adventures, and with a cavalcade of reborn classic RPGs returning to the PC, Soul Reaver manages to reveal some glimpses of the future of the genre. And of our inevitable vampire conquest, but that's for another article.
-- Vincent Lopez