Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Eidos

Blood Omen may not have been a perfect experience, but its strong and charismatic main character earned it a cult following which lasts to this day. Sadly, it suffered from a turbulent development process plagued by delays and conflict between Silicon Knights and their publisher/co-developer, Crystal Dynamics, culminating in a legal battle with the two. Ultimately, courts decided in favor of the latter awarding them ownership of the Legacy of Kain franchise. Having the original creators lose all rights to their title would undoubtedly conclude Kain’s vampiric exploits, but as luck would have it, this is not how it would end.

Crystal Dynamics would soon be acquired by British developer and publisher, Eidos Interactive who mandated a new Blood Omen title. Having severed all contact with original creator, Dennis Dyack, it was decided that rather than creating a new game, Crystal Dynamics would adapt an existing project into a sequel, thus, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver was born.

Initially, what we know today as Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver began as Shifter. In it, players would have controlled a fallen angel of death with the ability to reap souls in a quest to kill his brethren and their false God. The similarities speak for themselves and project lead, Amy Hennig is often credited with reconciling all lore and loose ends between both franchises into a cohesive narrative, a feat which she would later repeat in yet another Legacy of Kain sequel.

Soul Reaver introduces players to Raziel, a fan-favorite whose popularity rivals and may even trump that of the titular Kain himself. Centuries have passed since Blood Omen and vampires have established themselves as Nosgoth’s dominant force. Over time, vampires enter a state of change and gain new abilities, however, Raziel made the mistake of surpassing his master, and was executed for it. Having his body dissolved for centuries, our anti-hero finds himself rescued by a mysterious entity who turns the long-dead vampire into a soul eating demon-like entity. With new unlife granted, he seeks revenge on his master and brothers.

While the premise may sound overly edgy, its dialog is told well enough that most won’t notice it. Many of Blood Omen’s actors make a return including Simon Templeman and Tony Jay who are now joined by Michael Bell, all of which do a superb job at bringing their roles to life. Indeed, the writing and characters are what most fondly remember this series for. It featured a use of florid language and ornate monologues which at best verged on Shakespearian and at worst were still ahead of the competition.

As with its predecessor, Soul Reaver draws influence from the Legend of Zelda series though now firmly set in a 3D world. Some may accuse Crystal Dynamics of copying Nintendo’s Hyrulean hero initial N64 outing, but the fact is both games were released less than a year apart, so it’s most likely both worked in parallel towards evolving that particular formula.

Raziel may now explore a fully polygonal post-apocalyptic gothic world in any direction he chooses. Taking cues from Tomb Raider he will have to jump, climb and otherwise maneuver himself around ledges, platforms and other unlikely structures and locations. Our character even controls more like Lara Croft than he does as Link, providing a rigid move set which sometimes borders on the unresponsive.

Unlike Core’s British archaeologist though, Raziel isn’t limited to a set of levels, rather he is given an open, desolate world to explore at his will, though plot-sensitive locales must be visited and beaten in order. In fact, the initial area of Soul Reaver works much like Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time, essentially serving as a hub to which discover new sights.

Don’t mistake this for yet another Zelda clone though, as the game features more than just thematic and writing differences, the major stand-out discrepancy being Raziel’s ability to shift between material and spiritual realms.

While in the physical world our anti-hero is constantly drained of health, but may interact with the environment around him at will. Health can be regained by consuming the souls of fallen enemies and we can leave this world at any time, though returning to it forces players to find a conduit in the spirit world.

The spiritual realm provides a corrupted visage of our dimension reminiscent of German expressionism with columns and buildings becoming twisted and gaining a darker tint. While in this state, time stops, Raziel gradually recovers energy, and his vampiric foes disappear. This state features its own set of denizens in the form of wraiths and other smaller monsters who, much like Raziel, consume souls for nourishment. While in the spiritual realm players may not interact with any physical objects, they can climb, jump and platform as they would before, but may not open doors, press switches or pick up weapons. This dimension serves as more than just a slow health refill however, often times inaccessible locations are easier to reach when navigating through their twisted spectral-selves.

Combat is unique in that most enemies can’t be killed by normal means. A vampire’s flesh begins to close as soon as it is cleaved, this regeneration ensures players will have to adapt to different rules of engagement. If an enemy has received enough damage he will be temporarily stunned, it’s then that Raziel must deliver the finishing blow by impaling, inflame, cast light or douse his foes in water. The issue here is that weapons are not always readily available and any trip to the spiritual realm causes players the one they were carrying. Even unarmed, a killing strike may still be struck provided any suitable environmental dangers are nearby. Should a vampire become paralyzed, players may momentarily carry and throw it onto spikes, sunlight or water. Spectral and human enemies require no such tactics, the first may be consumed as you would any other soul and the latter dies in a few punches.

Souls act as life-recovery items. When an enemy in the physical world is defeated their soul is released for a scant few moments. This may then be consumed before dissipating into nothingness. Spectral enemies do not turn into souls but may be cfed upon as such all the same. Should players remove an impaling weapon from any vampiric foe before consuming their soul it will spring back to life as if nothing had happened.

Each major dungeon is inhabited by a different type of vampire and a boss. All of these share a common theme among them such as the ability to climb, swim or shoot projectiles. Upon defeating the location’s boss, Raziels adds these techniques to his repertoire though some may be exclusive to either the physical or spectral realms. The most notable of which being the titular soul reaver, a spectral blade and the most powerful in-game weapon though while in the physical realm, it can only be wielded when the player is at full health.

Acquired abilities provide proper reward and motivation to carry on with your quest, though sadly, all boss battles in Soul Reaver are unexciting. These work as a puzzle in of itself, so rather than engaging in battle with his brothers, Raziel must find a way to exploit their weakness. The concept is solid in theory, but these bouts feel unfulfilling.

The story in Soul Reaver is sparse for the most part though much more cohesive than its predecessor. Just like Blood Omen though, the best moments come in the form of lore-building monologues. These offer enough information to peak interest while leaving enough left unsaid to let imaginations run wild. Learning about what befell Nosgoth’s people, both human and vampiric alike was a joy to listen, even if their fates were often terrible. It’s just a shame Kain barely makes an appearance, appearing only twice to serve as a boss and trading a dozen or so lines with Raziel.

On a technical level, Soul Reaver is quite an achievement for the Playstation, sporting large open areas with complex geometry while never stopping to load. Even more impressive is how quickly and easily the world shifts and contorts when accessing to and from the spectral realm. Clearly this is a showcase for Sony’s 32-bit console and even the most adamant Nintendo 64 and Saturn fans of the time would concede their systems would have a hard time replicating this effect. Not that it’s easy for the Playstation to do it mind you, the framerate is generally stable with the odd exception here and there but this is due to it running on a low speed in the first place. Even Raziel’s movements seem to suffer from a slight delay which can be infuriating when trying to engage in precision platforming.

Even worse is the game’s insistence on block-moving puzzle designs. While most locations make good use of Raziel’s abilities, all dungeons seem to feature a common theme of having to drag giant stone blocks around. Sometimes they’re used as platforms, other times these serve as sliding puzzles or players must simply replicate a drawing by once again, dragging more blocks around. Regardless of the objective, these are a chore to move around and grind the pacing to halt. Worse still, some plot-required locations can have as many as five or six of these.

As new abilities are gained, players may revisit old areas or discover new optional ones in search of secrets. These come in the form of health upgrades, glyphs which enable you to cast magic, mana upgrades and even a fire upgrade to your soul reaver. Considering Soul Reaver features a relatively low difficulty setting none of them are particularly necessary but still serve their purpose of extending gameplay time.


It’s easy to see why Soul Reaver is so fondly remembered; it combines the best elements of Tomb Raider and Legend of Zelda while still crafting its own entirely separate identity. The game provides an engrossing, lore-rich world to explore while still being a technical achievement for the system. Perhaps just as important, the plane shifting and environmental hazard-centric combat is still unique 16 years after and though the latter is a bit clunky by today’s standards it still feels like a breath of fresh air today. 

Soul Reaver on the Playstation is a classic, an affordable one at that. Anyone looking to fill their PS1 collection with quality titles should track this this one down.

Trivia: Did you know Soul Reaver was originally going to be its own independent franchise? Originally called Shifter, publisher Eidos mandated that Crystal Dynamics develop a sequel to Blood Omen, thus, the Shifter project was reworked into what we now know today as Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

Pros:
- Rich, well-acted dialog which verges on the Shakespearean
- Plane shifting and combat are still hold as highly unique to this day
- A technical marvel for the Playstation

Cons:
- Too many sliding block puzzles
- Disappointing boss fights
- Slight control delay

Final Grade: A


Soul Reaver features a neat little cover art gimmick; rather using a still image, it employs a hologram. Therefore, the box art changes slightly depending on which angle you stare at it. In this case, you see Raziel in either the material or spectral realm. It’s a nice little touch that helps it to stand out from the crowd and watching the pillars contort is an effect I greatly enjoy watching.


The manual though short, is better than most. It provides carefully written backstory, my favorite part being a paragraph dedicated to Raziel's life as Kain's Lieutenant. Learning how the larger would create intrigues with smaller ones and bet on the possible outcomes makes for highly enticing lore. Personally, I'd love to see a game where you get to control our anti-hero during this period.

The instruction booklet also features screenshots and artwork though sadly, it's all in black and white. With that said, an enticing, expanded lore and a hologram cover make Soul Reaver's packaging stand out of the crowd. If only we'd see this level of originality in today's non-special edition releases.


Packaging Grade: B+

2 comments:

  1. Oh my God, I remember playing this game as a kid, it was an awesome experience.
    I also remember the day my father opened up a video game shop and one morning he just brought us home a huge box full of games for Playstation 1, oh the good times...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Now that is a pretty awesome story. There's nothing like a good dose of video game nostalgia. :)

      Delete