Retro Saturdays Episode 7 :: Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver

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Imagine that you’re a dandy young lad coming home after winning the spelling bee contest in school. You have this big trophy with your name on it and present it to your father. What would he do? I reckon he’d give you a pat on the head at the very least with a pleasant smile, even if he’s hard as stone. Well the same thing happened to this guy called Raziel. You see Raziel is one of the offspring of Kain, the first vampire and the ruler of Nosgoth. Kain periodically undergoes evolution and passes his gifts to his sons. There was something peculiar about Raziel. One day, he grew some wings. Poof! Just like that. What is the first thing that he did? He went over to his father to see how proud Kain was of his sonny boy. Just like a good father, Kain comes over to Raziel, inspects his wings in awe and BAM! He tears Raziel’s pteroid bone in one angry cleave. Raziel’s wings fall flaccid just like a human genitalia under a cold shower. Kain then drags Raziel to a massive whirlpool right outside his castle and condemns him to suffer and rot for all eternity for being a good boy scout. Ah the joys of being a firstborn…takes some of you back to your childhood no doubt.

 

A History of Bloodlust

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is a 1999 an action-adventure video game developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Eidos Interactive. While Soul Reaver was originally supposed to be its own game, it ended up being the sequel to Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, the 1996 ARPG by Silicon Knights. Soul Reaver, just like the original became a surprise hit both commercially and critically. It was technically and aesthetically outstanding – a 3D Metroidvania-style action adventure with no loading times, featuring real-time shifting between parallel worlds, an elegant art style and some of the best voice acting and writing the industry had ever seen. It pushed the humble Playstation to new limits and eventually got ported to the Dreamcast and PC. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on N64 had redefined expectations of how ambitious an action adventure title could be. One could argue that it outdid Ocarina of Time if you do a side-by-side comparison. Soul Reaver managed to leave its mark as one of the most technically accomplished releases the PlayStation would see during its lifespan. With a vast open world to explore, absence of loading in-game loading times, fluid animation and superb audio production, Crystal Dynamics’ epic is still highly regarded today, nearly 20 years later.

 

Amy Henning, known for her work in Uncharted and Jax and Daxter served as the director, producer, and writer for Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. To my surprise, she considers Soul Reaver as her self-proclaimed greatest achievement. The team’s original proposal was a concept for a new IP named “Shifter,” loosely inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The protagonist was essentially a fallen angel of death, a reaper of souls hunted by his former brethren, and now driven to expose and destroy the false god they all served. The core ideas for Soul Reaver was already there; an undead immortal hero, exploring vast open world while solving puzzles and shifting between the spectral and material realm.

Like I said, their original idea was very loosely inspired by the rebellious angels of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The spiritual structure of the world was based on the philosophy of Gnosticism, the belief that the cosmos is ruled by a malevolent ‘pretender’ god, that humans are prisoners in a spiritual lie, and that mankind’s struggle is a fight for free will in the face of seemingly insurmountable Fate. In Amy’s words “We wanted to give Nosgoth’s dystopian future a decaying 19th-century industrial aesthetic, while the look of the spectral realm was inspired by the twisted architecture and disorienting angles of 1920s German Expressionist cinema.”

 

Soul Reaver was incredibly ambitious. Crystal Dynamics’ Gex engine provided them with an advantage on the emerging 3D technology. Publisher Eidos wanted the game in less than two years. In the end, they shipped Soul Reaver in under 2.5 years, but not without some unfortunate final hour cuts. It would go down in history as one of the finest Playstation titles that would rival Zelda and is still remembered fondly.

Our First Date

The first time I came to know of Legacy of Kain was in the form of a wallpaper on my then new computer back in 2003. I had the tech guys from down the block come in and set up the whole thing for me. This was my first time with Windows XP and I noticed that the guys had installed some games, copied some music and random images to the computer (this was a common thing back here in India then) Eventually I started browsing through the files and folders. It was in the My Pictures folder that I came across wallpapers of some games. Among them were Diablo 2, Hitman 2, prototype images of Doom 3 and an unknown game called Legacy of Kain – Defiance and featured two badass humanoids with sharp fangs that I’d soon come to known as Kain and Raziel. What can I say, my 10 year old mind was impressed. So the next month I saved up some money and went to the same tech guys. I told them that I want to buy the game. They said something like they don’t have it on stock or something. But I was a stubborn little kid and made them bring the game on their next stock collection a week later. I paid them… I think INR 180 (big amount back then) and went home a happy kid with the cardboard box in hand.

There was only one problem. The game wasn’t called LoK : Defiance. It was called LoK: Soul Reaver. But eh, at least it had one of the ‘sharp toothed’ guys from the picture in the box. So I booted it up, tried to understand the story using my half-assed English skills and didn’t get up until I beat the first boss. The game had splendid voice acting, huge maps, smooth animations, clever puzzles and I got to do things that I wouldn’t be able to in real life, like impaling dudes on a metal pike. It’s suffice to say that I had fallen in love with the game, so much so that I spent an atrocious of money including my whole savings to buy the 3 sequels that had been released in the following years. I don’t regret it one bit. Money well spent.

Daddy Issues

The game opens up after Raziel is resurrected from the water oblivion by an eldritch force. Raziel is not the pretty boy you remember from centuries ago. In the world of Nosgoth, water is to vampires what acid is to us humans in real life. Raziel’s whole lower jaw and most of the muscles on his body had been disintegrated and his wings were just a shadow of their former self, ruined and without bones. He sported a sexy waistline that most ladies would kill for. The Elder God (voiced to perfection by the great late Tony Jay) hails Raziel as his “angel of death”. He is created to serve as the deity’s soul reaver, to destroy and consume the souls of all the vampires and their master, Kain. His vampiric blood-thirst has been replaced by a thirst for souls. Motivated to take revenge on his brethren for casting him away, Raziel accepted this form and set about on his personal vendetta of vengeance and redemption.

Raziel connects to the players due to his rebellious nature, persistence, anger and righteousness. Raziel’s most important trait is his free will and his disregard for fatalism. He hates the idea of a predestined world and wants to make his own choices. He highly despises Kain’s godlike nature and puts the fate of Nosgoth above all others. Above all, he’s just a badass character voiced by Michael Bell and he did so, extremely well. It’s an absolute pleasure to control him and use his abilities to your heart’s fullest. The game deals with topics such as rebellion, responsibility over morality, thirst for power etc. You can also find lots of biblical undertones throughout the story. Raziel is portrayed as a messiah who is resurrected from death and has to bring order back to the world. It’s no surprise as to why the developers named him after one of the angels from the Bible itself. The developers really took a gamble by taking the anti-hero from the first game and making him the antagonist in the sequel. If it wasn’t for Raziel, I’m sure most of the fans of Blood Omen would be pretty pissed. He just ticks all the right boxes for me and it should come as no surprise as Raziel takes a spot in my favorite video game characters of all time list.

Return to Nosgoth

For this episode, I went back and played Soul Reaver again. Although the controls and graphics has aged quite a lot, but the presentation still holds up. Nosgoth is still a very atmospheric place with ruins, cavers, temples and a shadow of a once-great empire. Throughout the game, you get a lived in and uneasy feeling from the game thanks to the gothic art style and murky textures. The game at its core is an action platformer with a focus of environmental puzzles. Raziel can run, sneak, climb, glide and do all sorts of nifty things. Throughout your adventures, you’ll come across deranged minions from your brother’s clans and guess what… they don’t like the prodigal son anymore than their masters do. Comat in Soul Reaver is pretty standard stuff. You can either use your claws, objects found in the environments like pikes, torches etc or use your elemental powers acquired from glyphs. Most of the enemies you fight belong to the undead category. Hence you have to either impale them, throw them into fire or water to permanently dispatch them. It’s a neat feature that adds some depth to the generic combat. But you can avoid most of the enemies if you wish to do so. So if you don’t feel like it…don’t.

Perhaps the most stand-out feature of Soul Reaver that sets it apart from similar games is the real time shifting between the spectral realm and the material realm; two aesthetically and geographically distinct planes that you can switch to and fro at will. This is not a gimmick as various puzzles in the game forces you to switch between the planes to find a way to bypass them, as well as for storytelling purposes. This technique was pulled off very nicely by the devs. Loading two different versions of the map would have placed too much strain on an already heavy system, but Crystal Dynamics found a workaround. The same basic map data is utilized, but geometry is mapped to different coordinates in each version of the level. Shifting between planes interpolates from one set of geometry to the other and voila! This mechanic still remains novel and impressive. It’s a damn shame how more games doesn’t take advantage of this.

Is the game flawless? No. There are way too many slow paced block puzzles in the game and everyone’s favorite; “early 3D platforming”. Several levels and puzzles had me literally pulling my hair and angrily waving my controller in the air. The game is very obscure as to telling you where to go and what to do next as there are so many hidden places and pathways to get yourself lost in. Most of these are minor annoyances to anyone familiar with oldschool games and the story, writing and the excellent voice acting makes up for it. Oh and make sure you play the sequels if you want a somewhat okay-ish ending to the series as Soul Reaver ends in a huge “seriously?” moment.

Old Man Kain

It’s really a shame that Soul Reaver or any of the games in the franchise hasn’t been blessed with a modern day remaster or a remake. Of all the platforms it released on, the pc port is probably the worst, but it’s your only solid choice of playing the game at this day and age (unless you go hunt for a PS or Dreamcast copy or emulate them) You can get the entire series (With the exception of Blood Omen) from Steam or GOG. If you want to play in higher resolutions and 60 fps, make sure to grab a nifty program called ‘SRHook’ from the internet. If you find the native controller support to be lacking, download ‘Xpadder’ or something similar. If you ask me is it worth to go through all this hassle for this old game? Hell yeah.

 

Legacy of Soul Reaver

Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver is remembered fondly as a well-constructed game with an original vision and an engaging story, and  groundbreaking in terms of what Crystal Dynamics were able to achieve on the PlayStation at the time. Their approach to voice acting and performance was also innovative for the time, the way we brought the actors in to record their dialogue together rather than in isolation. The performance capture process studios use on games such as Uncharted today owes its origins to the techniques established for Soul Reaver nearly twenty years ago. It’s just an amazing game man.


Well that’s it for today folks. Enjoy your weekend and we’ll be back with another gem next Saturday. Til  then, do give good ol’ Kain a chance, will you?

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