Retro Reflections: Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (2022)

The Legacy of Kain series has a devoted fan base for sure, but I have only dabbled in its other titles outside of Soul Reaver. For many, this game is the standout of the series. It is remembered more prominently than others, for better or worse. I remember my experiences with it back on the PlayStation fondly, but revisiting some titles often shows more cracks and blemishes. With that in mind, I have decided to review the Dreamcast version this go around.

The road to a Blood Omen follow-up title was tough and interesting, though. A small legal battle ensued between the two companies that had worked on the first game, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. Crystal Dynamics was working off of the research Silicon Knights had gathered, resulting in a potential lawsuit that was settled, but it had already set them back. That and development issues caused the company to miss their January 1999 release date, forcing them to push it to August. When the game did finally arrive though, many new and returning fans were in for a treat.

Taking place around fifteen hundred years after the first installment, vampires now rule the last of Nosgoth as Kain sired others like him to help seize power. He becomes jealous though, as one of his lieutenants, Raziel, has evolved before him, sprouting bat-like wings. Kain kills him for this insult, but Raziel is brought back centuries later by an entity known as The Elder God. Players take control of Raziel this time around, who does not recognize the world he used to know or his former brethren, but must confront them if he wishes to take revenge.

Soul Reaver has a wonderful story that I greatly enjoy. It isn’t all spelled out in the beginning, but the opening cutscene is stunning to look at and puts me in the mood to take up Raziel’s quest each time. It’s just a shame this installment has such a lackluster ending, and that the series as a whole was never able to conclude properly. Industry veteran Amy Hennig (Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves) helped with the writing and production, as well as taking on the role of director. She considers the series one of her best projects and I can certainly understand why.

It was also the incredible voice talent that brought this game to its full undead life. Michael Bell (G.I. Joe, Transformers, Voltron) portrayed Raziel, Simon Templeman (James Bond Jr., The Legend of Prince Valiant) returned as Kain, Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad, Deadwood) voiced Ariel once again, and Tony Jay (ReBoot, Mighty Max) brought power to The Elder God, rounding out a superb cast. Their lines sound like elegant soliloquies in most parts, and for this era of gaming, their performances truly stand out. This, combined with an excellent soundtrack, made Soul Reaver’s audio imperative to the storytelling and atmosphere.

Music is important, especially when trying to capture a certain tone. Soul Reaver does this with style. Composed by Kurt Harland (X-Men 2: Clone Wars, Gex: Enter the Gecko), who was originally known for being in the band Information Society. A track the group made was wanted for the game, and it came to define the series’ audio signature. The tracks actually change in most areas depending on what is happening in the gameplay, which is amazing for the time. As well, the sound effects are sharp while most feel supernatural and distinct.

With the game being set in a distant future with so many fantasy elements, the developers were ambitious with the gameplay. That makes it even harder to admit that this is the area that Soul Reaver suffers in the most, but thankfully its strengths help to mask this. The game is much more puzzle heavy than I remembered. This can be difficult when there is so much to explore and the answer usually relies on using both the physical and spectral realms. It is easy to get lost, especially with no map, and one wrong turn can cost the player a lot of time.

It doesn’t help that the portal system is also hard to understand at first, not being well marked. Some areas are also simply just very dark and look similar enough to confuse some players. Though I love many of the artistic choices the team made, Nosgoth is quite drab and shadowy. It is desolate, just Raziel and his enemies, which helps the tone but not its visuals or special aspect of the environment. They did not explore the color palette in most areas, making it easy to get turned around while retracing steps, meaning a few simple mistakes can make some sections incredibly daunting.

Speaking of things that can be difficult, the platforming is not too bad for early 3D games, but it does get annoying in some areas. Controlling the camera is also a bit tedious at first, oddly being tied to the D-pad, and on this version can cause someone vertigo. One of my viewers, BlackBird, also said he had a problem with this when I streamed the game on Twitch. I blame movement issues mostly on the Dreamcast controller, which I hate. The layout makes some basic actions feel awkward and took some getting used to with combat.

Fighting enemies is interesting, because simply hitting them isn’t enough. The undead creatures must be executed in some of the traditional ways of slaying: throwing them into sunlight, fire, bodies of water, or on spikes will all work, and several other weapons will pierce the heart as well. The most entertaining way however is by tipping large puzzle blocks on them. This is fun at first, but does get old quickly, especially when all they offer is life in return. It is easier to run past them in many cases. Hit detection for enemies and moveable objects is also off at times, causing some scuffles to be costly.

There are some fun boss fights that made me consider my environment and think. I love that first encounter with Melchiah once the room is explored and how to deal with him is made clear. In many of these battles, it isn’t about attacking the boss directly, but other things that can affect them, like another form of a puzzle. Defeating his former siblings also grants Raziel new abilities like phasing and wall-climbing to help reach new areas and overcome obstacles.

The game’s puzzles and combat can unfortunately be quite repetitive. Soul Reaver relies on these new powers, upgrades, and the story to keep things fresh and interesting. It isn’t the best gamble, but it certainly worked on me. There was supposed to be more to it though.

I found out there was also a tie-in prequel comic for Raziel published by Top Cow. This book didn’t just build up the hype for the game, but also referenced some of these elements that had to be left on the editing room floor. It was unfortunate, but not a mistake they let halt the series.

I mentioned the lackluster ending earlier and there is a reason behind how that came to be. Until recently I did not know that the game was technically incomplete. Players had speculated that some of the dead ends and missing bits from promotional materials signified this, but fragments were found on the disc that proved it. There were not only supposed to be other powers and whole areas after the retail ending, but more story also, as well as another encounter with Kain. This didn’t happen because of time limitations and several technical restraints with the PlayStation it seems.

Released for Sega’s Dreamcast in early 2000, this port possesses a better resolution and framerate, while improving on the view distance and fog. Animations are crisp, everything runs smoother, and the camera is much more fluid. The game runs slightly better, but still has its issues and brief dips in quality, mostly with lower textures and while multiple effects or enemies are on screen. These performance problems are a tad harder to spot in this version.

There is a direct sequel that I need to play at some point, and I’d like to try all of the games, but it seems the reason to go through everything is the story and presentation. Soul Reaver is probably not the best in the series, but could still be seen as the game that best represents it. I am glad I was able to replay it and experience a more polished version of Raziel’s journey again.

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