How many times do you hear that a game has a great storyline, only to find out upon playing it that this supposedly incredible yarn is the usual high fantasy pish or standard ‘epic’ sci-fi bollocks, delivered by a bunch of bored voiceover actors collecting a paycheque? And Nolan North, of course. The storyline that holds together the Legacy of Kain series is absolutely among the very best our hobby has to offer, twisting its way through time, alternative dimensions, all packed with brilliant, interesting characters and impeccably delivered voice acting. The second entry in the series, Soul Reaver, is only part of a multi-layered narrative that crosses all of the games in the series, a tale of vengeance in a strange world. The writer, Amy Hennig, went on to write the exceptional adventure tales that are the Uncharted games. It is regarded as the series' highest point, but does it stand up under our present-day scrutiny?
When Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver was released for the Playstation, Dreamcast and PC in 1999, it was a radical departure from the Zelda-esque dungeon-crawling gameplay of its predecessor, instead turning the game into a third-person action platformer, a genre that was currently very fashionable in a ‘post-Tomb Raider’ world. You no longer play as Kain, but instead as his second in command, Raziel, a vampire who sprouts wings, evolving before his master. Kain, clearly quite upset at this transgression, brutally snaps them and boots him into an abyss. After being reborn, Raziel is no longer a vampire, but a SOUL REAVER, who can suck in the souls of other beings and kill the immortal vampires. So, he decides to go and deal out a fair chunk of revenge upon Kain, unbeknownst to him that he is part of a much bigger plan, involving a great deal of manipulation of people and the fabric of time.
The first thing you'll notice upon firing it up is that it still looks alright. Sure, the characters are lower poly, lower resolution than current tech, but the world of Nosgoth is still a lovely environment to find oneself in. The transition between the strange spectral plane and the crumbling ruins of the real world Nosgoth is far more interesting than “generic futuristic warzone #7” that plagues most modern videogames. It’s a mix of traditional medieval imagery and an ancient Egyptian world, with tombs, giant statues and sarcophagi scattered across its wastes. Raziel is a wonderfully animated and memorable protagonist - a jawless, blue-skinned creature with a curtain cut hairstyle, wearing nothing but a scrappy cowl over his gaping maw.
Ultimately, it can look like shit for all I care, provided the gameplay holds up. You run around Nosgoth, switching between the two realms and warping the world as you do so. Certain areas are accessed through clever manipulation of the two planes, as bridges repair themselves over pits, walls crumble to reveal doors and rivers empty to become valleys full of secrets. As you progress, Raziel picks up new abilities along the way, which in turn grant him access to new locations. A huge influence is taken from The Legend of Zelda and Metroid games, gameplay ideas that are still very strong bases now. Look at various Castlevania titles, Cave Story, Shadow Complex and the incredible Batman: Arkham Asylum for modern examples of this style of gameplay.
Combat holds up slightly less well, as an example of how some games come along and set new standards. This was released in a world pre-Devil May Cry and God of War, two games that have had their combat styles borrowed from extensively, and it is quite clear that should this game have been released after them it almost certainly would’ve had something similar. You can lock on to an enemy by holding down a button, then jabbing the attack button will make Raziel do a combo of strikes, be that with his claws or the Soul Reaver sword of the title. It isn’t particularly graceful. Every enemy killed yields its soul, which must be absorbed to ensure it stays dead. Holding down the appropriate button causes the fairly iconic animation, where Raziel casts his cowl to the side, exposing the huge hole where once was a mouth, and he sucks them in, giving him health in the process. Some enemies - the vampires - are immortal, so his claws' lashes aren’t quite enough to separate them from their souls. Instead, you must perform an environmental kill on them in order to begin the process of finishing them off. A few hits will stun them, and then you must pick them up and toss them into spikes, water or direct sunlight before you suck their soul up. This means you’ve got to keep an eye on your surroundings as you enter each new area, making sure that there are means to dispatch whatever enemies are lurking.
Something that doesn’t really cut it here, miles into the future, is the save system. Anyone who can think a little bit more laterally about how they continue their progress in game shouldn’t have a problem with it, but remember, here we are in the future, where you can bloody well save where you want. Basically, at any point you can pause the game and save your progress, but when you load up your game later on, you’re taken right back TO THE BOTTOM OF THE ABYSS WHERE YOU STARTED THE GAME. This can be annoying, especially if you saved your game before a boss area of a series of hard jumps, thinking you can just go back to that last save should anything bad happen. There is a teleporter hub right next to where you spawn, allowing for quick access to any of the connecting portals you find on your travels, but even then it sometimes requires quite a trek to get back to where you initially saved. This system can work in your favour, however. Say, for example, you know there is a unreachable area quite close to a particular teleporter and you’ve just acquired the skill needed to access it. A quick save of your game, followed by a restart and load will take you back to the start and in prime location to get where you need to go quickly.
Finding your way around Nosgoth is also a bit of a pain in the arse. There’s no map, and the game is sometimes very vague with direction as to where you should be heading. Modern games tend to hold you by the hand in this respect, always giving you some kind of waypoint to your next objective. If you get lost in Soul Reaver, expect to spend a fair bit of your time wandering around explored terrain until you notice a newly reachable area.
Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver stands the test of time. Some more modern games have improved on a few gameplay aspects, but things like the setting, story and characters are timeless. Throw these on top of a solid base and it is enough to ensure that Soul Reaver is still a lot of fun to play even now. Out of the versions available, the nod has to go to the PlayStation release. The PC one is difficult to get running on modern machines, and while the Dreamcast one has nicer graphics, the lack of second analog stick makes camera movement a bit tricky at times.
Rumours of a series reboot seem to kick up every couple of months, but with Amy Hennig moving on to other, bigger things over at Naughty Dog, perhaps the Legacy of Kain series, from its humble beginnings to its incredibly satisfying finale, is a story best left already told?