How to start this review? I’ve nervously approached this subject several times over in the last few days and it isn’t without trepidation that I undertake this task. Recently released on PSN, I’ve been inspired to write about my favourite game of all time. It’s going to be difficult to be objective – I make no bones when I say that Soul Reaver is the greatest game ever made. Beware, dear reader, for this is the lair of the slathering fanboy.
Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver was released in 1999, on the PlayStation and PC. Developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Eidos, Soul Reaver was met with fairly mixed reviews but a decent enough financial response. The game did well enough to stir Eidos into publishing a superior port for the Dreamcast and two direct sequels on the PlayStation 2: Soul Reaver 2 and Legacy of Kain: Defiance. The first time I played Soul Reaver I wasn’t aware that the game is actually a sequel to an even earlier game, Silicon Knight’s 1996 RPG, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. Soul Reaver is actually set some fifteen centuries after the events in Blood Omen, so this fact never impacts on the gameplay in any way – in fact having never played Blood Omen did nothing to spoil the experience of Soul Reaver. The two universes share elements and in later games the relationship becomes more important, but for the meantime you don’t need to have played Blood Omen to enjoy Soul Reaver.
Our protagonist in Legacy of Kain Soul Reaver is the vampire Raziel – one of nine lieutenants to the demonic overlord Kain, the eponymous namesake for the entire series of games. Kain is a vampire of time immemorial and it is quickly established that over the millennia of undeath, Kain’s appearance has become less human and more diabolical as a side-effect of the vampiric condition. Kain’s evil nature and complete contempt for humankind is certainly reflected in his horned visage and sharp cloven fists. Each few centuries, a hellish new mutation develops in Kain (referred to herein as a ‘gift’) and a few hundred years later, the gift passes on to Raziel and his eight fiendish ‘brothers’. The much younger lieutenants have a far more traditional vampiric design – pale skin, long hair, fangs and impeccable renaissance dress code. I believe it’s worth pointing out here that there’s not a molecule of glitter in sight – these are vampires that feel nothing for the human condition, and are lofty, decadent monsters who relish the destruction and gradual extinction of the race of Man. In their long reign of terror over the land of Nosgoth, Kain and his beastly lieutenants have almost driven humankind into oblivion.
Raziel’s story in Soul Reaver begins with him paying homage to Kain; bending one one knee before his master but inexplicably displaying his own recent mutation – a large pair of leathery wings. Being bestowed a new gift before his commander is unique, and Kain is visibly and intensely jealous of this fact. Tearing the bones from Raziel’s wings, crippling them, Kain orders his remaining lieutenants to cast his ‘son’ into the Lake of the Dead, a huge swirling maelstrom. Water burns and harms vampires here, so being cast into the giant whirlpool is certain death for our protagonist. After writhing and flailing in agony, Raziel’s ravaged body comes to rest upon the floor of the Lake, still as death. We concurrently hear a booming voice bidding Raziel to rise, which he eerily does. His body razed and savagely deformed, Raziel is seemingly reduced to the state of a revenant, or a ghoul. The Voice disagrees, and tells us that he’s elevated, not reduced – that he is now something even greater than he once was. The voice belongs to The Elder God, a once-powerful force in the land of Nosgoth whom is now all but forgotten in the modern vampire world. Furious that the immortal vampires are desecrating the holy cycle of birth, death and rebirth, the Elder God offers Raziel a chance for retribution – destroy Kain, his former brothers and the entire vampire race and restore order to the desolate land of Nosgoth. With searing hatred in his heart, Raziel is unable to resist and become the Elder God’s Soul Reaver – with the power to sever the souls of the freshly dead from their bodies, to consume the souls and deliver them back on their rightful path to spin the great Wheel of Fate.
You quickly learn that in the moments between your second death and rebirth, centuries have passed. Nosgoth is in its final death throes, as the previous apex predators – the vampires – have started to turn on one another for food, and are now horribly malformed monsters, opposed to the proud, ravishing forms they once took. Comparing the distorted vision of Nosgoth’s new breed of vampires to his own scabrous body gives Raziel further cause to blame Kain for his hideous new form; and with a level of self-loathing any disparate teenager could only admire, Raziel sets out on his epic quest to topple the empire of his once-beloved ‘father’.
Soul Reaver’s ambitious, epic story starts here and keeps getting better from that jumping-off point. The idea of the fallen vampire consuming souls is admittedly inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, but Soul Reaver’s story is nothing if not original. Originally conceived as a game “adults would like to play”, Crystal Dynamics wanted to achieve the same third-person action / adventure gameplay of Tomb Raider, but with a darker, gothic twist and a focus on puzzle-solving and strong narrative rather than combat. That’s not to say the combat in Soul Reaver is under-par – combos, a range of different weapons and unlockable abilities all keep the combat well above the simple hack-and-slash fare of its contemporaries. One nice factor is that unlike human opponents, vampires cannot be killed outright by brute force; they can be beaten into a dazed state but must be finished off by impaling, setting alight or by immersion in either water or sunlight. The controls here take a leaf out of the book of Gex, Spyro and Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie – replace the cutesy animals with bloodthirsty fiends of course, and you’re nearly there.
Progression through the game reveals two major themes. The first of which is that Raziel, in his new quiddity as the Soul Reaver, is able to straddle the worlds of the living and the dead – hereby labeled the Material and Spectral realms. Raziel’s ability to span the veil gives Soul Reaver a truly unique gamely mechanic. Upon being destroyed in the physical world (either by being defeated by an enemy or simply by choice), Raziel’s soul traverses the gap between realms and materialises in the spectral. The spectral realm is a twisted equivalent of its tangible counterpart, populated with the tortured souls of men and beasts and with structures often twisted and distorted in inexplicable ways. This is used to great effect in much of the level design and puzzle-solving elements: because no time passes in the ghost world, water has no substance – this allows Raziel to walk on riverbeds. Often walls will distort into stepped inclines; trees will warp into bridges and new paths will appear from nothingness. A great deal of the gameplay relies on this mechanic, with many puzzles being able to be solved by using the properties of this ethereal kingdom, or the difference between the two. Using the “no time passes” mechanic, objects cannot be moved in the ghost world, they can only be manipulated in the physical – this normally means a good amount of switching between the dominions of the living and the dead to progress through certain areas, as there are plenty of puzzles which involve moving large blocks, or opening gates.
The second main element to the gameplay in Soul Reaver involves Raziel’s abilities. As you progress through the storyline, defeating your wildly divergent sanguisuge brethren, Raziel gains spectacular new abilities – much in the same vein as games in the CastleVania series, but a whole heap better. The abilities themselves are powerful and original, and by the end of the game Raziel feels like a vampiric powerhouse. Raziel’s offensive output is amped no end with the abilities he picks up and like CastleVania, often these new abilities offer the means with which to reach new areas of the game world or to solve certain puzzles – developing a tolerance for water or the ability to scale sheer surfaces for instance. Learning the synergy of these new moves adds exponentially to the fun in Soul Reaver, but this is not without its downside. Progression in the game is halted in some areas until Raziel has the appropriate ability, which is often stifling as the game’s open-world gameplay and non-linear objectives are often far too vague, leaving the player with an irritating sense of confusion and loss. Generally speaking though, this is an excellent game mechanic which truly rewards your gameplay – there are elemental glyphs hidden around Nosgoth which offer Raziel all manner of new abilities, and none of them are required for the storyline, but are included purely for adding variety and fun into the game.
The landscape of Nosgoth is a desolate wasteland, bereft of life. This kind of landscape could be very easy to render in bland shades of grey and beige, but Soul Reaver delivers a real, believable world. Shattered ruins lay discarded about the landscape – once-proud cathedrals now empty have become a parody of their intention. Huge swathes of the former civilisation have been reclaimed by nature, strangled by great webs of creeping plants and worn to stumps by the harsh weather. In this landscape is where the fun of exploration really comes into its own. Each new location is shown off by some clever camera work, which also illustrates how best to conquer the new environment. The scenic set-pieces really are spectacular; in actuality, the graphics in Soul Reaver are altogether excellent. Soul Reaver probably boasts some of the best visuals on the PlayStation, from the huge, sweeping cathedrals with their dynamic coloured lighting, reflections and post effects, right down to the brilliantly modelled and animated characters. Raziel himself is so perfectly realised that you will find yourself (as I did) rotating the camera to watch him run, fight and devour souls, or even just to stand and pose.
Due to some excellent technology, Soul Reaver is without loading times. As far as I’m aware, this technology appeared neither on any other games on the PlayStation or indeed on any game since. I don’t understand why this didn’t become more of a standard as it’s a spectacular feature. There’s a brief loading period at the beginning of each session but then you’re clear for as long as you can play. There is one part of the entire game where I experienced loading, and that was after spending twenty-something minutes climbing the tallest structure in the game then jumping right off the top, for the lolz.
The huge, sweeping environments blend seamlessly into one another without a frame dropped, the music blends between on location and the next – and what music it is, too. The music in Soul Reaver is some of the best of all time. Composed by Kurt Harland, the dark, horror-themed score adds a whole new level of atmosphere to Soul Reaver – even going so far as to change depending on the situation you’re in. The ominous tones of the soundtrack really bring out the post-apolocalyptic feel inherent everywhere in Soul Reaver and decaying, crumbling mausoleums wouldn’t have anywhere near the same level of ambiance without it. The quality of the voice acting is impeccable, with some big stars in the voice cast. The dialogue itself is indulgent and wordy, and adeptly written.
The only grievance I have with Soul Reaver is the very end of the story and the final showdown with your antagonist, Kain. No spoilers here, but let’s say the ending of the game feels a little rushed. In retrospect, the ending of Soul Reaver is actually quite marvellous, as it neatly allows for the narrative to expand in the mind-bogglingly luminous storyline we have today. However – at the time I was disappointed, so this has to be a mark down. Other than that one thing, Soul Reaver is possibly the closest to the Perfect Game I think I’ve ever played. The platforming elements are tight, with controls that feel polished and refined. The difficulty is about right – combat can take its toll on you, the puzzles are certainly cerebral enough. The graphics are seriously dazzling and the music deepens and expands the game world no end. I often discuss the idea of games being set in a believable, well-realised universe. All my favourite games tick this box, and games which fail to develop an apposite universe, I usually switch off. Legacy of Kain’s world; Nosgoth and its surrounding kingdoms is so vibrant and alive it all-but seeps and drips from the walls. Every location, every dazzling line of dialogue, every stage of gameplay is steeped in dark fantasy.
I’ve played this game through I don’t know how many times. If you’re a fan of platformers, but want something more grown up and with an original storyline, then do yourself a favour and pick this up. You will not be disappointed.