torstai 12. huhtikuuta 2012

REVIEW - Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (1999)

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: August 1999
DEVELOPER(S): Crystal Dynamics
PUBLISHER(S): Eidos Interactive

Long before Amy Hennig broke the bank with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune on Naughty Dog's payroll, she helped create Legacy of Kain, a cult franchise which chronicled the afterlife of nobleman Kain, who was murdered by a group of assassins in the beginning of the series and later became the enigmatic, vampiric tyrant of the world of Nosgoth. The 2D, Zelda-like adventure game Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain was the first title in the series, but it was the 3D action adventure Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver which defined the remainder of it and brought the franchise to mainstream attention. To this day, this unpredictable cult classic stands as one of the original PlayStation's most gratifying gameplay experiences, and one that paved way for many more followers than many critics are willing to admit.

From vampire to vampire hunter 

Michael Bell : Raziel / Melchiah
Tony Jay : Elder God / Zephon
Simon Templeman : Kain / Dumah
Neil Ross : Rahab
Anna Gunn : Ariel
Richard Doyle : Moebius the Timestreamer / Morlock the Guardian

When the vampire Kain murdered the Circle of Nine, he was given a choice: he could either sacrifice himself for the salvation of Nosgoth, or take control of the realm and continue his legacy. He chose to appoint himself as Nosgoth's new ruler. Not too long after that, Kain surrounded himself with vampiric lieutenants, to whom he also refers to as his children. Raziel was the first to turn - therefore he is the oldest of Kain's children, and his right-hand man. However, Kain's arrogance drives a wedge between his and Raziel's alliance, as Raziel surpasses his master in terms of vampiric evolution by growing wings. As punishment, Kain orders Raziel to be cast into the bottomless Lake of the Dead. Raziel's body is utterly destroyed by the abyss, but what's left of it is reanimated a few centuries later by the Elder God, who encourages Raziel to begin anew as a devourer of souls, find Kain and exact revenge upon his former master, who has now led both his brethren and the whole world of Nosgoth into complete ruin.

You shouldn't fuck with a guy who broke the
world record in the Track & Field javelin throw
event three times in a row.
This game brings back sweet memories, and I can tell you right now they aren't only memories; the game is almost just as good as it was 13 years ago! I had a friend who was a sucker for Blood Omen, the first game in the series, and I wasn't that sweet on it. I thought the game was quite boring, but I liked the story and I liked listening to my friend talk about it. Then Soul Reaver came along - a completely different game from Blood Omen. A gothic, violent tale of revenge somewhat influenced by games like Super Metroid and more obviously, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, only that it had an array of unique tricks of its own up its sleeve, and it was in 3D. My friend got the game, of course, and he loved it even more than he loved Blood Omen - it appealed to me, too, just by the looks of it, and when I first tried it myself, I couldn't get enough of it. After three or four playthroughs, I named Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver one of my favourite video games of all time. Even if the basic patterns of the gameplay have been repeated and successfully outdone by many more recent, totally unrelated games, it's Soul Reaver's great, unique story and its innovative ways upon launch that make it a lasting cult classic, and still one hell of a trip to have in present time. Yes - even with its few ugly, obsolete spots, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver still counts as one of my favourite video games of all time. 

Soul Reaver sports a great story, and it actually has the same common theme as the first game. The main character is killed and resurrected in the beginning of the game, and the main goal is to get back at whoever's responsible. The vampire cliches were used up in Blood Omen, so there's none on show here. This game actually makes very slight notions to vampires, even though the cast is comprised of them. It ain't a typical "tale of revenge" either, though it plays out like one for the longest time. You'll just know there's more to it than that, eventually... unfortunately, you'd have to play the rest of the trilogy to find out what it is. The thing that has pissed off a lot of people about this game and its story, to this day, is that it ends by hitting a brick wall - we're not even talking about a simple cliffhanger, we're talking about bringing the game to an abrupt halt, with not even a final boss battle or closing cutscene impressive enough to tell your friends about. The facts are obvious: Crystal Dynamics was in a world of hurry to finish this game. It's sad, but true: the game is equal to hours of some of the best third-person action available on the PlayStation, but the crappy ending will inevitably evoke a serious fit of nerd rage in anyone who appreciates a great story. I'd like to add that to this day, I've never played the sequels, which makes the ending that much more enfuriating. I'm planning to fix that mistake soon enough, and that mistake does not affect the joy I get from playing Soul Reaver at all.

General graphics were never this game's focus, and perhaps that is exactly why Soul Reaver is one of the least dated PlayStation games when it comes to its visuals. Almost every game that was initially promoted as "the greatest looking game on the PlayStation", had carefully rendered backgrounds, a lot of colours and a million cutscenes, looks butt-ugly by today's standards. Soul Reaver is in full 3D, it's very dark, and it only has a couple of those classic lagging FMV's, and it looks quite OK; the clean, round blood effects typical to console games of the generation are quick to catch an evil eye, though.

The reaver of souls equipped with the Soul
Reaver. I see what you did there.
The music is also great. Kurt Harland replaced Steve Henifin as the main composer here, and remained that 'til the end of the series. The soundtrack captures the vengeful spirit of the whole series quite well, not to mention the thick, gothic atmosphere. The voiceover work's a fine mix of serious talent and some deliciously cheesy melodrama. Simon Templeman reprises his role as Kain from Blood Omen to great success; Templeman's voiced a lot of great villains in his time, but I will always regard Kain as his most iconic performance. Michael Bell, voiceover artist since the early 70's, made his first of many major video game appearances in this game as Raziel. What's notable is that he was 61 years old at the time, and Raziel sounds like a character in his 40's, which already stands as proof of versatility required from a good voice actor. Throw in the legendary Tony Jay (R.I.P.) as the "mentor" character, and you've got yourself a title that helped define voiceover quality in the early days of voiceovers becoming standard in video games.

If some kid who first got into video games during the last, say, nine years - the time that's passed since Defiance, the final installment in the series thus far - and asked me what Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver's all about, my initial answer would be very simple. "Ever played Batman: Arkham Asylum?" If he's a smart kid, he has, and Soul Reaver is very easy to explain to him. There's a relatively small hub world with several smaller levels, a lot of different abilities to learn and use to gain access to most upgrades, as well as to unlock new areas. Nosgoth ain't that big in the long run, but it has a lot of small corners to explore, and you can only explore those corners by having certain abilities in your arsenal. It even has a couple of bonafide sidequests, which you do not need to conquer to beat the game, but doing that does help your general progress a little. That's not all, though. A lot of puzzles in Soul Reaver are based on being able to take full advantage of your ghost-like being, and entering the spectral realm.

A mere sealed gate won't hold a true badass - he'll
simply phase through it.
The spectral realm is a contorted version of Nosgoth, where no physical laws apply. Water's as thin as air, there are no truly living beings, and shapes of the real world - called the "material realm" - are twisted, usually to your convenience. For example, decorated parts of walls may stick out, forming platforms for you to climb, and round, strictly vertical pipes might turn into horizontal walkways. However, you cannot physically grab anything in the spectral realm, nor can you interact with doors or levers. You can enter the spectral realm at any given time, but you need a conduit to return to the material realm, which is usually placed just so that you need to really work on some puzzles that are based on the whole realm-roaming schtick. Oh yeah, and there's absolutely no way to lose in this game. When your life is drained in the material realm, you are taken to the spectral realm, and you cannot return before you can reave enough souls to regain full health, and find the nearest conduit. If you get mauled by the spirits of the spectral realm, you return to the starting point of the game, but nothing's lost along the way. You can keep everything, you just need to fight your way back. It's a bit annoying, sure, but let me tell you that if you have the slightest practice on your side, it's pretty much impossible to die in the spectral realm. The enemies are very frail, and devouring just one soul boosts your health greatly.

Although Raziel's no longer a vampire, instead he feasts on the souls of fallen enemies, in the beginning of the game he suffers from many vampiric weaknesses that prevent him from accessing certain areas, or just otherwise screw with his progress to find Kain and slap his former master silly. Roaming through any area with any natural light will slowly drain his health. Water scorches the poor bastard like acid, and even though his physical power is increased upon his resurrection, his former agility and ability to glide are toned down "just a bit" due to his badly injured body, limbs and wings. Raziel's very weak in the beginning of the game, but as in every great game of fetch, he will very much be the "angel of death" the Elder God's constantly selling him as by the end of it. You can count on it.

There are much more ways to kill a vampire than one could spontaneously surmise; fighting enemies in Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is awesome. The game was THE most entertaining third-person melee game of its time. The bosses are all different from each other and most require additional strategies beyond Raziel's standard arsenal to stay down, including general environmental awareness and taking advantage of the whole battlefield, from small limited areas to whole levels. "Standard" is an incorrect term to describe regular enemies, as well. You see, beating them to half-death (or "half-undeath"?) with ANYTHING you can find (decorative staves, spears, poles, vases, torches etc.) is not enough. Every vampire flick ever made should make you know better: vampires don't go down easily. Either destroy the whole body, or its heart. These are exactly the things you need to do in this game.

A typical puzzle.
If you don't have a weapon at hand, you can use Raziel's hands (turned boney claws) to inflict minor damage. Later on in the game, you can also go on the hunt for some spells that'll especially help you with large groups of enemies. Also, you will gain a kind of a "Master Sword", a permanent weapon that's only available when your health is full in the material realm, and always in the spectral realm. Like I said before, you can use just about every long object, whether it's blunt or sharp, as a weapon. Just beating the enemies to a pulp is not enough, you also need to impale the enemy through the heart, and finally, devour its soul, before you can safely pick up the weapon again. Torches can be used as weapons and to kill enemies instantly with fire, but you'll need to reignite the torch after each enemy at the nearest bonfire or some other source of flame. During "fist fights", in which there are no direct means to kill an enemy, you'll want to check the environment for sharp wall decorations, cracks for sunlight, and moats. You can then grab the enemy and send him flying to his doom, whatever its nature might be. The clumsy camera and the oversensitive analog control - which are the game's most constant and annoying flaws - might piss on your killing spree a little, but you'll get used to 'em. Add in stealth kills by "javelin throw", and you've got yourself some crazy killing time. It still feels awesome.

Making progress in the game's a constant puzzle. Not a hard one, but it does require constant awareness of your surroundings, moderate navigational skills and some sense of logic. The individual puzzles start repeating themselves towards the end, as most are either related to realm-switching or filling gaps in walls with conveniently placed tiles or boxes, so that their patterns match the walls'. Anyway, Soul Reaver has them - puzzles, I mean - which I think is the most important thing. It wouldn't be the same game without them to balance all the vampire-killing out. Since you can't really die, Soul Reaver's not a hard game in general. It's just an entertaining action adventure to be had. Extremely so.

In news that are probably old by now, the Legacy of Kain franchise - at least Soul Reaver - is up for a reboot or a remake. I just heard about this a couple of days ago, and I'm kinda ecstatic, but also a little curious about the point of it all. After all, after 13 years, the original game still manages to deliver high-quality passtime. Of course I'm going to try the remake as soon as it comes out, no question about it - Soul Reaver is that great. Now if I could only get my hands on the sequels. 

+ Great story and characters
+ The enemy design
+ Innovative combat, and wide variety of both tactics and weapons
+ The graphics are still quite good
+ The music's good and thick in atmosphere
+ There are lots of puzzles... 

- ...Sadly, they start repeating themselves more than necessary towards the end
- The ending sucks - unlike Mass Effect 3's, this one REALLY does suck!
- The camera is a bitch, and a bitch to control (the old L2/R2 system instead of analog control)
- The controls are oversensitive enough to piss you off real good on narrow walkways

< 9.2 >

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