Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver was released in Autumn 1999 for the Playstation, PC, and later Dreamcast. At the time it was roundly described, accurately of course, as a sequel to Silicon Knights’ Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain (1996), but for mainstream gamers it might as well have been a new IP, so obscure was Blood Omen at the time and so different Soul Reaver seemed in comparison. Original developer Silicon Knights had tentative plans for a sequel of their own, but Crystal Dynamics, who helped finalise the original game, were also developing Kain 2 themselves. The intricacies of the subsequent litigation between the two companies have been largely secretive even to this day (Neogaf and LoK community legend Divine Shadow/MamaRobotnik has written a detailed post surrounding the various battles between the two studios) but the pertinent fact is that Crystal Dynamics were eventually given control of the series by the courts and the freedom to commence with a new Kain game.
Having been shepherded into existence at Silicon Knights by Denis Dyack and Ken McKulloch, the new creative figurehead for Kain 2 would be Amy Hennig, an English graduate and film enthusiast who had turned her talents to videogames in the late 1980’s. Hennig was part of Crystal Dynamics when they had paired up with S.K. to finish Blood Omen, so she was already well-versed in Nosgoth when the mantle was, so to speak, passed on to her. Seth Carus, another of Soul Reaver’s lead designers and writers, had also polished the scripts for Blood Omen.
At the time Hennig was already busying herself with a novel game idea of her own: a third-person action/puzzle solving game called ‘Shifter’ where the undead lead character could alternate between the worlds of the living and the dead. The higher-ups asked Hennig to adapt this embryonic idea to the Kain series, causing some consternation, but she and her small team mapped out and plotted what would eventually blossom as Soul Reaver.
“The original idea,” Hennig explained in 2012, “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.” Indeed, the names of Kain’s lieutenants –and the game’s bosses– all derive from fallen angels and other agents of Heaven or Hell: Dumah, Zephon, Turel, etc.
“Like all games, Blood Omen had its share of technical shortcomings – what made it memorable (and what inspired such a loyal fan following) were its original storyline, complex characters, high-quality writing and voice acting, and its fresh approach to vampire mythology. These are the aspects we want to perpetuate as we carry the Kain franchise into the future.”
~ Amy Hennig, Gamerweb, 2000.
I first encountered Soul Reaver sometime in 1998 when a short trailer (below) was included with an issue of Official UK Playstation Magazine. I recall being drawn to its look and feel – the only games that seemed to have the same tone were the two Resident Evil installments available at the time (halcyon days, they were) and 1998’s Metal Gear Solid. The same magazine later issued a demo of the Sunlight Glyph area which I played repeatedly, intoxicated by what it promised to offer: a player character utterly unique in both design and personality; multiple spells that weren’t bogged down in fantasy wizardry; steampunkish weaponry and locales; monstrous and inventive enemies; and a plane shifting and health replenishment system that was completely innovative at the time. Not only that, but unlike practically every other game at the time (and in an extreme contrast to Blood Omen) Soul Reaver had no loading times between rooms or levels; instead, the map streamed ahead of time, disguising load times and making sure the player’s immersion was not interrupted. Easy to overlook now, but nearly revolutionary at the time.
Storywise, Blood Omen had circulated around a world-in-jeopardy scenario and explored themes of perdition, martyrdom, madness, and the consequences of time travel. It even managed to turn a subplot and what seemed like ancillary material (that is, the rise of the Nemesis and the attendant apocalyptic prophecies, not to mention the whisperings of human possession and demon worship) into a clever springboard for its genocidal third act. But while the first game examined notions of redemption and damnation, Soul Reaver was a straight up revenge story.
But what, in the interest of clarity, has happened in the long interim between the two games? Kain, having refused to sacrifice himself for the supposed good of the world, ensures the collapse of the Pillars of Nosgoth and raises six lieutenants from the grave. They provide him with an army, and the conquest of Nosgoth begins. After a series of wars they eventually defeat humanity, pushing them into the fringes of Nosgoth or into walled citadels entrenched within mountain passes. Slaves construct the Sanctuary of the Clans around the ruins of the Pillars, and the Balance Pillar is fitted as Kain’s throne. Unfortunately, the empire soon becomes bored and decadent.
Concept artist Daniel Cabuco speculated that amongst the clans “Lust for power, hubris, greed and jealousy would cause them to begin plotting against each other … As the empire fell apart, outright war would occur between clans, and Kain would simply wash his hands of them all … I really think of it like the Roman Empire, with Kain as a Caesar. As long as they had a unified enemy, they acted together. Once that threat ceased, they fell upon each other in a mad grab for power.”
A thousand years after Blood Omen the vampire Raziel, Kain’s first-born lieutenant, has the “honour” of surpassing his master in evolutionary terms, having sprouted a set of bat-like wings. In LoK long-lived vampires enter brief stages of pupation from which they emerge, in Raziel’s words, “less human and more… divine.” Raziel, for having the temerity to enter a state of change before Kain, is swiftly condemned to death in an apparent fit of jealously. The wings are torn from his back, leaving only a ragged patagium, and he is thrown into the “swirling vortex of the Abyss” by his brothers-in-arms — only to be resurrected at its bottom by a mysterious ‘Elder God’ who instructs him to eliminate his former master and brethren and return their souls to the Wheel of Fate so that Nosgoth may be restored once again.
It is really worth checing out the game’s opening FMV. I distinctly recall game store displays playing it repeatedly and catching eyes, and it’s short, punchy and exciting to this day and is also an excellent demonstration of not only the game’s visual designs but the excellent score by Kurt Harland:
Raziel emerges to discover that in the centuries between his execution and resurrection the vampire empire has collapsed. He learns that the corruption of Kain’s soul by Nupraptor has been passed down to his vampire descendents, like a form of Original Sin, and they have long devolved into creatures whose cognizance is barely above that of animals. Any organisation among their ranks has long collapsed, allowing some plucky vampire hunters to venture into the various clan territories to pick off fledglings or to engage in skirmishes with the elder brutes. The victory of the vampires was ultimately pyrrhic and it seems the beleaguered humans are too few to ever overwhelm their oppressors and reclaim Nosgoth. Raziel himself has undergone transformation: no longer a Lestat-esque beauty, his body is warped and emaciated and, unlike our favourite hematophage, Kain, he now has to devour the souls of his enemies to sustain his life. It is, he boasts, “an even darker hunger.” Driven by rage and further emboldened by an inflating self-righteousness, Raziel seeks out his vampire brothers and former master to slake his thirst for their souls.
The game elects not to dwell on either the events of Blood Omen or the centuries of history that predate the introductory FMV. Instead, the player is thrust into Nosgoth and must slowly acclimate to that world. Helpfully, so too must the main character, having emerged from a spell in the underworld to a new, tumultuous era in Nosgoth’s history. The Pillars of Nosgoth, the hub of the first game and the series as a whole, do not take primacy in the plot and at this point in Raziel’s quest the state of the world barely figures into his desire to revenge himself on Kain and his brethren. In terms of character development the game leaves him practically where he began: desperate to kill Kain to whet his fury. Kain’s motivations are not elaborated on and we, through the prism of Raziel, assume that he is purely nefarious. This was not to Soul Reaver’s detriment – by remaining so bloody-minded the game allowed newcomers to the series (who in 1999 were the great majority of players) to comfortably settle into Nosgoth and sop up its tangle of mythology and history.
While the game decided to pare down the storytelling (at least for this instalment) the characters were no less effective. Kain was already wonderfully drawn in the first game, but the sequel would have to bring him back in a way that felt true to his incarnation in Blood Omen and as though a millennium of experiences had been infused into the character since players last met him. There was not much in the way of dialogue to convey this (again, in this instalment) but Daniel Cabuco’s design for Kain hits the money – it is immediately evocative and innovative: the ‘crown’ adorning his head and the hard lines and scars tracing his body. It is strange — I had never encountered the character before Soul Reaver, and yet the design felt right. Having played Blood Omen and returned to Soul Reaver, the effect has not diminished in the slightest, but has instead been bolstered. Those involved in bringing Kain to life can rest easy. Simon Templeman again provides his vocal chords and though he only gets two brief speeches he again channels Kain’s power and haughtiness. Ariel, the spirit of a murdered Balance Guardian and Kain’s advisor from the first game, also returns, with Anna Gunn (of Deadwood and Breaking Bad fame) lending her voice yet again.
Raziel is another wonder. His design remains unique to this day, almost sixteen years and two ‘console wars’ and a whole lot of here-today gone-tomorrow IPs since his debut. His voice was provided by Michael Bell, who may be familiar to fans of the Transformers and Rugrats cartoons or perhaps Metal Gear Solid aficionados, and who is generally soft-spoken as Raziel but can lace his voice with indignation and rage and sorrow and even awe like no other (I love lines like his furious ‘Damn you, Kain! You are not God!’ and his sinking ‘My God…’)
Another pivotal character in the series, the Elder God, first appears here as a disembodied voice, though in later games he manifests as a mass of tentacles rooted throughout the Underworld and other subterranean environments. Appendages aside, his other notable features are his eyes -giving Argos of Greek lore a run for his money- and his stentorian voice (omnipresent and yet sourceless), which was provided by magisterial British actor Tony Jay (1933 – 2006).
Jay manages to give the Elder God a multitude of inflections: he can spur Raziel on with a fiery proselytisation; he can quietly threaten or dismiss or mock and he can bellow with rage. The Elder God develops as an antagonist throughout the series but his omnipresence in Soul Reaver can almost feel like a comfort: every death in the spectral plane sees you saved from annihilation and teleported back into his bosom, and he is constantly at hand to provide Raziel with directions and context about the current era. Soul Reaver 2 raises and explores the notion that such directions serve only to further the Elder God’s own goals rather than Raziel’s, and that the context he provides is ultimately prejudiced. But for Soul Reaver, the Elder God is unquestionably your advisor and ally.
Nosgoth itself oozes personality: whereas Blood Omen was indebted to typical European medieval fantasy for its look, the designers here successfully amalgamated steampunk, post-apocalypticism, and traditional medievalry into the world’s environments. It is also successful in implying a deeper backstory through its level design. Areas like the drowned abbey, the Dumahim city and the silenced cathedral all have unspoken backstories that hint at more fortunate times. The abbey and cathedral were once obviously religious hubs and sanctuaries, and the ruined city of Dumah an imperial capital (Dumah’s throne room is desperately ornate – compare it to Kain’s throne at the Pillars and you can see how highly the former prizes himself.)
Speaking of Dumah, the bosses (Raziel’s devolved vampire kin: Turel -absent from this game-, Dumah, Rahab, Zephon and Melchiah) are commonly acknlowledged as being one of the game’s strongest elements in terms of both design and function. They are still, in my opinion, some of the most evocative bosses of the last few console generations, from Melchiah’s Jabba-if-he-were-constituted-from-corpses look and Zephon’s Alien Queen-ish form. The game is essentially built around the bosses, with Raziel’s task being to reach them one-by-one, overcome a puzzle that allows the player to kill the boss, absorb their souls for new abilities, and then move on. By working this way the player always has a goal, and each new area and boss is regular enough (separated by a couple of hours of gameplay, for a first-timer) that it’s hard to lose track of what you’re doing (Soul Reaver 2 in comparison tended to meander). It also helps that defeating each boss unlocks useful new powers (phase through barriers, wall climbing, swimming, telekinesis, etc.) that encourage further exploration of Nosgoth: there are a host of glyph spells that you needn’t ever come across to complete the game that are hidden throughout secret tunnels and play areas.
The different stages of the game are not simply ‘level 1’ or ‘level 2’ but distinct areas and scenarios in their own right with their own histories and unique design elements – the arabic-inspired architecture of the Sanctuary of the Clans, the corrugated industrial structures within Melchiah and Dumah’s dwellings, the pipes and mortar and webwork of the silenced cathedral, and on and on. Occasionally you can find etched murals or headstops or corbels depicting bearded figures – designs that are purely decorative but fire up the imagination with long-lost human saints, demons and chthonic beings. Nosgoth is infused with history, much of it lost or forgotten. Finding the tumbled remains of Nupraptor’s Retreat, one of the first and most memorable locations from Blood Omen, is a particular treat.
Soul Reaver, like other titles in the series, was not short on ambition. Not only were multiple story threads truncated or cut, but entire areas and bosses were, too. Mama Robotnik provides an extensive overview of deleted material in Soul Reaver May Have Been the Most Ambitious Game Ever, and for perusers with more time on their hands The Lost Worlds has long been the go-to resource for deleted LoK materials. The consensus seems to be that while fans would love to see more deleted material from the game, like its original ending, the rush to release it allowed Soul Reaver 2, which arguably contains the series’ most mindbending and satisfying story since Blood Omen, to emerge.
In 2008 Legacy of Kain creator Denis Dyack spoke to 1UP about the appropriation of intellectual properties and the effect he believed this had on the integrity of the IP: “As soon as you take something away from an author, ” he said, “you’re immediately diluting it, and you’re hurting the industry. As an example, I’ll talk about Legacy of Kain. We created the first Legacy of Kain. We came up with all the content, all the story, but in the end we moved away from that series. Crystal Dynamics tried to take it over. A lot of people liked [Soul Reaver]. But if you look at Legacy of Kain where it is right now -so diluted, so dysfunctional as a property itself, it’s pretty much gone in a completely different direction than we would have ever taken it.”
“When we were doing Legacy of Kain, we had a lot of research into vampire mythology and a lot of ideas on where we were going. Crystal Dynamics merged in this entirely different game that had nothing to do with the series and then slapped the IP on it, and that’s where Soul Reaver came from. That was just a weapon in the game. Even if the developer’s good, and I think Crystal Dynamics is not a bad developer, you get this dilution of the content, because the original author is gone.”
~ Denis Dyack
I feel that Dyack is certainly correct about diminishing returns and the dysfunctionality of the series after a point, but I also feel that for all of the Legacy of Kain series’ hampered ideas and hobbled concepts (imposed on Crystal Dynamics by a mixture of budgetary and time limitations rather than any sort of malfeasance or incompetence) the sequels managed to expand upon the premise of Blood Omen with very, very few narrative missteps. In terms of adding to the mythology, the Crystal Dynamics games are an embarrassment of riches, and Soul Reaver proved that Hennig and her team could not only carry the series but build something worthy upon its foundations too.
And then, two short years later, there was Soul Reaver 2…