Review by Skularis

Reviewed: 09/12/05

An Absolute Masterpiece

Lets face it, when you feel like playing a game with a superb story, memorable characters, and solid dialogue, you usually reach for an RPG. It’s no secret that these traits are most common in the role-playing genre, save a few franchises such as Zelda and Metal Gear. Well here we have a little game that has not only a well-crafted story and genuinely intriguing characters, but some of the most addictive gameplay the 3D Action/Adventure genre has ever seen. Unfortunately, this gem of a game is overlooked and under-appreciated and will never garner the praise of the previously mentioned franchise’s titles, so it is therefore my job to inform you that Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is one of the most imaginative, spellbinding, and addictive games ever to grace a game system.

Story

The story of Soul Reaver is very well developed and, while not extremely deep, is one of the most epic and dramatic stories I’ve witnessed in a game. You are Raziel, the leader of your own powerful clan of vampires in the gothic land of Nosgoth. Raziel and his brothers battle against the humans who try to “cleanse” the land of the vampiric plague. They serve their master, Kain, whom is the most powerful of all vampires and wielder of the legendary blade Soul Reaver. Throughout their struggles, Kain and his brethren evolve, acquiring new abilities and becoming all the more powerful. In the words of Raziel they “became less human and more… divine.” Kain would go through the state of change first, then the others would follow in their master’s footsteps. However Raziel, being second eldest and strongest only to Kain, eventually surpassed his master in evolution by growing a set of demonic looking wings. Kain was not proud of his lieutenant, however, and in his immense jealousy and anger he ripped the bones from Raziel’s wings and ordered him to be thrown into the Lake of the Dead to burn for all of eternity. Upon being cast into the swirling abyss, Raziel started to decay: his jaw completely deteriorated as well as his stomach, his skin turned green and his pupils were burned from his eyes. After experiencing this torment for centuries, Raziel is pulled from the lake and finds himself in the spirit world as a bellowing voice calls out to him: “I know you Raziel, you are worthy.” The voice goes on to explain how Kain is disrupting the flow of life by re-animating the dead and therefore trapping their souls. These souls can not be set free to spin in the Wheel of Fate, and this will be the demise of Nosgoth unless something is done. The mysterious voice then tells Raziel to: “Redeem yourself. Or if you choose, avenge yourself.” Raziel is then sent on his journey to destroy Kain and his brethren and consume their souls, not only to spare Nosgoth, but to fulfill his own personal desire for vengance.

So it’s safe to say that if you like vampire stories you will devour the plot of this game (no pun intended). Hell, I don’t even really like vampire lore and I completely loved the story here, mostly due to the fact that it unfolds so dramatically and is genuinely interesting. It is almost Shakespearian in the sense that it is a story about revenge in a fallen kingdom with murder and betrayal among siblings, and it’s all so climactic and intense that you want to play through certain parts over and over because they are so well done. And Raziel is quite simply the best anti-hero I have ever seen.

Gameplay

At it’s heart, Soul Reaver is not too terribly different from any other 3D Adventure title in its gameplay mechanics. You have a third person view to follow Raziel around as he ventures across Nosgoth. You start off with very basic abilities combat-wise: you have no sword or shield, you will have to fight hand-to-hand for the first few portions of the game. Sound tough? It gets more difficult. Since the vast majority of your enemies are vampires they will not simply succumb to a good thrashing, you will need to use the environment kill them. You can temporarily stun them by giving them a beating, then you can lift them up and carry them for a short distance before they come to their senses. Vampires can be killed by fire, sunlight, water, and nice pointy objects. Luckily you will find these things quite often along your journey. I must admit there is something quite satisfying about tossing your unconscious foe onto a giant spike protruding from the wall. The combat system is quite similar to the one used in Zelda:OoT, you hold R1 to lock on to an enemy then you can easily strafe around them, dashing from side to side, forward or backward. You will be able to pick up and use certain weapons such as spears and staves, you can even pick up objects like boulders and vases and either bash your enemy over the head or chuck it at them from a distance. The spear-like weapons are great because not only do they increase your range and attack power, but after you beat your enemy senseless you can use it to impale them.

The main gimmick of Soul Reaver is the ability to shift back and fourth between different planes. The material realm is the actual physical world where time moves normally and all objects have mass. The spectral realm is a gloomy green world where time stands still and nothing is interact-able. You do most of your fighting and all of your puzzle-solving in the material realm, but shifting to the spectral realm to be able to reach new areas is a puzzle in itself at times. You can shift to the spectral realm at any time and place, yet to be able to shift back to the material realm you need to find certain gateways. The two realms have different architecture that will bend and grow before your very eyes as you warp. The way this is done is very, very cool and a definite innovation for its time. Sure we have seen dimension-hopping in games prior, but I have never seen it done quite this way stylistically. While in the material realm your health will slowly decrease, and the only way to replenish it is to feast on the souls of your vanquished enemies. If your health completely diminishes, you will die… right? Well wait a second here, your character already died at the very beginning of the game. So instead of game over when your life runs out you will be sent back to the spirit world from which you started your journey. Yes, unfortunately this does take the feeling of threat out of most battles, but you still don’t want to get shown up by the enemy.

The boss battles in Soul Reaver are by far some of the best boss battles I’ve witnessed in a game. First of all, the bosses aren’t just random monsters: they are your brothers. So these battles actually have importance to the storyline, and it’s all the more interesting to see how each of your brothers has transformed. The bosses can’t be killed by simple hack-and-slash tactics: like all other enemies in the game you will have to use the environment to help you defeat them, only this time on a grander scale. There were a couple battles where it took me quite a while to figure out what exactly I was supposed to do. Unfortunately, once you figure out the tactics to use the battles get disappointingly easy, but they still remain very memorable. After you defeat a boss you will consume his powerful soul and gain his special ability. After you gain an ability, a handful of new areas will be open to explore.

Graphics

The graphics in Soul Reaver were pretty damn impressive when the game was released in 1999, and they still hold up quite well today. You will notice the high production values as soon as you are introduced to the game by a beautifully rendered FMV that sets the story in motion. This FMV scene was top-notch for its time, and rivaled the expert quality of those done by Square and even Blizzard.

This is a dark, gothic game and the environments definitely convey that feeling. This game is very artistic and imaginative in the graphical style and general way the world is laid out before you. The architecture is intricately designed and has some definite Roman influence behind it. You will come across some stunning locations such as a giant isolated cathedral, a sunken city, a grand “impenetrable” stronghold, a daunting necropolis, and a towering majestic lighthouse just to name a few. These awesome locations aren’t just for show, as you will be exploring every dark corner of these vampire-infested structures. And it isn’t just the corners that are dark, unfortunately certain areas the game can be a bit too dark. I had to switch the brightness on my TV all the way up to be able to make out where the heck to go at a few parts. The outdoor areas are vast and beautifully rendered (as beautiful as can be for such a grim and desolate landscape), especially the grand series of waterfalls that surround the abyss. There is little vegetation in this war-torn forsaken landscape, and the skies are always overcast and gloomy, so it sets the tone perfectly.

The animations in this game are superb. For a dead person, Raziel looks extremely lifelike in every action he performs. Running, jumping, gliding, swimming, and fighting are all as fluent as can be. I was especially impressed with the extra attention given to his block-moving animations: pulling, pushing, and flipping giant stone blocks looks as convincing as anything. Your enemies will slunk and creep towards you eerily, lunge at you suddenly, and then run away in fear a moment later. As I mentioned earlier, shifting to the opposite realm will make your surroundings change drastically at certain areas, and while the animations of structures warping and distorting is very cool, it will cause the framerate to drop at times. Speaking of framerates dropping, one of the most common cases of slowdown you will encounter is when you phase through gates. Unfortunately you will be using the phasing ability quite often after you acquire it, however the slowdown isn’t unbearable. There are also some clipping issues, as there have been a couple times where I have actually knocked an enemy through a wall or floor. This sucks for the enemy however, and I have fortunately never seen Raziel suffer these same clipping issues himself. Also there are certain parts that when you press up against a wall and rotate the camera to a certain angle, you will be able to see through the wall into the next room. These are minor complaints however, and when you weigh them against the sheer beauty and artistic brilliance of the game, they suddenly vanish.

Sound

The sound in Soul Reaver is superb, and really compliments the storytelling of the game, with big dramatic scores and creepy, brutal sound effects. First of all the soundtrack is excellent and really drives this whole experience home. The main theme of the game, “Ozar Midrashim”, is an absolutely awesome piece of music. It is in every sense emotional and epic, and really summarizes the intensity of the story better than I could attempt to describe here. All of the music in this game is perfectly attuned to the environment and situations you come across. As you start off in the depths of the underworld you will hear distant howling, a strange kind of warped laughter, and some other frightening sounds to reflect your surroundings and the mood. When you encounter your first enemy, loud crashing drums will pump you up for combat. When you enter a dark cave, a curious tune will echo throughout. Some of the synthesized pieces and ambient sound effects in this game sound like they were taken straight off of a Nine Inch Nails album, which is a good thing given the dark subject matter (and I love NIN). From the sound of Raziel’s footsteps to the sound of bones crunching when you impale a victim, everything is crisp and right on queue.

Now, as for the voice-acting, where do I begin? The Legacy of Kain series has hands down the best voice acting in any video game series, ever. And this is not just blind favoritism, I dare you to find a game that has a higher caliber of voice talent than any LoK game. The only games that come close are the Metal Gear Solid games. You can tell that the voice actors in Soul Reaver understand the subject matter, and they deliver every line deftly. Most of the dialogue is brimming with drama and intensity, yet nothing is over-the-top: it all sounds so natural that it pulls you in with little effort. Credit the voice cast for this: Michael Bell, Simon Templeman, and Tony Jay know their stuff. There are many memorable quotes from this game that by themselves are good, but the voice talent projecting them makes them unforgettable.
Fun fact: Michael Bell, the voice of Raziel, has also voiced many other famous animated characters such as The Hulk, The Smurfs, Duke (GI Joe), Lex Luthor, Drew Pickles (Rugrats), and Dr. Octopus (Spiderman).

Control

Overall, the control in Soul Reaver is solid, with a couple areas that could use some tweaking. There is a slight delay from you moving the analog stick and Raziel moving accordingly, but the delay isn’t bad enough to make the game unplayable. In fact you really have to be looking for it to even catch it. Also, when you tap the analog stick to the opposite direction that Raziel is facing, he will simply turn in place. This feature comes in handy if you’re standing on a really narrow platform and wish to turn and face the opposite direction without moving and falling. However it has the drawback that if you simply wish to turn about face and start booking, there is a couple second delay for Raziel to turn, then to start running. Again, this has no severe impact and it’s not frustrating enough to make you slam down your controller.

Aside from these two minor gripes, this game plays great. Raziel can perform a variety of different actions, all of them useful and responsive to your control. You can hold L1 and move the analog stick to make Raziel sneak, which comes in handy if you plan to ambush an enemy, and especially handy if you are treading an extremely narrow platform, which you will find yourself doing often. Hold R1 and move the stick and he’ll crawl, which is even better for traveling across narrow ledges because it will keep you from falling off the edge completely. Jump while crouched and Raziel will jump higher than usual, press the jump button again while in the air and hold it to make Raziel glide. The combat system control is fluent and responsive, while not all that deep. There is no button to let you switch targets, but when you do fight multiple enemies they will usually be the same type, so it’s not that crucial.

Overall

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is not just a game, it’s an experience. I would confidently recommend it to anybody who has a passion for Action/Adventure games, anybody who loves a good story, and anybody who loves damn fine video games in general. This game gets it all right, and while not perfect, it’s about as close to perfection as any other game I have witnessed in my many years as a gamer. In fact I would not hesitate to call it a masterpiece. It excels in all of the areas I mentioned above, but there is something else deep underneath that makes this game so special, something I can’t put my finger on. Something that drives me to write a review much longer than most people care to read.

You can purchase this game online for as low as $7.74 brand new, and that includes shipping. Paying under $10 for any old game is quite a deal, but paying this for one of the best games ever is an absolute steal.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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