Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
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Gothic literature spawned all kinds of awesome over the years, like Gothic video games. At some point, I may dive into a history of Gothic games, but for now, let's head back in time...way back in time. (Cue time travel sound effects.)
Way back before the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, or the Steam Deck—way before any of the modern, fancy game consoles of today—back in that long ago time when the news was predicting the apocalypse (and we all hoped it might happen), we had absolutely groundbreaking games like Pong and...wait, I went too far back.
Okay, so the year was 1999 or maybe 2000, but it was still a long time ago, and we all really thought the world might end with a computer glitch called Y2K, so we were all doing what everyone does when a great calamity is breathing down your necks: ignore the problem, stay inside, and play video games.
The late '90s was full of baggy jeans, pop bands like the Backstreet Boys on actual FM radio, and video games making technological and storytelling breakthroughs. One such gem from that era, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, still manages to evoke nostalgia among gamers who remember the days when polygonal graphics were cutting-edge and vampires were in vogue.
Let's put those time travel sound effects back on (woo woo bloo bloo beep boop—what are the correct onomatopoeiae for retro time travel effects?)
What's the Story?
"Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver" takes us to the dark and twisted world of Nosgoth, where vampires and other supernatural creatures reign supreme. Players assume the role of Raziel, a former vampire lieutenant who emerges from the abyss as a vengeful wraith after being betrayed and cast into a vortex.
Raziel ended up in the abyss because he had the gall to grow a pair of wings and show them off to Kain, the protagonist from the first game. Kain, jealous of Raziel's fancy new airborne armatures, rips them off and throws Raziel into the abyss. The waters of the abyss dissolve Raziel's jaw and horribly burn the rest of his body, so you get to run around as quite an interesting vampire.
Your mission as the alluring jawless vampiric Raziel is to avenge your own murder and seek retribution against your treacherous vampire brothers, especially the enigmatic Kain, the series' titular character. The series creates an intriguing dynamic because if you play the first game, you are pitted against your former player/protagonist in the second one.
The name of the game, Soul Reaver, refers to a sword (also present in the first installment) that screams when swung and steals souls the souls of your enemies. If that's not Gothic, then I don't know what is.
Without going into major spoilers, the story of Soul Reaver is a heady mix of gothic fantasy and cosmic intrigue, with shades of Shakespearean drama thrown in for good measure. As you progress through the game, you uncover the secrets of Nosgoth's history and unravel the enigmatic plot involving soul-devouring, time manipulation, and power struggles among supernatural beings. It's dark, brooding, and endlessly intriguing – a narrative that's aged like a fine, blood-red wine.
How's the Gameplay?
In a time when 3D platformers and action-adventure games were still finding their footing (anyone remember the loose controls of Nintendo 64?), Soul Reaver managed to stand out with its unique blend of gameplay elements. The game's most iconic feature was Raziel's ability to shift between the spectral and material realms, each with its own advantages and challenges. This game mechanic was reminiscent of the Light World and Dark World in A Link to the Past, and versions of it have been used in other games since.
The spectral realm, for instance, allowed Raziel to phase through obstacles, walk on water, and interact with ethereal objects. Conversely, the material realm presented opportunities for combat and puzzle-solving. This dual-world mechanic added depth to the gameplay and emphasized the game's themes of duality and choice.
Combat was another standout aspect of "Soul Reaver." The fluidity of combat animations and the satisfaction of executing combos made each encounter a vengeful, thrilling spectacle. Boss battles were particularly memorable, pitting Raziel against grotesque monstrosities in epic showdowns that required skill and strategy.
Yet, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. The camera system was often problematic, an issue we still see today in modern games. Awkward angles and sudden shifts could turn simple platforming sections into exercises in frustration. But, hey, it was the late '90s – camera control was a luxury we didn't fully appreciate until later.
The Drama Among Silicon Knights, Denis Dyack, Amy Hennig, Crystal Dynamics, & Eidos Interactive
Behind every great game, there's often a tale of turmoil and strife among developers and publishers. Soul Reaver was no exception.
Silicon Knights, the Canadian game developer responsible for Soul Reaver, was no stranger to controversy. The studio's founder, Denis Dyack, had a reputation for being "outspoken" and occasionally clashing with publishers. Eidos Interactive, the company that published Soul Reaver, was no exception to this rule.
The development process was plagued with difficulties, including budget constraints, tight schedules, and creative differences. Dyack's ambitious vision often clashed with Eidos's desire for a timely release. This is a constant struggle in the game industry where some creators have a clear artistic vision, and their vision competes with the publisher's desire to stop burning money and get a product out the door. For Soul Reaver, the result was a rushed final act that left many players scratching their heads and longing for a more fleshed-out conclusion.
In the midst of this chaos, writer and director Amy Hennig emerged as a key figure. Her contributions to the game's narrative and world-building are undeniable. She was instrumental in shaping the dark, rich lore of Nosgoth and giving Soul Reaver its unique, Shakespearean tone. Hennig's work on Soul Reaver laid the foundation for her later success with other installments in the Legacy of Kain series and then later the acclaimed Uncharted games.
Crystal Dynamics, another studio with a tumultuous history, eventually took the reins of the Legacy of Kain franchise. They continued Raziel's story in Soul Reaver 2 and Legacy of Kain: Defiance, though some fans would argue that the series lost a bit of its charm in the transition. As of writing this, in 2023, there have been six in the series, the latest of which was a pretty big departure from the roots set in the first two games.
Remembering Old Games
As we fondly remember games like Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, it's hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for a bygone era of gaming. At some point in the future, I'm certain the gamers of today will feel something similar. The late '90s and early 2000s were a time when developers took risks, pushed boundaries, and created unforgettable experiences that still resonate with players today. Development studios have grown and merged over the years, making innovation harder and harder to come by when it's just easier for a publishing company to make yet another sequel with a slightly different skin for an existing profitable product. You know, kind of like they do with movies. And TV show reboots. It's just easier to remake the same thing than it is to create something new.
Soul Reaver, like many games from that era, stands as a testament to the power of storytelling in video games. Its dark and intricate narrative, coupled with innovative gameplay mechanics, made it a classic that remains beloved by fans. Despite the turmoil behind the scenes, the game's legacy endures. It really is a classic that fits squarely into the Gothic tradition.
So, if you're ever in the mood for a dose of nostalgia and a deep dive into a gothic world of vampires, betrayal, and revenge, dust off your PlayStation or fire up an emulator and immerse yourself in the legacy of Raziel. Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver may have had its fair share of drama, but it will always hold a special place in the hearts of gamers who remember the late '90s with a wistful smile and a thirst for dark tales of Nosgoth. Oh, and screaming soul-stealing swords. And maybe sexy jawless vampires.
Relevant & Related
- Check out Old Game Hermit's review of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver for even more.
- Learn more about the 30-Year History of Crystal Dynamics.
- Watch actual gameplay right here, so even if you can't find a way to play it, you can cheer Raziel along.
- Salokin on Why You Should Play Soul Reaver.
- Watch an interview with Denis Dyack as he talks about all things gaming.
- And what would a game article be without a link to a speedrun of the actual game? Speedrunners are insane.
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