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In Memory
Sean Pettibone




 



Eidos' incredible Dreamcast conversion of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver takes players
on a dark adventure into a netherworld ruled by vampires and other denizens of darkness as seen through the glowing green eyes of it's anti-hero Raziel, and does so in a manner that the PS1 edition could never dream of. With smoother textures and vastly improved lighting effects, the game delivers a level of immersiveness and an overall experience the follow-up will have to top. In the spirit of archiving and appreciating the great games of the past that may be overlooked, the Laser looks at this Dreamcast classic and explores the many appealing (and not so appealing) elements that made this one of the best adventures released for the late, lamented Sega console.

As the opening cinematic of Eidos' epic Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver begins, you're introduced to the creepy dystopia of Nosgoth, which is a world that is both familiar and strange. The merciless vampire Kain is the leader of the immortals who rule Nosgoth, and has created his own clan of surrogates in his own image to do his bidding. Unfortunately, his first born son, Raziel, had the audacity to sprout wings before his master, thus smiting him, unleashing Kain's irrational rage. Kain has no patience for such insubordination and has Raziel thrown into a deep, swirling abyss of water from which vampires cannot escape, and leaves poor Raziel for dead. This isn't the end, but merely a prelude that sets up the main storyline. After a thousand years, a mysterious being known as the Elder resurrects Raziel from the bowels of his watery grave so that he may live again and avenge his unjust demise. Soul Reaver follows Raziel on his quest to avenge Kain's unjust punishment.  Along the way, he'll have to battle his former clan and Kain's other demons. Why  spend so much time explaining the plot? Quite simply, because Soul Reaver is one of those rare games that actually has a compelling story that actually helps to motivate the player without making them want to skip through the opening cinemas. Imagine that.

 Since the rich narrative and its characters are so intertwined and so sophisticated in their development and the unfolding acts tie in so closely with the interactive gameplay, explaining and critiquing the game properly requires giving the reader a cursory understanding of the plot. You begin the quest stuck in the bowels of the Elder's chambers and slowly begin to realize your purpose and destiny in the early stages of the game. After learning about your epic quest, you start on your way. Luckily, you're not totally on your own, as the mysterious Elder frequently gives you advice through voice-overs, explaining how to use your new abilities as you acquire them, and telling you where to head next. Soul Reaver unfolds slowly as you learn Raziel's abilities, but picks up momentum after you are thrust into battle against your first foes.

Your main weapon is the ability to transport between the spectral and material worlds, which is implemented in a spectacular, imaginative fashion. These levels mirror each other in layout and function, though abilities in one area may be useless in another. For example, there are large gaps that Raziel can only jump over in the material plane.  Since Raziel is a vampire, he is essentially immortal, and that means the player cannot die unless he really screws up bad. When Raziel loses all his energy in the material world, he is brought back to the spectral plane. If he then loses all his energy there, he returns to the Elder's chambers to rejuvenate his energy, essentially back to the start of the level, which is a major pain in the ass. Raziel can teleport to the material plane only when his energy is full, and he's standing on a special magic area. There are some major differences in Raziel's abilities between the different planes, but the primary ones are that he cannot pass through doors or use traditional weapons such as spears while visiting the spectral plane. There are many other subtleties and nuances to this, but unleaving more would only spoil the fun and enjoyment. 

Controlling Raziel is fairly simple, with players merely having to make the character run and attack enemies at the flick of a switch. One of the things you need to do after killing an enemy is suck them in and eat their souls, because doing so increases your energy. Attacking the many phantasmagoric opponents is quite simple--you just punch them until they're frozen in place. After temporarily disabling the monsters, you can finish them off in a variety of ways, such as impaling them on a spear, throwing them onto spikes on the wall, or tossing them into water. When you dispose of them, they dissolve, and a glowing green ball that represents their soul appears. You'll need a lot of flexibility in order to successfully complete your quest, so you must master using both of the control pads during the action simultaneously, this as is apparent is no easy task. The analog pad is used to control Raziel, while the cross pad is used to call up the spell system. Learning how to control Raziel and fight his opponents is simple enough, but Soul Reaver's environment alone is challenging. An this element presents a daunting challenge as you need to familiarize yourself with the level layouts, which can honestly get annoying due to the extreme repetition. You'll have to understand how to use the parallel nature of the levels intuitively  in order to succeed and this takes plenty of time and practice. Since the maps shift in color and layout depending on which plane you're in, they reveal different secrets, such as hidden doors or platforms, which means some areas that seem to be impossible to pass initially become easier if you switch to the material plane, but you can't switch back and forth as easily as you'd like. You can potentially spend a lot of time figuring out which plane is the right one to use, but most of the time, it's fairly obvious what to do when you reach a dead end and if it isn't, switching can allow plenty of clarity to come into view. For example, one puzzle requires you to make a series of difficult, hard-to-perform jumps, but at one point you're stuck and cannot jump onto a distant platform. The trick here is to switch from the spectral to the material plane. Doing so makes stairs emerge from the walls, creating an obvious path. This innovation makes the gameplay much more challenging than your average action title.

In addition to its unique plane-shifting element, Soul Reaver has other innovative features that set it apart. Most console titles keep the player character static, and don't tangibly change their abilities and weapons from the first stage to the final boss confrontation. Soul Reaver, on the other hand, gives its protagonist new abilities as you progress. This helps keep your interest level high because you're constantly learning new techniques to face an army of ever more difficult opponents. There's little doubt that Soul Reaver is an unusually sophisticated title with ambitious design goals. As gamers know all too well, it's easy to come up with an innovative concept and play elements. 

Soul Reaver's overall design is excellent, making for a smooth flow to the action. The early levels acquaint you with Raziel and train you for the more difficult tasks ahead. The pace is perfect, flowing naturally from battle sequences, to puzzle sequences, to elaborate cinematics. Despite a slow start, it gets much faster once you are rewarded with the Reaver itself. Once you acquire this light saber-style weapon of doom and devastation, slicing through enemies is easier, and you don't have to waste as much time battling lesser foes to regain energy. There are, however, some problems that strongly detract from the experience. While the complex plane system is innovative, it can get confusing and frustrating. Certain puzzles are very annoying because you're required to switch back and forth between the planes more than once to unlock a puzzle. Because of this, many sequences are overly difficult. Furthermore, the puzzles often display an over-reliance on moving boxes and pulling switches, which is a very tired convention. There are also issues with the repetitive nature of the enemies in the spectral plane--you fight the same little parasite monsters throughout. This makes replenishing your energy easy, but quickly grows tedious as these creatures always react the same way to your actions. Getting sucked back to the spectral plane once you lose your power quickly becomes a nuisance as well.

Despite these flaws, the balance between challenging puzzles and action combat is superb. The main pitfalls of most third-person platform titles are their controls and camera systems. Performing Raziel's various moves, such as jumping and fighting, are straightforward enough, though the analog controller doesn't offer as much precision as you'd like. In addition, more complex tasks aren't as easy to accomplish because the controls implement less than ideal compromises. Many of these problems are a function of the Dreamcast's controller which is clunky and makes certain tasks more difficult than they should be.

Remembering to press the left shift key to perform a big jump is bad enough, but more annoyance occurs in the puzzle areas. Having to press the shift and A keys in succession while positioning Raziel at just the right angle in order to move blocks is an unwieldy system that could have been simplified but shares this same mechanism with Eidos' other landmark franchise Tomb Raider, so its not a sin of style as much as shared-engine trouble that needs serious working on in the upcoming future installments. Most of the clunkiness gets easier with practice, but unfortunately, the more significant control problems remain no matter how adept you become.

More problems occur with the camera and the rather clunky system of performing spells. Switching between the two control pads as I described earlier is annoying and frustrating. Furthermore, the spell pop-up menu isn't as intuitive as it could have been because it requires the player to push down on the D-pad. Since Soul Reaver's control and camera issues are endemic to the genre, some of these issues are unavoidable. While the control system is far from perfect, itís adequate, and doesn't ruin the experience. In the visual department, the impressive engine makes the world of Nosgoth come alive. Soul Reaver's realm is immense and beautifully detailed. There are several areas that are breathtaking, with the elaborate waterfall area standing as one of the most singularly beautiful areas seen in a console title. Huge structures tower over the landscape, creating a palpable sense of dread and foreboding while dark, snaking tunnels create a nightmarish claustrophobia. The diversity in locales is quite impressive, especially considering the massive area Soul Reaver covers. Every element in the world is solid and clearly defined, making for a uniformly sharp appearance throughout. To help ease any monotony, countless wall and floor textures are used with dramatically different coverings, showcasing the effort that went into them. Most of the environments are replete with exquisite architecture highlighted by gothic arches and huge spiraling staircases. Many of the lighting effects are also spectacular, with torches that light the corridors beautifully.

What's more, the transitions between the spectral and material worlds are incredible -  the walls shift color and subtly morph right before your eyes, making for a stunningly gorgeous effect. Soul Reaver fully utilizes the advanced hardware of the Dreamcast. It's impressive from a technical standpoint because it runs at a smooth frame rate throughout, and also minimizes the dreaded pop-in effect. The engine handles pop-ins by slowly revealing buildings as if from a mist, adding to the foreboding atmosphere, making their appearance chilling instead of jarring. The visual design is incredible, making for a highly believable world. Soul Reaver is full of dazzling effects, with highly polished and sophisticated design elements appearing at every turn. Using the same graphics engine to render its cinematics in real-time makes the experience seamless and immersive. It looks spectacular, and is nothing less than a dazzling visual feast throughout. All the high-end production values in the world won't interest players if they don't care about what happens. Thankfully, despite being a hideously decayed and deformed vampire, Raziel is a strongly sympathetic character. As anti-heroes go, his quest for revenge is told very effectively throughout the adventure, making him a character to which players can relate. 

What makes Soul Reaver so appealing is the
sense of immersion, and the player's identification with its protagonist. Every major plot-turn feels natural, and each character's motivations feel right and are believable. Along with its fantastic and immersive plot, Soul Reaver shares significant gameplay elements and structural synergies with other third-person action titles. However, there are enough unique aspects to make it stand out from the crowd. It shares the atmospheric, occult feel of Akuji the Heartless on the PSone but goes much further by mixeing in the sophisticated puzzle-solving of Tomb Raider. This can be considered both its strength and weakness. Like Akuji, the unrelentingly dark atmosphere tends to become oppressive. Soul Reaver's over-reliance on box pushing and switch pulling gets old in a hurry, just as it did in Tomb Raider. Thankfully, its innovative plane shifting system and sophisticated plot make Soul Reaver unique. It has great promise in many areas, but there are some major flaws. Are these problems bad enough to ruin the experience, or merely minor annoyances that can be overlooked in an otherwise stellar title?

Graphics: Soul Reaver visually conveys its sense of dark, brooding atmosphere quite effectively. The huge structures, detailed textures, and gorgeous lighting effects throughout each level show a great deal of polish and attention to detail. There are several areas, such as the waterfall region, that are absolutely incredible in the complexity of their design. Additionally, many of the wall and ground textures are spectacular, showcasing elaborate symbols and rune-like writing to create an atmospheric world. The rich and varied caverns and outdoor spaces are both immense and impressive. While the 3D engine is great, the character animations are also incredible. Every character, from Raziel to the opponents, seems alive, each moving with fluidity and grace. The anti-hero himself looks amazing and alive as he performs his many moves. The large enemy bosses are also stunning. Soul Reaver's special effects are effortlessly implemented to make this even more exciting. Especially notable are the sequences in which Raziel moves from the spirit to the material world; you can see walls and objects morphing, a truly astonishing and impressive sight.

The controls improve as you adjust to their idiosyncrasies, but still have some major problems. Using both the analog and digital stick is awkward because neither is ideal for their tasks. The analog control is a bit oversensitive, making you miss many crucial jumps while not being as precise as you'd like. The positioning of the d-pad makes it difficult to access your spells on the fly, and performing some of the more complex moves becomes a chore instead of a challenge thanks to poor, non-intuitive design. Manipulating the camera isn't ideal because it lacks the precision and speed to be effective. Holding the left or right shift key adjusts the angle quicker, but even this is less than ideal as something more intuitive could have made the gameplay that much better. The control scheme is adequate but disappointing because it could have been improved with more work and better decisions which could have made the experience that much more enjoyable, as it stands, the controls are merely adequate to the task when more polish would have made it almost incredible. To aid your quest, several gate rooms appear in each area. These allow you to save your progress and continue on from that point. They're spaced out evenly so that you won't be set too far back if you encounter misfortune and are sent to the Elder's lair.

Soul Reaver starts out very slowly, but the pace quickens substantially later on. Despite its apparent flaws, this game's depth and sophistication gradually win you over. A very long and challenging quest awaits those who enter the world of Soul Reaver, which cannot be truly experienced or appreciated in one sitting. Luckily, the warp gates are well spaced, allowing for a good number of saves. Continually escalating Raziel's power and the degree of challenge makes the experience bracing throughout. The gameplay is solid and driven by the intense plot and ever multiplying enemies. While the quest is generally excellent, there are some major elements that are very annoying. Raziel's ability to shift back and forth between the spectral and material planes is a blessing and a curse. Constantly replaying the same areas only slows things down. It makes the gameplay more complicated than it should have been, and needlessly frustrating. However, persistence in eventually overcoming Soul Reaver's problematic areas is rewarded by an experience that is quite involved and satisfying while never becoming dull, predictable or pendantic.

Most of the enemies you face are varied forms of vampires; merely wounding them will only give you a momentary breather until they come back to life. You have to finish them off and assimilate their souls, or the beasts will rise to attack you again. This gets quite difficult in the later levels when these demons quickly regenerate themselves. Raziel's enemies also show a high degree of intelligence and deviousness, especially later on, when they begin to anticipate your techniques, and can then make you work harder by countering your moves. Beating some of them takes patience. Many of the bosses are extremely difficult to defeat because their vulnerabilities aren't obvious until you figure out and thus can exploit their weak spots.Once done, you have a series of ever more devious enemies to face.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is so dependent on plot and story that an effective and convincing cast of voice actors is essential. This is superbly accomplished and is what truly separates Eidos' title from the pack. Special note should be taken in its extensive use of excellent voice acting, which is far better than the usual hack jobs in most titles. The actors effectively convey a sense of personality and believability in the elaborate cutscenes, and actually fit the characters quite well. Additionally, Soul Reaver has superb sound effects, with deep breathing and echoing footsteps fitting the action well, and enhancing the gothic atmosphere. There are other points that impress, such as when you hear the distant screams of vampire bait. The audio effects add much to Soul Reaver's environment without overpowering the gameplay.

Soul Reaver's score is appropriate to the feel of the vampiric netherworld in which it's set. The tone is established with a lush gothic soundtrack. The tracks range from subtle drones, to more dissonant tracks with odd crashing sounds thatcan throw you off balance. It does get a bit repetitive after time, but this is more than made upfor by the high quality. Soul Reaver's music changes when Raziel teleports himself between the spectral to the material planes, and when he arrives in new areas. This is a nice touch that establishes each setting's distinctness and cues players in on the gravity of a new situation. Utilizing the Dreamcast's CD quality sound, the game doesn't support high-end stereo or surround systems, which isn't that big of a deal. Soul Reaver's audio tracks are clear and well defined, sitting subtly in the background without overpowering the action.

One of the most pleasant surprises about LOK:SR is the sheer ingeniousness and  the nearly sublime sophistication of its AI and the flexibility it allows players in attacking enemies. Instead of blindly assaulting your foes, you have to learn your opponents' weak spots to beat them. In addition to Raziel's substantial power, you'll need intelligence and technique to outsmart them.

Raziel's ability to warp from the spectral to material planes causes some of the puzzles to be overly oblique and difficult. For example, this is the complicated puzzle you'll have to figure out in one area: You're faced with two long platforms, neither of which is close enough to allow you to jump to the other side of the room you're in. The trick is that you have to switch to the material plane, jump onto the left platform, which then falls and causes the right platform to rise, giving you a much better angle, and making a successful leap possible. This takes a very long time to figure out, and is frustrating in a dead-end feeling sort of way. Suffice to say that Soul Reaver requires more intelligence to complete than most releases in its genre, which makes it much more satisfying. It's quite clearly developed with sophisticated gamers in mind, and will challenge your reflexes and puzzle solving skills every step of the way.

While Soul Reaver starts off slow, it eventually picks up momentum and provides a flawless pace of play that makes it difficult to put away. The game is visually stunning throughout, it has some of the best graphics seen so far on the Dreamcast with some sequences far surpassing any expectations. There are many areas that are quite literally jaw dropping, and these points are rewarding enough to make climbing the steep initial learning curve worthwhile. While the game looks great, it's incredibly challenging underneath the dazzling eye-candy. Its intense plot and intricate storyline immerse you in the action and keep you motivated. Despite sliding into excessive switch pulling and block pushing puzzles, LOK:SR  is still a solid release offering an excellent balance of combat and puzzle-solving. While there are some major problems with its control and camera systems, these should not dissuade you from playing it. The positives are a truly immersive environment, challenging puzzles and just an overall coolness that significantly outweighs the comparatively minor negatives. Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is a sophisticated and highly addictive title. It's also one of  the most satisfying action and adventures released for the late, lamented Sega Dreamcast, and comes highly recommended for all fans of the genre. If you haven't played it yet, the game makes a great introduction to the PS2 sequel, due later this fall.