Why are you here, reading this text? Maybe you saw the title and recognized the subject. Maybe you follow me on this website and trust my writing to some extent (thanks, by the way). Or perhaps you are ordained to be here now, guided by some cosmic, unseen force. Some would call it destiny. Today this sounds like a cliché, especially after being beaten to death across all sorts of media, but the concept of free will was always one that fascinated philosophers since the first time we learned to use our heads for something other than bashing it against the wall. But between 1996 and 2003, these were the thematic pillars at the heart of one of the greatest stories ever written for a video game. A series that is truly worth the moniker of “gem”: crude and sunk beneath the tide of history, yet full of luster and charm in its imperfection.
I know not what brought you here, but should you choose to stay, I’ll tell you of a series near and dear to my heart. One that single-handedly ignited my interest in the English language, and for storytelling in general. So come with me, and I'll guide you through a tale of vengeance and redemption. Of ambitious characters and their equally ambitious creators. It's a story of people defying tyrannous stars. And it all starts with an omen.
Welcome to the Legacy of Kain.
Blood Omen is the first entry in the Legacy of Kain series, and at this point, it’s about as old as me. Thankfully, the series has a loyal and dedicated fanbase, so getting the game running was ridiculously simple. Blood Omen is abandonware, at least the PC version is. So first, grab yourself a copy on Abandonia (and while you’re there, consider donating). Then, download this amazing fan-made patch. Unzip the game you downloaded from Abandonia and then extract the patch contents inside that folder. Just like that, you’re done! This is the definitive way to play Blood Omen in 2020. This patch fixes bugs, makes the game compatible with Windows 10, adds features from the PS1 version, controller support, and a bunch of language options for interface, dub, and subtitles, something the original game didn’t even have. Make sure you download the full version of the patch, the one with the cutscenes. That’s it. You’re done. Now, let’s dig in, shall we?
The story of Blood Omen’s development is almost more interesting than the plot of the game itself. The original draft was conceived circa 1993 by Denis Dyack and Ken McCulloch, Silicon Knight’s president, and art director/writer respectively. Originally called “The Pillars of Nosgoth," this early draft already indicates just how far their ambitions went. They wanted to make an epic. A goth tale, set in an uncaring world without clearly defined “good” or “bad” guys. “A game where there was no ultimate weapon and armor”, a title “which adults would want to play”. It's a big dream, but that’s not surprising when you consider the things that inspired its creation. The first and perhaps more telling, was “The Wheel of Time” series, by Robert Jordan. Dennis himself said it best in an interview for PSXnation:
“It was our goal to create a storyline that was very complex and compelling as Jordan had done. One of our goals at Silicon Knights is to become the Robert Jordan or Steven King of the video game industry.”
Interestingly, this desire to make a complex plot was only fully realized from the third game of this series onwards. The playable story portion of Blood Omen is fairly straightforward compared to later entries. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of twists and foreshadows, but it’s clear that it was in the lore where most of the work went to. Nosgoth—the world where the series takes place—has a complex past that only gets more interesting with each passing title, as new entries build, expand, and twist the story told in previous games. I don’t mean to imply that Blood Omen’s story is bad. It is the pillar (eh?) from which the entire series revolves, but paradoxically, there’s no need to play it to understand the plot. Future games will recap and elaborate on these events, but more on that later.
The next two things that inspired Kain couldn’t be more apart if you sent one of them to the other side of the solar system. The first was Clint Eastwood’s Western, “The Unforgiven”. The other was Brian Lumley’s book series, “Necroscope”. The former inspired the general tone of the setting: dyed tip to toe in shades of gray. The Legacy of Kain series isn’t interested in clear-cut heroes and villains. Every character dances around that line, equally capable of doing either good or evil, through whatever means they deem necessary. The titular Kain is the very embodiment of their design philosophy: a man who took on a Faustian bargain in pursuit of revenge that ends up embarking on a journey that will ultimately save Nosgoth, but with motivations far from altruistic. He’s a complete anti-hero (something kind of rare back then) a trait that’s only exacerbated after his resurrection as a vampire. Yes, there are vampires in this series, and they are inexorably connected to the world of Nosgoth. Which leads me neatly into the next item, the Necroscope series.
Kain's graphic on the HUD changes to reflect his current gear.
In case you’re unfamiliar, Necroscope is a series of horror novels where the protagonist can commune with the dead. There are also vampires, a lot of body horror, and time travel. The developers claim that the only thing they took from the books was their visceral nature, and it shows! Blood Omen doesn’t shy from blood and gore. Enemies will spill their precious life force upon death. Kain has a multitude of powers that maul, rip, tear, implode, and corrode his enemies, and you’ll be using all of them. Finally, there’s the origin of that name, and that’s fairly simple actually. Dennis says that he was simply staring at the cover of “The Pillars of the Earth” and inspiration just came to him. Life finds a way I guess.
Tying all of this together is a dialogue that feels like it came straight out of a William Shakespeare play. By that, I don’t mean the dialog is full of complex words (though they do show up when appropriate) I mean it has eloquence. It’s never enough to just describe things in this series. If characters aren’t painting a picture with words, then it’s not a Legacy of Kain game. They thread the line between hammy and awe-inspiring. Corny and deep. It’s something that serves the series in more ways than one. Nosgoth is partially inspired by Medieval Europe, so this kind of diction fits the setting well. The other reason this choice is spectacular is that the series uses dialogue to deliver the story 99% of the time. Blood Omen is a special offender since Kain narrates everything. From his retrospective soliloquies (something that became a staple of the series) to each item, weapon, armor, or spell he finds, and you can bet your blood he’s gonna sound gracious while doing it. In no small part thanks to the writing of course, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the superb voice acting on display.
Finding talented actors was a priority for Silicon Knights, and the ones they found have become their characters. I simply cannot fathom the series without them. Simon Templeman's performace as Kain only gets better with each passing game. Legendary voice actor Tony Jay (may God have his soul) lends his voice to the necromancer Mortanius, and I swear that man could kill me with his vocal chords alone. A deeper dive into the series’ writing is something I’m saving for Soul Reaver 2, for reasons that will become apparent then, so just hang in there. There’s a lot of misuse of the term “Shakespearean”, and I’ll fully admit that I’m probably guilty of that as well, but Legacy of Kain truly earns that adjective.
Excerpt from the script (Credits: The Lost Worlds)
With all these juicy ingredients in place, Silicon Knights sent various publishers three drafts: The Pillars of Nosgoth, some undisclosed game, and Too Human. Yes, that Too Human, the one that went through development hell for a decade and turned out like shit. It didn't take long to find one. Enter, Crystal Dynamics, and trust me, that’s not the last time we’re gonna talk about them. Anyway, Too Human was almost pursued but Lyne Hall—Crystal Dynamic’s producer—thought that the high fantasy setting was preferable to the sci-fi flair of Too Human, and thus, a deal was made to produce what would eventually become Blood Omen.
The game would then stay in development for nearly three and a half years, with eight months being dedicated to further design work alone. Crystal Dynamics wanted to develop the game for either the 3DO (!!) or the Sega Saturn. However, the PS1 was announced just at the right time for Silicon Knights to convince them to go with Sony’s system instead. And here I gotta give credit to Silicon Knights for sticking with their vision. During development, they faced some criticism, particularly from the marketing department, that Kain was too unconventional (which he was, they were not wrong there), or that the story was too ambitious (there’s that word again), or even that some names would be difficult to get past “marketing censorship”. One final thing to note is that due to the extended development time of the game, Silicon Knights staff was doubled for the project, and Crystal Dynamics sent in some of their own to help. Among them was a woman who would become key to future titles in the series: Amy Henning. Remember that name!
Finally, after what some staff members described as a “Herculean effort," Blood Omen hit stores on November 1st, 1996 for the PlayStation 1, with the PC port coming a year later, in September 1997. It’s not clear what kind of bumps the team faced during development, but whatever they were, they left a mark on the final product.
Infinite ambition requires both an infinite budget and infinite execution. Unfortunately for Silicon Knights, they only had the first part of that Triforce. If it sounds like I’m about to shit all over Blood Omen, I’m not. But I think it’s important to acknowledge right now that this is a problem that plagues the entire series. It's not that these games play badly. Janky, perhaps, but never something I'd describe as terrible. The problem is that it can never keep up, let alone elevate, the exponentially epic proportions of its plot. The good news is that Blood Omen’s gameplay might be one of the best in the series. The bad news is that it might be one of the best in the series.
The PS1 was still early in its life cycle, only two years in at the time of Blood Omen’s release. It was too early for the developers to figure out how to extract the most of its hardware, and that, coupled with Silicon Knight’s lack of experience in console development and the inherent limitations of CDs, meant that the game suffered from a lack of polish that kept it just short of being great. One major problem with the console version is the loading times. Consider that this is a dark take on the Legend of Zelda formula. This means menu usage is constant throughout the whole game: equipping armor and weapons, setting spells, items, and consumables; all of that requires you to go to the menu. For whatever reason, the game needs to load the menu, and dear Lord, it gets tiring. Every time there is a map change, the game needs to take a moment to breathe. For a game all about exploring, this should not have made it into the final product. The PC version still has that issue, but in modern systems, it loads so fast you’ll only catch glimpses of it, so stick with that version instead.
Dungeons with rewards inside have a mural at the entrance.
Calling it a “Zelda clone” isn’t entirely inaccurate, but that’s selling it short. Besides the top-down camera and some gameplay similarities, both games couldn't be more different. For one, the way they approach their setting is night and day. In Zelda, Hyrule is a backdrop. It's a world that's there to serve the story of the Hero of Time and the Princess. By contrast, Nosgoth is a fully realized place. A decaying world long past its prime and on the verge of reaching the point of no return, and whether it can be redeemed or not is pretty much the plot of the series. You can remove Link from Hyrule and still have a story to tell (and in fact, that's been done multiple times), but you cannot remove Kain from Nosgoth and achieve the same effect.
The other difference between the two series is in the way they treat their protagonists. Link is self-insert for the player. Kain is the type of guy that buys two-dollar ice cream, pays one dollar, and kills the cashier for complaining he’s a dollar short. More importantly, he’s a fuckmothering vampire. That’s a big deal and Blood Omen will make sure you know that. Better yet, it makes sure you play that. Where the items you find in Zelda are used mostly in the dungeons you find them—and yes I know Breath of the Wild does things differently—the powers Kain finds exist only to make him a force of nature. Shields that make you invulnerable, spells that rot or make your enemies implode, the ability to slow down time, and my personal favorite, a spell that allows Kain to summon the power of Zeus to smite his enemies. None of these are mandatory to finish the game but fuck me if they don’t make it trivial. It plays the vampire mythos straight: powerful beyond human understanding but not invincible.
This stained glass mural is one of my favorite rooms in the game.
The third and final distinction is the aforementioned lack of polish, at least when it comes to combat. This is a clunky game, full of inconsistent hitboxes, cheap enemy placement, and generally bad AI. Projectiles flying diagonally go through walls, and enemies can get stuck inside Kain’s model. It’s a bit of a mess sometimes but it was never a deal-breaker. Maybe I have developed a resistance to clunky games over the years. It’s not like Silicon Knights didn’t know how to make a game, because the rest of Blood Omen shows some design sensibilities that we’d expect from a modern title. There’s a day/night cycle that affects Kain’s strength, complete with phases of the moon. Sometimes it rains, and since in this world water is like acid to vampires, you’d do well to hide in a cozy dungeon nearby when it pours. Your arsenal stays relevant for the whole game. The Mace, for example, does little damage but stuns enemies fast, making it easy to avoid accidental kills, and it can also open iron chests and break certain obstacles. The Flame Sword does high damage but leaves no corpse behind, not ideal if you need to feed but perfect for putting down the undead. Except for your starting gear, every other piece of equipment or spell follows that philosophy. It doesn’t quite accomplish their goal of making sure there’s no ultimate weapon (the combo of Chaos Armor and Repel Spell is broken beyond belief) but it shows that Silicon Knights was aware of Blood Omen’s shortcomings, and decided to compensate by allowing the player to experiment with the options given to them, provided they procure them in the world.
Map of Nosgoth (Credits: Dark Chronicle)
Exploring Nosgoth is always rewarding. I particularly like how every mini-dungeon that will reward you with some new spell or equipment has a mural displaying said spell/equipment right at the entrance. And when you do acquire them, you’re immediately offered a chance to test drive your new toy, usually on a path that leads back to the entrance. Add that to a fast-travel system that’s unlocked very early and the result is a game that minimizes downtime. You only go back to previous areas to find optional secrets, usually fat stacks of consumables or items that increase your health and mana. Those last two are particularly vital, as the most powerful spells require a lot of mana to cast, and the game’s idea of a difficulty curve is to make the enemies hit harder. And good heavens, there are a lot of secrets. Around 13 hours of play and I only found 30 out of 100. Nosgoth is way bigger, and sometimes, prettier than I thought.
This is something that, despite the limitations of the time, Blood Omen still excels at. It has an atmosphere that its sequels never quite managed to capture. Though the graphics betray its age, the intent is still clear even 24 years after its release. Nosgoth is dying. There’s an air of decay to everything: the green of trees isn’t quite right, the sun feels like it’s always blocked out by a stormy sky, even Willendorf’s castle, probably the highest nobility in the land, feels empty and devoid of the charm we so often associate fantasy castles with. It’s not quite hopeless but if feels appropriately dark. Sometimes literally. Some dungeons and catacombs offer little in the way of visibility, making any source of light stand out. Candles, torches, magic projectiles, flaming arrows, thunder, anything that casts light in some way or another affect the environment. It’s nothing complex—there are no shadows for example—and I can probably replicate the same effect using Photoshop, but it adds a lot to the presentation. It adds so much, that even Vorador’s Mansion, a place full of fancy tapestry and decoration, still manages to feel oppressive despite the luxury on display. Unfortunately, the cutscenes aged about as well as that early 3D from the ‘90s often do, with stiff animations and models that defy the uncanny valley. Still, they serve the narrative well, and just like with the rest of the graphics, the intent is still clear.
I can’t say the same about the sound department. In fact, I can’t say much about the sound in Blood Omen because there isn’t a lot of it. The music fits quite well and has enough personality that I still remember some tracks, but I have two issues with the soundtrack. One, the tracks are very short. Most don’t get past the two-minute mark, making for a poor listen outside the game. Two, there are so few of them! This is a problem because the music often plays where it doesn’t fit, or worse, not at all. I suspect this is a side effect of cramming the poor PS1 disk full of the CGI cutscenes. By the devs’ own admission, these took a hefty amount of space, so there was probably not a lot of room left for music, or sound effects for that matter. Every projectile (and I mean every single one) makes the same noise. Most NPCs are voiced by the same two voice actors and many lines are repeated to exhaustion. Trust me, you will get tired of hearing "please, help me, kind sir!” Thankfully, the rest of the voice acting is superb and elevates the writing to a level that even to this day still manages to impress.
Ask any Legacy of Kain fan what it is that they love about the series and 9 times out of 10 the answer will be compelling writing, immediately followed by superb voice acting that delivers it. As you can imagine, I’m very much part of that group, and it would be remiss of me to not talk about the plot. Or at least, that’s what I would’ve said if it wasn’t for the fact that discussing the complicated story of this series would literally take an entire blog in and of itself. For this reason, I want to keep this and every other future story discussion more focused on the thematic side of things, while giving you the abridged version of the plot events. That said, Blood Omen (and possibly Soul Reaver) are going to be the exceptions for reasons that will soon become clear. So let’s begin!
Blood Omen opens with a vampire slaughtering a group of mages, while they scream helplessly for a paladin named Malek. Malek arrives too late, and as a punishment for his failure, his soul is forcefully bound to a suit of armor, so he’ll serve the survivors for eternity. Metal. Then, we cut to a woman being murdered and a scale going off balance (it’s symbolic, trust me), ending with a pillar turning from pure white to gray. Now, this is a state of intent if I’ve ever seen one. With this opening, the writers establish the tone and leave you with a bunch of questions about events that won’t make sense until way later into the game. There’s even a time skip from the point that cinematic ends and gameplay begins, something you only find out later. Establishing an opening that confuses the reader and piques their curiosity is a very “Wheel of Time” move, and after writing this I found this document outlining the cinematics where the writers explicitly state that this opening is to serve the same purpose as that series’ prelude. I felt vindicated.
After that, the game starts properly with Kain, a nobleman from the city of Coorhagen, who one day finds himself with a sword lovingly jammed in his back, courtesy of some bandits. Naturally, like all nobles, he goes straight to hell after dying. But he wouldn’t have the time to enjoy the scenery, because the necromancer Mortanius offered him a chance for vengeance, and like a fool, he jumped at the chance without considering the cost. Kain wakes up in his crypt and realizes he’s now a vampire. When the necromancer said he’d have the “blood he hungers for”, he wasn’t kidding. After leaving his tomb, Kain finds his assailants like five minutes into the game, and exacts his revenge! Or so he thought. Mortanius uses his King Kai telepathy to inform Kain that those bandits were merely the instrument of his demise. The mastermind responsible for his death is still at large. He then sends Kain to the Pillars of Nosgoth, where the spirit of Ariel—former Balance Guardian and the woman assassinated in the opening—tells him that "there is no cure for death, only release." Well, shite.
We’re also introduced to the Pillars: nine columns that reach seemingly infinitely into the sky, each a manifestation of the principles that govern Nosgoth. Each Pillar chooses a guardian and together, they represent their respective Pillars in an oligarchy known as the Circle of Nine. The Pillars are also a direct reflection of the state of the land, with their well-being directly tied to the well-being of Nosgoth. It’s basically the world’s most accurate check-up. If the Pillars are pristine, all is good; if they’re gray, you should be worried; and if they crack, you’re all fucked. There’s more to the Pillars than just that, but for now, they’re just a part of everyone’s lives whether they care or not. Back to the plot, Ariel tells Kain that after her death, her lover and Guardian of the Mind, Nuprator, went mad, and his madness infected the rest of the Circle, corrupting the Guardians and Pillars alike. She also tells Kain that he will "realize his peace" if he restores the corrupted Pillars, and the only way to do that is to kill all the members of the Circle so new ones can be chosen.
The next ten or so hours can best be described as "Kain goes around the world killing a bunch of people". See, I didn't lie to you this time. The plot is the thing people talk about when they talk about Legacy of Kain. It's just that Blood Omen is like a training montage before the big Tournament Arc™, a lot of setup and world-building but not a lot of plot. It introduces ideas and seeds that would bloom in later installments, like Kane’s role in this world, the vampires Vorador and Janus Audron (here mentioned in name only), the Time Streamer Moebius, the Pillars and their relation to the land, and time travel. When you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, the essential story moments of Blood Omen’s plot can be counted on one hand, and since later games explain and elaborate on these events, you can see how one can skip this installment entirely and not be lost in the slightest. It’s a strange case, where a game can be so vital to a series but at the same time, so redundant. I can’t say I’ve seen other cases like it, which is why I'm trying to keep this section brief.
The Pillars of Nosgoth, the geographical and mythological hub of the series.
Now that I mentioned time travel, you might assume this is where we jump the metaphorical shark, but I assure you, it’s anything but that. Close to the end of the game, Kain finds two key items: the Soul Reaver sword, and a time-streaming device. The first is a unique weapon in the series whose importance would only grow with each title—and fun fact, it was originally a weapon in Too Human—and the second is a plot device. After that, his quest for the rest of the Circle was put on hold thanks to an invading army from the North led by The Nemesis: a man that used to be known as William The Just, a kind and caring king, but as his power grew so did his greed, and now he’s aiming to rule all of Nosgoth by any means necessary. Kain convinces King Ottmar to rally his troops against the Nemesis, but the battle that ensues goes horrifically wrong, and Ottmar’s forces get crushed. That’s when the time-streaming device activates and Kain finds himself fifty years into Nosgoth’s past, when the Nemesis was still King William the Just. Like a goddamn idiot, Kain uses this chance to murder William, changing the future. Now, time travel in this series abides by a strict set of rules that aren’t explained till later, so for now, you’ll just have to take my word for it: this is not a deus ex machina, nor a convenient solution for every problem. Although Blood Omen doesn’t explain it, I have the feeling Silicon Knights had already set those rules in stone, and I'll talk about that when we get to the game that deals with time travel the most.
After getting the deed done and finding another convenient time-streaming device, Kain goes back to a very different present. His regicide in the past ignited a genocidal hatred for his kind, so much so that he’s now the last vampire in Nosgoth. Finally, he realizes that this was all carefully orchestrated by the Oracle, who turned out to be the Time Guardian Moebius. Having been played like a damn fiddle, Kain shows Moebius the meaning of “heads will roll” and then flies back to the Pillars. There, he witnesses Mortanius talking to Anarcrothe the Alchemist, Guardian of States, and it’s revealed that Mortanius too is a member of the Circle: The Guardian of Death. Kind of obvious, not sure how Kain didn’t see that one coming. Mortanius also reveals that he’s the one responsible for both Kain and Ariel’s deaths! He killed the latter while possessed by the Dark Entity (again, more details in future games, shh), in order to throw the entire Circle into chaos. He realized what happened and created Kain, a being powerful enough to destroy them all, including himself. Mortanius then kills the Alchemist and fights Kain. He loses, gets possessed by the Entity again, becomes a big fucking deamon, and loses again. With only one Guardian left, we reach the finale of this story.
At the end of the game, Kain is presented with his first and final choice. It's a twist that many probably saw coming—the fact that the Pillar of Balance is still corrupt despite Ariel's death is your clue—which makes for some dramatic irony when Kain finally gets in the know. He realizes he is the final guardian. Scion of Balance and the last man standing. To restore the Pillars, he must subject himself to the same fate he so kindly bestowed upon the rest of his peers. Refusing would be the same as dooming Nosgoth to an eternity of decay, but in doing so, he would rule as the most powerful existence to ever set foot on the land. Redemption in death, or to rule in the unlife.
Now, I don’t mind that Kain has that epiphany. It shows that he’s a smart guy when not being manipulated. I just question how he reached that conclusion. As far as he knows, the last Guardian could be anyone, anywhere. Maybe Ariel told him, who knows. I also question why this final choice is left in the hands of the player. Throughout the game, it was pretty damn obvious that Kain would never choose to sacrifice himself. He killed without mercy, he drank from innocents without a second thought, and became more in death than he ever was in life. The more powerful of a vampire he becomes, the less human is left in him. It's not so much a case of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” (that one better applies to the Nemesis) as it is “if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”, and we get to play that. This story is not the fall of a hero, it’s the rise of a villain, and in that context, Blood Omen’s plot is strangely personal. Sure, the actions of all major players have drastic and long-lasting ramifications in the series—most of them calculated—but not Kain’s. He was used and manipulated every step of the way, and the one choice he gets at the end of all of it, he’s expected to pick the selfless option. Something that benefits only the humans that lied, used, and hunted him and his kind to near extinction. So can you really blame him when he does the exact opposite of that? You can almost feel sympathy for the guy.
It was an easy decision to make. In blood, Kain wrote and rewrote the history of Nosgoth, and now, the time had come for his own to write the closing remarks. But rather than an epilogue, he wrote a prelude. He chose to rule. The Pillars crack and crumble, and as they decay beyond salvation, so does the rest of Nosgoth. Kain embraces his curse completely, and on the ruins of the Pillars, he builds his throne, to rule over a hell of his own making. The world ends. His reign begins.
The final punctuation of an omen, written in blood.
Blood Omen is a hidden gem even by the standards of the Legacy of Kain series, and I’m willing to bet there are many fans that never played it, which is a shame. A lot of the things that we’ve come to love about the series were already present here, and it holds up surprisingly well for its age. It stands as one of the first examples of games attempting to have a serious story, and one of the earlier displays of quality voice acting in the medium too, well before things like Metal Gear Solid, for example. It sold decently, at least according to the people involved. Hard data on the sales was never made public, but both Silicon Knights and Crystal Dynamics have gone on record to say that the results were satisfactory. By the time the game hit the shelves, the latter had already secured a deal to publish the sequel. However, the events that followed were full of turmoil, and more than two decades later, still haven’t fully come to light. One thing is for certain: the map of the series was forever altered, and we might never know what its original destination was. That’s where we’ll pick off next: three years later in the real world, but more than millennia after Kain's momentous decision.
Next time, we dive into Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.