This entry is Part 2 out of 5 in the Legacy of Kain Retrospective. If you haven’t read Part 1, I strongly recommend you do so.
Sequels are a tricky affair, and I think most people will agree with me when I say that the concept kinda lost its value over the years. Not in a monetary sense—God knows Activision and EA prove that—but in an artistic one. On that note, how does one define a good sequel? There’s no real consensus, but we all know it when we see it. I think my favorite kind of sequel has to be the one between Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens. Both movies explore the horror that is the Xenomorph but their approaches couldn’t be more different. Scott’s Alien explores the monster from the deeply unsettling perspective that it is a single, unseen and seemingly invincible creature. The movie is careful never to show you too much of the alien, letting your imagination fill in the blanks. Cameron’s approach is that you’re trapped in a space base with a horde of the damn things that are as killable as they are endless. There’s no mystery here. The horror comes from seeing the aliens running right at you, more than you can ever count—not that you would stop to do so. The monster is the same, it hasn’t changed, but the approach did: an apex predator in one case and a relentless, unstoppable plague in the other.
The relationship between these two movies is a good starting point to talk about the next game in our retrospective. Like Aliens, Blood Omen’s sequel is one made by different people that (supposedly) explores themes and ideas from its predecessor from a new perspective. But where Aliens is a goddamn masterpiece (hot take, I know), Blood Omen’s sequel would be a game whose troubled development defined not only itself but the rest of the series going forward.
This is where the history of Nosgoth changed forever.
Playing Soul Reaver in 2020 can be a pain. The game has some funky compatibility issues with modern systems, despite being sold on both Steam and GOG. See, what both of these versions do is sell you the game with a fan-made patch built-in. Which is fine I guess, the creator is credited in the intro video, but the version of that patch only has the bare minimum to get the game running, and even then I ran into problems. So that won’t suffice for me. I only offer my boys the best, so here’s how you play Soul Reaver in 2020. First, grab yourself a copy of the game. Doesn’t matter which version you pick, but I recommend going GOG for that sweet DRM free copy. Install it as normal and then download the latest version of the patch made by a user named wrace—Version 18.104.22.168—and extract that in the folder where the game is installed. There are also some other cosmetic bells and whistles you can download to further enhance your experience, like a better quality version of the intro movie (that I absolutely recommend you watch), a widescreen patch, and some new music tracks for places that lack unique music. Much like the patch for Blood Omen, this is a fantastic way to play Soul Reaver: it fixes crashes on Windows 10, adds subtitles, unlocks the FPS (60 instead of the 30 from the original release), adds mouse control, filters, full HD resolution, and more! That said, the PC version lacks some features from the original PS1 and Dreamcast versions that I’ll discuss a bit later. Once again I don’t encourage emulation, but if you do decide to go with the DC version, emulating the game makes it run at a stable 60FPS, whereas the game running on original hardware dips below that sometimes. With that out of the way, let's talk about the game now!
After the relative success of Blood Omen, plans for a sequel were already set in stone. Nosgoth’s rich and unique setting provided practically endless opportunities for a sequel, and given Silicon Knight’s ambitions, that potential simply could not go untapped. In that same interview for PSXnation I linked in the previous blog, Dennis expressed his desire to explore Vorador's backstory in what he described as the "Blood Omen series." This is an important distinction, so keep that in mind. At the same time, executives at Crystal Dynamics proposed the idea of a sequel to their in-house members that had collaborated on the original Blood Omen. Before that happened, circa February 1997, Amy Hennig (remember her?) and Seth Carus, two Crystal Dynamics employees who worked on Blood Omen, were working on a game concept called Shifter. This was a standalone title with no relation to the Legacy of Kain Mythos, featuring a storyline involving fallen angels, where the protagonist could shift between two planes of existence. Shifter was worked on by Crystal Dynamics staff for a while, but it never left the concept stage. Instead, after the executives pitched the idea of a Blood Omen sequel, its ideas were transplanted to that universe, with its protagonist becoming Raziel and the antagonist, Kain. Shifter was re-imagined as Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. And this is where the problems start.
Let’s go back to that distinction I just mentioned. The official title for the first game in this series is Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. It’s entirely possible that Silicon Knights’ idea was to make a series of games exploring different anti-heroes in the history of Nosgoth, hence why Legacy of Kain is the suffix, rather than the prefix. Something more in the lines of an anthology series than true sequels. So when they learned of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, they filed an injunction against Crystal Dynamics, alleging that “they took the concept of Kain 2 from a title that the Canada-based Knights were developing.” Now, details about the case that followed are still somewhat classified. Lots of allegations were made and the truth is only known to those who were there, so I’ll give you a very condensed version of what supposedly happened. Towards the end of Blood Omen’s development, the relationship between the two companies became hostile, to say the least, with reports suggesting that the cops were called in at least once. But since the game was a success, Activision wanted a sequel, so they approached Crystal Dynamics and asked for a concept for “Kain 2.” Unsatisfied with their proposal, Activision went to Silicon Knights and requested the same thing. This is when Crystal tried to disrupt Silicon’s progress, and the lawsuit followed shortly thereafter.
Concept art for Shifter (Credits: Nosgothic Realm)
I don’t enjoy speculating on things I can’t personally verify, but for whatever it’s worth, here’s my personal opinion. I think both companies engaged in foul play in one way or another: Silicon probably lied about the plagiarism claim—it’s more likely that they were working on other projects at the time—and Crystal probably tried a hostile takeover maneuver to develop their own sequel, which would explain why Activision approached them first despite the fact they’re the publisher, not the main developer. If you feel like reading a more detailed postmortem of the whole case, this thread by user "Mama Robotnik" does a great job at breaking down the whole thing, but in the end, two facts remain: there’s no way the two companies could’ve worked together again, and Crystal Dynamics obtained the rights to the Legacy of Kain IP at the end of the day, with Kain 2 either vanishing or supplanted by Soul Reaver. This event would drastically change the fate of the game and the fate of the series, in more ways than just a change of developer. Soul Reaver ended up getting delayed multiple times before arriving in August 1999, almost a year after its original release date in October '98. Crystal Dynamics was even bought by Eidos somewhere along the way. The lawsuit was a factor, no doubt about that, but it’s more likely that the real reason was the fact that, somehow, this game was even more ambitious than Blood Omen, and as a result, Soul Reaver became a game defined by what it is but known for what it isn’t, and I can’t talk about it without looking at both sides of that coin.
Soul Reaver is a game so different from its predecessor that no one would blame you for not knowing it’s actually a sequel. Whereas Blood Omen was a top-down Zelda-like, Soul Reaver is more akin to a 3D Metroidvania. Amy Hennig—now occupying the seat of director and debuting as a lead writer—has compared the change to that between Link to The Past and Ocarina of Time, but I have to respectfully disagree here. Ocarina of Time is a clear evolution and adaptation of the ideas and themes presented in past 2D Zelda games, while also throwing in its unique spin on the formula. On the other hand, Soul Reaver has a lot more in common with Metal Gear Solid: both are PS1 titles that pushed some kind of barrier—mainly regarding voice acting in video games—but more importantly, they’re both soft reboots of their respective franchises: still technically sequels but mostly they’re their own, almost separate stories. But where MGS builds and expands upon the mythos established in previous games, Soul Reaver struggles to be its own thing, despite being tied to the name Legacy of Kain. To use an analogy, Ocarina and MGS are like a new floor added to a house: what’s below serves as a foundation to what’s being added, and the connection between the two is plain for all to see. Soul Reaver, on the other hand, is a treehouse pretending the actual house doesn’t exist.
Of course, changes between titles are all but expected, especially at the hands of a different team, let alone a different writer, but the differences between the two games are far too big for me to reduce the explanation to just "different people made it." There’s almost nothing connecting the two games in terms of gameplay, presentation, writing, and themes, but you wouldn’t know that unless you’ve played its predecessor already. Soul Reaver inherited a lot of things from the Shifter project, and as such, it has a completely different set of inspirations behind its inception. Not a bad thing by itself, but playing the game, the impression I got is that Soul Reaver isn’t the game it wanted to be. Don’t misunderstand, I really like this story. I wouldn’t be here writing this right now if I didn’t, but I also can’t go on without acknowledging that everything about Soul Reaver is a mess, from inception to the final product. The story barely stands on its own, and the importance it does have to the overarching series is largely retroactively attributed to its sequels. For fuck's sake, the Pillars of Nosgoth are barely acknowledged here, that’s how disconnected from Blood Omen this game is.
I’m making some bold claims here, some of which won’t make much sense until we talk about Soul Reaver 2, and I think I can better illustrate my points by just diving right into the meat of the game. Believe it or not, Soul Reaver has even less story than Blood Omen, despite being much more ambitious. Start a new game and you’re immediately hit with what is still one of the best intros to any video game ever, and right off the bat, we're seeing an increase in production value. The models alone are better than anything the previous game had to offer, the animations look much more natural, and the camera work is, for lack of a better word, cinematic. It’s still late '90s CGI, but better art direction coupled with the less human designs of the series’ vampires helps it steer clear of the uncanny valley. This cutscene aged like fine wine, a far cry from the days of Blood Omen, and I have a feeling they poured all of their resources into this opening, ‘cause it’s the only one in the entire game.
It’s not just visuals, the sound department does much of the heavy lifting here. Kurt Harland of the band Information Society lends his talents to the series and his work here is just fantastic. He was brought on board after Mike Miller—one of Crystal’s employees who worked on Blood Omen—played a song from Kurt’s then-recent album, and the team just loved it. The track in question would then become the main theme of the entire series: "Ozar Midrashim" and by the Lord, what a fucking piece of music! Haunting, intense, mysterious, and imposing, all at the same time. It fits so well that it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t composed specifically for the series. This isn’t the only reason why I think this soundtrack is phenomenal, and I’ll return to that when we’re talking about the gameplay. The voice acting is no slouch either, and it lives to the standard set by Blood Omen. Tony Jay lends his amazing voice to the Elder God and I swear, his vocal cords can move mountains. Simon Templeman reprises his role as Kain, and he just nails this older, more jaded version of the character. Joining these two mad lads is Michael Bell, voicing our new protagonist, Raziel. Together, they pretty much make the trifecta of voices that drive the story forward, being the central figures in the 9-dimensional chess game that’s about to start. That said, while the dialog retains its Shakespearean qualities, the majority of it is what I like to call “functional dialog,” meaning that yes, it is eloquent, but it just boils down to the game giving you directions on where to go next because no one thought prudent to code a map in a Metroidvania. This isn’t a criticism, by the way, it’s hard to make that kind of dialog flow well and I gotta give it to Amy, the woman knows her stuff. It’s just funny to me that the next game would do the exact opposite, but we’re not ready for that discussion yet.
Besides being a feast for the eyes and ears, this intro also has the duty of setting up the plot. After the events of Blood Omen where Kain refused to make the sacrifice, he sired six “sons” to help him rule over whatever remains of Nosgoth. Each of them raised vampire clans of their own and soon enough, Nosgoth was under their control. We learn that a thousand years have passed since the Pillars broke and that vampires can evolve as time goes on, with Kain always being the first, followed by his lieutenants. One day, Raziel—his firstborn and our narrator for this scene—had the audacity to evolve wings before his master. So Kain does what any pissed off bully would: break the guy’s wings and throw him into the Lake of the Dead. Definitely not winning any father of the year awards. Since water burns vampires like acid in this world, Raziel is condemned to a very cruel fate, but here’s the kicker: his flesh regenerates about as fast as the water can dissolve it. His punishment isn’t to die, but to dissolve forever. It’s the sort of thing that would not be out of place in the Greek Myths. After suffering for what he describes as an eternity, he finds himself resurrected as something else other than a vampire, with the amazing baritone voice of Tony Jay telling him that he “is worthy.”
There's a horrible fog here in the PS1 version
After that, the cutscene ends and from here, everything is done in-engine. Soul Reaver was released late into the console’s life cycle, and that advantage allows it to look better than most 3D games that came before it. Models are still blocky as all hell, but a far cry from the “square heads” of Metal Gear Solid for example. Since the game has no intention to make you believe that you’re staring at humans, the uncanny valley effect doesn’t apply. That said, the atmosphere here is sublime. The PS1 version has to make a lot of compromises to keep the frame rate stable (most notably, the Silent Hill style fog), but on PC and DC, it shines. Or, it would, if the sun ever showed itself. The colorful creepiness from Blood Omen is gone, replaced by a browner, darker, and overall more oppressive color pallet. If Nosgoth was on the brink in the previous game, this one shows it many years after the point of no return. Ruins litter the land, their remnants but a testament to humanity’s lost culture, and the vampire’s decadent empire. Gothic cathedrals and steampunk machinery provide some insight into how the world used to be and I like how there was some thought put into the little things. Like how the castle in the middle of the snowy mountains has a giant furnace for heating purposes. It gives this version of Nosgoth its own identity and it's kind of a shame that the world is much smaller (and much less interesting to explore) than the one in Blood Omen, yet another side effect of its troubled development.
Raziel and the Elder Squid
You may also notice the presence of a big squid with eyes all over its tentacles, and if you’re thinking H.P Lovecraft, you’re half right. This being goes by the moniker of Elder God, but don’t let the name, the imagery of spirals, the excessive green filter, and the Yog-Sothoth appearance fool you. Lovecraft’s presence in the series is more of an undertone than an inspiration. Though he may look like a creature straight from his works, the Elder Yog is more of a demiurge figure: not only does he care for the fate of the world, but he is the very engine that keeps it moving. If anything, it’s the vampires that deserve that adjective. The way they “evolve” and get ever so closer to “divinity” in ways that the mortals can’t even dream of is much more in line with the ideas H.P. wrote. There’s something terrifying about an enemy that’s both immortal and gets stronger with time, and it’s kind of a shame that this is an idea exclusive to this title.
The Elder Squid explains that vampires are bad because their immortal souls don’t return to the Wheel of Fate, breaking the natural cycle of life, death, and rebirth he oversees, and that’s why Nosgoth is dying. Having spared Raziel from “total dissolution,” he then tells him to avenge himself and become his “soul reaver.” And there’s our premise! The story beats here are very similar to the starting premise of Blood Omen: it’s a revenge story, but instead of a human coming back as a vampire, we play as a vampire that comes back as something of a vengeful, soul-consuming wraith. The complexity is also significantly toned down. Raziel’s vengeance is the entire plot, rather than the initial premise, and his journey is framed like a redemption arc. We never really question his past unlife as a vampire, and with the Spaghetti God assuring us how evil Kain is, the whole “gray and gray” morality from the previous game is nowhere to be seen. The undue punishment makes us sympathize with the hero, the betrayal makes us hate the villain and the guidance makes us trust the mentor figure. In fact, Raziel will spend the entirety of the series just looking for answers, in a very hero’s journey kind of way. For fuck’ sake, even the name “Raziel” means “Secret of God” in Hebrew. I know Blood Omen wasn’t the most complex of stories, but it had nuance, deception, and subversion. Those traits are missing from Soul Reaver’s narrative but again, you wouldn’t know that unless you’re already looking for them.
In true “me” fashion, now that we’re three thousand words into this write-up we can finally talk about gameplay! I’ll be honest, Soul Reaver might just be the worst in the entire series, not necessarily because it is clunky but because it’s so basic. This opening area serves as our tutorial, and we listen as not-Shub-Niggurath uses telepathy to teach Raziel (and by extension, the player) about his powers. It’s fairly standard action-platforming from early 2000: jump, attack, glide, and feed. You do get new powers as the game goes on, but they’re all just new ways to traverse the terrain, barely worth mentioning: climbing walls, swimming, and phasing while in the Spectral Realm. Oh yeah, this is probably a good hook to talk about the game’s biggest gimmick. As a wraith, Raziel can shift between the world of the dead and the living, and each plane looks and behaves differently. He can go back to the Spectral Realm either at will or by “dying,” but reaching the Material Realm requires him to find portals conveniently provided by the Shub-Squiggurath and being at full health. In the Spectral Realm, the architecture twists and bends in unnatural ways, usually revealing new paths to progress and not much else. It boils down to “if you’re stuck, switch planes and look around” and that’s so disappointing. At times, it feels like the game is just padding itself, which is a shame because this is a cool idea that could’ve made for some mind-bending gameplay. The closest the game comes to realizing that potential is a puzzle in the Silenced Cathedral where a distant door closes too fast for you to cross, requiring Raziel to change to the Spectral Realm where time flows much slower.
T-pose to assert dominance phase through gates
That said, the changes do happen in real-time, and that is Soul Reaver’s biggest technical achievement. The game features a seamless world with no loading screens of any kind, something achieved through some clever programming and level design. The details are complicated, but the simple version is that they used some tricks to avoid having to load multiple instances of any same object, and while you’re exploring, the areas immediately after and before your current location are already stored in the memory. This even works when going through fast travel portals, and I’ll admit, seeing Raziel just walk through it without any stuttering is still impressive even after all these years. The dual world nature of the game also deserves praise, as each area has distinct looks and music for both planes. It couldn’t have been easy to implement such a feature, especially back then. It might be a gimmick I’m not that fond of, but it’s a pretty impressive gimmick nonetheless.
Meanwhile, the world of the living has its own rules for Raziel. For starters, it’s the only one he can interact with Nosgoth, by opening doors and climbing walls for example. While there, his health also slowly drains, requiring you to feed from time to time in order to prolong his manifestation. It’s similar to how Kain needed to feed in Blood Omen but it’s slightly trickier here given the nature of your enemies. The majority of enemies Raziel faces are vampires of various types. The specifics vary a little, but the one thing they all have in common is that they can’t be killed by traditional means. The only way to permanently put them down is either impaling or burning the body, either with water or fire. Cool, right? It plays into vampire lore and gives an otherwise unremarkable combat system a bit of flair. It’s just a shame that it never gets any deeper than that. From start to finish, every fight is gonna go the same way: hit them until stagger, then impale/burn the dude. You can also throw the body into some conveniently placed wall spikes, but whether they’ll stick or bounce it’s up to the game. It’s not a bad system—for one it’s far more polished than the wonky hitboxes from the previous game—but there’s just not enough. Then there are the humans, and although they’re of little consequence, if you choose not to harm them, they become neutral to you and start worshiping Raziel like he’s some sort of avenging angel. If they’re neutral, you can take a partial “sip” of their souls to heal. Just don’t ask me how one eats half of a soul. I never needed to feed on them, but I like that the option exists.
Fan-made map of Soul Reaver's Nosgoth
There are also optional powers to find in the world, but A) you need to open a menu to use them, breaking the flow of combat and B) they’re just boring! Nothing even comes close to the shield or mind-control spells from the previous game. This is probably my biggest criticism of the entire game: exploring Nosgoth is simply not rewarding this time around. In the first game, obtaining new powers gave Kain different ways to approach (or straight up ignore) combat, and the majority also had a use in puzzle solving. Not only that, but the level design always cuts down on the backtracking. There’s none of that in Soul Reaver. The game is full of strange dead ends, with the levels getting increasingly more linear the more you progress into the game.
Since going off the path isn’t recommended this time, let’s get back on track. Raziel’s quest is to kill all of his former brothers and father, and yes, this is kind of like a Greek tragedy, except this time all parties involved are well aware of the comeuppance that’s about to happen. To do that, he must explore each territory until he finds his prey, solving whatever puzzles the developers decided to put your way. And by puzzles, I mean box pushing and dear, fucking, God! Let’s get this out of the way now, I don’t know how many boxes are too many, but Soul Reaver went way past that point and never looked back. The number of box puzzles in this game is outrageous! This is the one thing I can confidently say exists solely to pad the runtime. These puzzles add nothing of value to the experience, and once you’ve done one you’ve basically done them all. The "flavor" may change (sometimes you’re rebuilding a mural, sometimes you’re connecting some pipes) but the result is the same: push/flip these cubes to the right spots. For your sanity, you had better become familiar with the "L" maneuver real fast. Oh, and some of these have constantly respawning enemies because fuck you, I guess.
Oddly enough, it was in one of these rooms that I took notice of the game’s dynamic soundtrack! I know that doesn’t sound particularly impressive in a world where Metal Gear Rising and Devil May Cry 5 exist but consider that every area has at least 3 different variations per Realm (combat, exploration, and puzzle for example) and that this was 1999. The game responds to your every action and seamlessly adds or removes instruments and motifs as necessary, and maybe it’s just me but this is still freaking mind-blowing. The PC version is missing that feature and the atmosphere suffers a lot because of it.
The dynamic OST with its variations.
Sorry, back to the plot. I wish I had more to say about Raziel’s brothers, but they play such a minuscule role it’s honestly baffling. Calling them characters is far too generous. They’re just so stereotypically evil that no dialogue with them holds any significance, and only exist to give Raziel new powers upon defeat. Well, I say defeat, but really, these fights are the real puzzles of the game. His brothers have all mutated into horrific monsters and in this, Soul Reaver gets nothing but praise from me. Their design is just fantastic! In the 500 years since Raziel’s "death," his brothers had time to evolve, and boy if the results aren’t some nightmare fuel. The vampires in Soul Reaver are a far cry of the "dignified noble" image we have from traditional vampire mythology. Instead of pretty boys in fancy clothes, the bosses here are grotesque and unsettling. Zephon, the boss at the top of the Cathedral might be my favorite on sheer nasty factor alone: he literally evolved his legs away to become a giant, sentient hive stuck to a wall. He would not be out of place in an H.R. Giger illustration, Carpenter’s The Thing, or even Dead Space. So defeating these monsters in traditional combat won’t cut, requiring Raziel to use the environment and it’s… okay. Once you know what to do it is just a matter of repeating it three times. There’s not much challenge involved, but I’ll take any break from regular combat I can get.
The next ten or so hours can best be summarized as "Raziel goes around the world killing a bunch of vampires." But there is one stop we must make before jumping to the finale. After defeating the first boss, Melchiah, Raziel gains the ability to phase through gates while in the Spectral Realm. He uses this power to reach the Sanctuary of the Clans, the palace Kain built around the broken Pillars of Nosgoth. There, he meets his maker, and the back and forth between the two is honestly the best part of any game going forward. Raziel’s naive but still defiant demeanor makes him the perfect foil for Kain’s chess-master-with-a-plan conduct. It’s a dynamic that’s tremendously enhanced by the Shakespearean qualities of the series, and something that future games would capitalize heavily upon. A "boss fight" with Kain happens and at the end of it, Kain strikes Raziel down with the Soul Reaver blade. But the blade shatters! Kain is surprisingly unfazed by this development as if he was already expecting it. Free from its material coil, the blade’s true form is made manifest in the Spectral Realm, namely, that of a Wraith Blade. Raziel picks it up and the blade binds itself to his arm. Soul Reaver and Reaver of Souls, now bound together for all eternity.
The true implications of this development are not something this game will explain, but I do want to talk about what this means for gameplay. The Soul Reaver can’t manifest in the Material Plane unless Raziel is at full health, but once it does, it "sustains" him, meaning you won’t lose health. The sword also does a fuck ton of damage, so in a single swoop, it makes feeding and fighting that much more trivial. Powerful stuff, right? Well, not quite. A single hit will take it away from you, meaning that it’s still more practical to take a spear with you, or just avoid combat entirely. You also can’t stealthily dispatch enemies with it, since the Reaver’s finishing move will alert an enemy to your presence. It’s an odd choice that doesn’t add anything to the gameplay, and it is something that was somewhat fixed in Soul Reaver 2. Oh, and you also meet the spirit of Ariel here. She’s supposedly there to guide you to your next objective, but I never needed her. I’m not kidding when I say that you could cut her from this game entirely and nothing would be lost. That’s how small of a role she plays here.
The broken Pillars of Nosgoth
After defeating four of his brothers, and learning that both he and his brothers were Sarafan priests in life—a.k.a. motherfucking vampire hunters—Raziel is finally set for his second (and final) match with Kain. He makes his way to the Oracle’s Cave—and yes, this is the same place Kain first met Moebius in Blood Omen—and finds the secret passage to the deep parts of the cave, and here the game has a twist waiting for us. Raziel finds a series of portals containing visions of all the events since the beginning of his quest for Kain: the moment of his resurrection, his first confrontation with Kain at the Sanctuary of the Clans, and him finding the Tomb of the Sarafan. Squidward (can you tell I’m running out of names for the Elder God?) explains that these are visions of time, and Raziel starts to worry that this was all foretold. We then see some visions of events that haven’t happened yet but hold that thought, we talk about that in a second. We finally get to Kain, and he gives a whole speech about how free will is an illusion, how he’s seen into the future, and how every destiny is already set in stone. It’s a good twist: it explains how Moebius was able to execute his plan back in Blood Omen and gives Kain’s motives a little more depth. In the one encounter we have with him, he gives the impression that he has a plan, and this is why. He knows what’s going to happen, and even if we don’t understand what his plan is, we at least have an idea of why he’s acting the way he is.
What follows is the worst goddamn fight in the entire game. This one takes place inside the Chronoplast, which is a fancy name for a time machine. This is a repeat of the first battle with Kain: he will teleport somewhere and charge a Palpatine-style electric bolt to fire at you. However, there are two major differences: only the Soul Reaver can do damage to him, and after each hit, he will teleport to a different level of the arena. I cannot begin to tell you how annoying it is to track him. The first hit isn’t too bad since he is close, but the last hit took me about ten minutes to land. Where he teleports to is random (I tried to cheese it with save states on an emulator. Didn’t work) and you have so little time to track him that by the time I found the son of a gun, I was already getting cooked. And don’t tell me to use the camera, because that thing controls like a rusty swivel chair. There’s even a thing at the center of the arena that heals you, so you don’t even need to worry about dying. It’s awful and I hate it, so let’s move on.
Raziel wins but Kain manages to calibrate the machine and escapes through the portal, assuring Raziel that "fate promises more twists." Sushi-Niggurath warns that once he crosses that threshold, he’s beyond his influence. Raziel enters the portal and on the other side, awaiting him is none other than Moebius! He addresses him by name and welcomes him "to his destiny." The screen fades and Moebius gives us a cryptic message that won’t mean anything until the next game. Then a fancy "TO BE CONTINUED" appears and the game ends.
What a cliffhanger. What a twist.
What the fuck?
Cut content is a very natural part of any creative process. Things that don’t work are removed, while those that do are kept or added in. There are other reasons but at the end of the day, all stories that do get told are refined versions of bigger (or smaller) concepts. I tell you this because understanding what Soul Reaver was supposed to be is essential to understand what and why it actually is. Let’s start with that finale. Truth be told, I don’t hate it, but you have to understand that back in ‘99, this was a slap in the face! Soul Reaver generated a fair bit of hype when it was revealed. Nothing huge by today’s standards, but people who bought it were still excited nonetheless. After so many delays they finally get to play, and the ending they get is a cliffhanger that comes out of nowhere and is presented with little fanfare and practically no foreshadowing. It’s hard to convey it in text alone, but the final hours of Soul Reaver feel more like the half-time before the second bout than an actual ending, and that’s because it originally was.
According to Amy Hennig, the missing part would compose around ⅓ of the final game, and since this is already six thousand words long, here are the cliff notes: originally, the Chronoplast would fail to activate and Kain would retreat, having been wounded by the Reaver. Raziel would kill his last surviving brother, then imbue the Soul Reaver with Ariel’s soul—thus making it strong enough to kill Kain. He does that and the Reaver absorbs Kain’s soul, making Raziel practically unstoppable. The finale would see Raziel climb to the top of the Silenced Cathedral to open the sound pipes and blast "a hymn of death" that purges every single vampire from Nosgoth. Roll credits and thank you for coming! It’s difficult to tell exactly when they had a change of plans. There are enough audio files still in the game that a reconstruction of the final battle with Kain can be made for example and many unused areas have some basic modeling still left in the disc. I bet that creating real-time shifting and a seamless dual-world took far more time and resources than the team anticipated, leading to an incomplete product.
One of the Chronoplast visions depicting the final battle with Kain
If I’m being honest, this change was a blessing in disguise. The more I think about the original ending, the more I hate it, and here’s why. Stories about fate and destiny are inherently harder to give weight and meaning, which is why it baffles me that this trope pops up so frequently. If the outcome is already decided, then every victory feels hollow, and every defeat inconsequential. What makes those type of stories work are the characters and their dynamics with each other and the overall story. If the hero wants to challenge a bad future, we want to see how they outsmart destiny. If the villain wants to maintain the flow of time, we get to see their reasoning and maybe even understand where they’re coming from. Prophecies have a similar issue, but they’re flexible enough that they can afford to not be obvious, or be subverted altogether. A good writer can use prophecy/destiny as a way to keep both its characters and its audience guessing, and when the moment of truth comes, it can make for a really memorable scene that sticks with the audience.
The original ending to Soul Reaver does none of that. The "visions of the future" Raziel sees are the events I described to you two paragraphs ago, so if anything, it detracts from the plot by spoiling for you what happens. History has already decided that Raziel wins and Kain just goes "I guess I’ll die," which by the way, doesn’t even make sense! He changed history before! His whole empire exists because of that! But I think the way this offends me the most is how it changes Kain’s character for me. In the story we got, he discovers that despite becoming the kingpin of Nosgoth, he's still just a pawn of a higher force, which is ironic, and the fact he’s destined to be the author of his own demise by creating Raziel is poetic justice, given how he ruined Nosgoth. But Kain, being the magnificent bastard that he is, decides to do something to fight fate itself. This is a straight upgrade from Kain just accepting his death—I’ll fully admit this could be seen as an act of self-redemption, but that would make the story way less interesting and even less morally ambiguous. It adds some depth to him and it feels like a natural course of action for someone as selfish and arrogant as Kain to defy the continuum of history itself. In both encounters with him, he’s never surprised by anything, giving the impression that everything is going according to plan, which it is, it’s just not his plan. Not yet, at least.
As for gameplay-related cuts, there are just far, far too many to cover here. If this piques your interest, I recommend going to the Lost Worlds website and checking it out for yourself. This year they released the biggest batch of never-before-seen content, and it really puts into perspective just how ambitious Soul Reaver truly was. A few of these ideas will be realized in the sequel, and we’ll discuss them when we get there.
The graphics don't do justice to the game's ambitions
Soul Reaver is considered a hidden gem of the PlayStation era. It’s an interesting game that bit far more than it could chew, but it’s fondly remembered for serving as an introduction to the Legacy of Kain universe. The game was highly praised upon release and I can see why, but to me, its flaws only became more apparent with time. It’s also a product of circumstance: the lawsuit, the original Shifter project, the troubled development cycle, all of those things were factors that ultimately led the series to where it is today. If you were to change a single one, then this very text you’re reading might have never been written. I know I talked some shit about it, but I can't bring myself to hate it knowing the history behind its inception. It's an ambitious title that wanted to be true to its vision but had to balance that desire against the weight of its responsibility of being a sequel to another game. Even then, its success was undeniable. It sold over a million copies, it reviewed very well at the time and people wanted more.
An unplanned sequel, copious unanswered questions, and unrefined gameplay. These are the ingredients of the primordial soup of chaos and uncertainty from which Soul Reaver’s sequel would emerge. But I don’t think any of us were prepared for that.
Next time, we revisit the title where this story truly starts: Soul Reaver 2.