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LONG BLOG

Bloody Tragedy - A Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2 Retrospective

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This is Part 4 out of 5 in the Legacy of Kain Retrospective. Read the entries on Blood Omen, Soul Reaver 1, and 2, before continuing.

Creative differences are a common occurrence in any group project, and the Legacy of Kain series is no stranger to them. Much like Nosgoth, the behind-the-scenes of every game in the series is rife with strife and disagreements. Between the ambitious Blood Omen, the delayed Soul Reaver, and the unexpected Soul Reaver 2, it’s a miracle that the series even exists at all, considering that the two companies responsible for its inception—Silicon Knights and Crystal Dynamics—had such differing views of what the series is, that it created a rift that could never be mended. The ensuing fallout pivoted the series to where it is today: a cult classic, mostly forgotten by the mainstream media, but forever indelible to those who had the chance to follow the titular Kain and his word-changing, destiny defying exploits.

And as fate would have it, the series would find itself in a familiar situation. Soul Reaver 2 ended in a significant cliffhanger, one that promised drastic repercussions for the entire series. Kain’s actions caused a ripple effect he couldn’t foresee or prepare for, and with the first tease of an enemy yet unseen—the Hylden—the stage is set for the next act of this epic. With copious questions still in the air, the general feeling among fans was that this was it. The prologue is over, it's time to get the real show on the road. But much to the surprise of the audience, the next scene wasn’t something they hoped for or expected. Neither sequel nor prequel, but something else that defies explanation. Once again, the series was changing developers, but this time, the rift that followed came from within the company itself. One born of creative indifference, and the result is a game that neither understands nor respects the mythos it belongs to.

And the sad thing is, it’s not entirely the game’s fault

Installation

Much like the previous game in our series, Blood Omen 2 runs out of the virtual box on my machine, and funnily enough, it even shares some issues with Soul Reaver 2! Namely, the CPU affinity problem. In case you forgot, the game doesn’t like it when you run it on a rig with multiple cores, and it will crash randomly if the problem isn’t addressed. To fix this, open the Task Manager, find the game, right-click and go to “details,” then right-click again and go to “set affinity.” From there, make sure only “CPU 0” is selected and voilà! Remember to repeat this process every time you launch the game. With that said, let’s begin!

Creative Indifference

Blood Omen 2 arrived in March 2002, but the story of its inception dates back to 1997, during the development of Soul Reaver. At the time, Crystal Dynamics decided to split the franchise into two branches: the Soul Reaver arc was to follow the newcomer Raziel and move the plot forward, while the Blood Omen arc would explore the unlife of everyone’s favorite fuckmothering vampire, Kain, after the events of the original game. The “main team,” led by Amy Hennig, took charge of the former, while a secondary “B-Team” led by Glen Schofield was to start development on what would become Blood Omen 2—fun fact, he would later produce the first Dead Space, and direct Modern Warfare 3 and Advanced Warfare. But with the commercial success that was Soul Reaver, plans changed. They prioritized its sequel, with Blood Omen 2 resigned to the back burner. So despite entering production first, the game would arrive six months after its “younger brother.”

This technically makes Blood Omen 2 the project with the longest development time in the franchise, but not for the reasons you think. The idea might have been conceived in ‘97, but the game as we got only entered full development in ‘99, after the release of Soul Reaver 1. It’s easy to imagine why. Between the Silicon Knights’ lawsuit and the absurd ambition of its design, the production of Soul Reaver was hell. Crystal Dynamics struggled to ship one game. Developing a companion piece concurrently was out of the question. Chances are, that version of Blood Omen 2 never left the planning stage. Steven Ross—Lead Artist/Art Director for the game—has a portfolio page and the section on Blood Omen 2 reads:

"Not my fondest memories. This project took three years while we built our engine from scratch. Trying to art direct this while also doing all the concept work and being a full-time environment artist, designer, and UI artist nearly killed me."

This firmly dates the inception of the game to ‘99, putting it in the unique position of being developed in parallel to Soul Reaver 2. From a storytelling perspective, that’s about as sharp of an edge as one can get, but what should've been a blessing turned out to be its greatest curse. What is painfully obvious from the moment you boot the game is that Blood Omen 2’s budget wasn’t anywhere near that of its younger brother. Although I cannot prove it, the impression I got is that Soul Reaver 2 siphoned all the money and personnel, leaving the other team to fight for metaphorical scraps, and under that light, many of its design decisions suddenly begin to make sense.

Foolproof tutorial, let me tell ya...

Blood Omen 2 is infamous for being the black sheep of the series. The moniker is well-earned, but I’m not so sure about the hate that follows. Looking at its development provides answers that are both elucidating and infuriating, so let me present my “evidence.” First, there’s a near-total absence of any member of the Soul Reaver team, most notably our majestic and benevolent queen, Amy Hennig. While I do not expect her (or anyone else) to work on two games simultaneously, the fact she’s not even credited as a consultant role in Blood Omen 2 should be the first red flag that something is wrong. This one smells of corporate bullshit, but you don’t need to take my word for it, cause here’s a quote from Daniel Cabuco, Lead Artist/Art Director for Soul Reaver, Soul Reaver 2, and Defiance.

"Well BO2 was a completely different team, and they had a lot of their own ideas about the direction they wanted to go. I had a few friends on that team, so I can only say that I wish we'd worked more closely together and collaborated. [...] There was a lot of people who didn't quite get Soul Reaver at Crystal and Eidos. The higher-ups wanted more overtly sexual elements with a simpler story and I think that had a lot of influence on BO2."

By keeping the “creative” part of the team out of the project, the bosses at Crystal and Eidos had an easier time making sure that the next game was much easier to be “designed by committee” if you will. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not implying that the people that worked on Blood Omen 2 are hacks or anything—there’s still a lot to like about it—but the fact remains that they had no idea where Amy was taking the series. With both titles being developed concurrently and in parallel, there was likely no time to make any changes to Blood Omen 2 before its release six months after Soul Reaver 2. The writing in particular suffered greatly from this lack of cooperation, but we’re not ready to dive into that rabbit hole yet.

The next thing that stood out to me during research was the aforementioned Steve Ross quote. Namely, the general tone of it. It’s clear that he didn’t enjoy the whole process, but what irks me is this: when a single developer is tasked with multiple aspects of a project, they’re either passionate about it or desperately short on people. Of course, I’m not a game developer, and I’ll never pretend to be one. I am, however, a college student. And do you know what students do when they’re short on time and have looming deadlines on the horizon? They recycle.

In another parallel with the first Soul Reaver, the development of Blood Omen 2 has been consistently linked to not one, but two unreleased projects: Sirens and Chakan. The former was to be some sort of shooter, judging by how a proof-of-concept was created using the Quake engine. The latter was to be a sequel to the SEGA Genesis title of the same name, supposedly for the Dreamcast. And the thread connecting these two games to Blood Omen 2? Steve Ross. We don’t have the time for a full breakdown here—as always, you can read more about it on The Lost Worlds—but looking at concept art and story synopsis from both titles, the resemblance is undeniable: character designs, the architecture, visual motifs like symbols and murals, and even the general themes of the story and the beats of its progression. It’s uncanny how similar it gets at times, which has led many to demonize the game as a salvaged version of the two projects.

I don’t believe that’s a fair judgment—or at the very least, I don’t believe there was any ill intent—but the lack of official comment from both Eidos and Crystal Dynamics, as well as Steve’s comments on the matter, makes this a situation with plenty of room for both sides of the argument. Personally, the truth of this matter is not that important. At the end of the day, this gave Blood Omen 2 a look that’s distinct from everything else in the series, and I’m glad that the excellent ideas Steve had ended up seeing the light of day. Even if the metaphorical Sun wasn’t quite the one they expected.

"Yeah, some of the themes are the same simply because they came from the same artist (me). As for the symbol I had completely forgotten about it being on one of the Chakan Sketches. I did about 20-30 full-color concepts in 2 weeks, and it was all kind of a blur." — Steven Ross

After this wall of text, I hope you bear at least a bit of sympathy towards the game and the team, regardless of your feelings about the product itself. That said, do not misunderstand the purpose of the last few paragraphs. These difficulties can only go so far in explaining Blood Omen 2’s issues, mainly why it seems so cheap and different from every other entry in the franchise. Its biggest and most glaring flaw lies at the very heart of what makes the Legacy of Kain series tick: the story. And in this, the game is well beyond fucked.

Unfamiliar Blood

"In terms of story, we had an interesting challenge. We were part of a larger franchise (the Legacy of Kain series), but we also wanted to separate from that franchise and possibly start a new series. So we wanted the previous games to serve as a backdrop to our game, to provide texture and a common history, but we needed to establish our own story as well." — Brett Robbins, Writer/Designer for Blood Omen 2.

To say that Blood Omen 2 takes some liberties with the Legacy of Kain mythos would be an understatement. There’s a sense of disconnect here that’s not dissimilar from what I felt replaying Soul Reaver. Both games use the original Blood Omen as a foundation and set out to do their own thing, drawing little to no attention to it beyond what’s necessary. So why is it that the former failed while the latter succeeded? Well, besides a massive difference in the quality of the writing, it's also a matter of circumstance. The ending to the original Blood Omen is self-contained. There was no immediate plot thread hanging in the air that needed addressing, and that gave Soul Reaver an amount of freedom that Blood Omen 2 could never have. But even with all that creative liberty, it retained enough thematic and mythological elements that it still feels like it belongs. So while it’s disappointing that past events serve only as backstory, all the important bits are there: oppressive atmosphere, eloquent dialog, the magnificence of Kain's character, and the ideas of destiny and fatalism—even if the last two are pretty haphazardly thrown into the mix. It also helps that the Soul Reaver 2 redeems the first as far as the story is concerned.

Blood Omen 2 is not, and it could not have been a new beginning. Not when it had to follow up Soul Reaver 2 in canon and Blood Omen in chronology. But instead of building upon the story of previous games, events both past and future are merely set-dressing and any direct references are vague at best. The writing cherry-picks the bare minimum to vaguely be part of the series’ mythos, ignoring the precedent set by the previous games, and the plot holes that followed are so massive that they actively interfered with future installments—and in the case of a particularly egregious one, has never been addressed. To bring that house analogy I used in Soul Reaver 1 back, Blood Omen 2 would be, at best, the house next door. All they have in common is a street name.

There's the classic LoK jank...

After dooming the Pillars, Kain spent the next 200 years raising a vampire army and conquering Nosgoth. When he reaches the city of Meridian, a battle ensues between his army and the Order of the Sarafan, mysteriously rebuilt and led by a figure with not-suspicious-at-all green glowing eyes known as The Sarafan Lord. This stranger thoroughly wrecks Kain’s shit, leaving him for dead and taking the Soul Reaver sword. Kain then awakens from his beauty sleep, another 200 years in the future, with amnesia and a sexy vampire lady in tow to greet him. From here, he’s forced to cooperate with the Cabal—a vampire “resistance” group—so he can get back his sword, his vengeance, and his authority. In that order.

While this premise isn’t terrible, how these events fit into the overarching plot of the series isn’t immediately obvious. Today, we know that what we play here are the new memories Kain gained as a consequence of the altered timeline created at the end of Soul Reaver 2, but back then, everyone was in the dark. All the marketing, and indeed, all the events in this game, only clarify that this takes place between Blood Omen and Soul Reaver—with the opening text stating that there are still some centuries before Raziel is reborn. Even after the credits start rolling, the connection between this game and the rest is tenuous at best. It took the next title, and some word of God, to fit Blood Omen 2 in the timeline. Although "fit" might be too strong of a word. "Shove" or "salvage" might be more appropriate.

"SR didn't have any influence on BO2. They had creative autonomy. I did raise a few facts when talking to their artists and designers [...] But by and large the most we could do was ensure consistency with things like the Reaver. I think that the lack of collaboration between teams ultimately hurt us both, and is pretty evident in the final product(s)." — Daniel Cabuco.

Now, the sexy vampire thing. This is Umah, and she’ll be your tutorial for today. Blood Omen 2 isn’t exactly horny, but it’s juvenile when it comes to its character designs. It has the "Warcraft" syndrome, where the girls are all thin and skimpy, and the dudes are all buff and wear enough armor to withstand a direct collision with a train. Some late-game enemies are so stacked with metal that they’re one “ARRRGH” away from praising the Emperor. This is what Daniel was referring to when he said “more overtly sexual elements” but thankfully, it isn’t nearly as bad as it could’ve been. Umah is the most notorious example, and she isn’t even that provocative, but because she’s one of the major characters, it sticks in your memory. For Legacy of Kain, it’s extremely out of place. You can tell it’s there to make the marketing department’s lives a little easier because it has no bearing in the plot. Funnily enough, this also applies to Kain. Kind of. At certain points in the story, he changes outfits to better suit whatever the narrative says he’s supposed to be doing. It sounds like this would serve some gameplay purpose—at least, the script makes it sound like it should, something I suspect is a residue from early development. More on that momentarily—but I’d be lying if I said I don’t dig his looks, especially the one he wears for the last two levels. It’s full of impractical and useless spikes, I love it.

One of Kain's many choices of attire.

Out of place sex appeal and silly spikes are not enough to ruin a Legacy of Kain title, and if that were the extent of the game’s issues this text would be a different read. The thing is, Blood Omen 2 seems incomplete. Par for the course I know, but never to this extent. There is a lack of “soul” (heh) that permeates almost every facet, nook, and cranny of this game, and that makes the whole experience feel more like a spin-off than a proper new chapter. Like every element of it was either designed for a different game or not at all, almost as if the developers didn’t have the time to properly develop, or let alone polish it. To be clear, this does not excuse the plot holes, but it would help explain why even ignoring the other games, Blood Omen 2 is still one hell of a mess.

Where the Sun Never Shines

The opening to every Legacy of Kain is usually indicative of their qualities. Blood Omen has you feeling weak and confused to juxtapose Kain’s newfound power by the end of the game. Soul Reaver establishes its dilapidated world and characters in less than 10 minutes, and the sequel literally opens with Moebius lying to our faces. They all set the tone and foreshadow themes masterfully, not to mention they’re a joy to rewatch. The only thing Blood Omen 2 foreshadows is mediocrity, and the problems start before you even get to control Kain. Ignoring the cliché of beat-down induced amnesia, let’s start with the element the series was always praised for: the dialog. This time, it leans heavily on exposition, and very (very) lightly on eloquence.

Exposition by dialog is nothing new—and in fact, it’s how the story is delivered—but it was always about more than just dumping lore on the audience. These are conversations, interactions full of nuance that reveal character dynamics as much as they advance the plot. Blood Omen 2 has a lot of that same “functional dialogue” present in Soul Reaver 1, but without that Shakespearean touch, the whole thing comes off as lifeless and mechanical. I cannot recall a single memorable line from this game, which for a Legacy of Kain title, is a flag as crimson as the blood of Kain’s enemies. To clarify, the issue here is not the actors. Everyone did a decent job, and Simon Templeman is still Kain, but judging by the many out-of-character deliveries of his lines (part of which again comes back to the writing) I can only assume this game had a terrible voice director. It’s something that flummoxes me to no end, and by using the word “flummox” this write-up is already more complex than the entirety of Blood Omen 2’s script.

What you eventually come to realize, is that Blood Omen 2 makes one crucial misunderstanding: it thinks the series is about vampires when in actuality it’s a story that has vampires. If it sounds like I’m playing semantics, here’s an analogy: Legacy of Kain isn’t about vampires the same way Rescuing Private Ryan isn’t about World War II. But this is the narrative the writers decided to tell, the note the story begins and ends: the vampire resistance, the vampire hunters, the vampire traitors, the vampire powers, the ancient enemies of the vampires; it never fucking stops. It hits that same note like a broken piano, and it doesn’t get any deeper than that, even when it brings back characters from previous games, albeit in name only if I’m being brutally honest here.

Look at the armor on that dude!

For an easy example, look at the way this game chips away at Kain. One of my favorite moments from the original Blood Omen is when he goes after Malek—whose soul already bounded to his old set of armor—and fails miserably at killing him. After being guided to Vorador’s mansion, he meets the old vampire and when offered help, he takes it. Vorador has been doing this song and dance for literally centuries, and Kain knows this. So when the time comes, Vorador deals with Malek while he kills with the rest of the Circle. Even with all his pride, Kain understands his weakness and the value of having an ally, or at the very least, a conspirator. So when this Kain—that doesn’t even know where in Nosgoth he is—demands to be taken to the Sarafan Lord and claims he’ll “have him buried within the hour,” I need to seriously ask if the writer has actually played any of the previous games. I know this can technically be justified by his “amnesia” but A) that’s a cop-out, and B) these instances of mischaracterization happen until the credits start to roll. And they are not exclusive to Kain.

But let me hold that thought for a second because we are more than 3600 words into this write-up, so it’s time to talk about gameplay! At this point in the retrospective, you’re probably already expecting the jank, and Blood Omen 2 not only takes that bloody cake, but it also sucks it dry. To differentiate itself from the previous games, Blood Omen 2 is much more combat-oriented, sporting a somewhat revamped control scheme from the last game and a level-based structure, rather than the “open-world” design of its predecessors. Think Ocarina of Time (I swear we’ll get away from the Zelda comparisons next game) but with tank controls—which is as awkward as it sounds—and the ability to jump manually. While fine on paper, the execution leaves much to be desired. Moving around feels awful. Kain and the camera take too long to turn, he has an extremely floaty jump with an arc that’s the movement equivalent of a shotgun marriage, so be triple sure you’re facing the right direction before pressing the damn button. Also, whoever decided that the way to change the lock-on target is by double-tapping left or right needs to be fired.

As for combat, the game rewards defense far too much. Kain has a Rage meter that builds as he blocks attacks, and aside from the eventual guard-break, there’s no penalty to simply sit there and hold the button until you have enough energy to use whatever the strongest bitch slap is available to Kain at the moment. Considering that there are only 3 of those—with the last one being an instant kill for everything except bosses—and these special moves cannot be blocked, you can probably guess how the majority of fights will play out. But worse than fighting things, is the aftermath. You can drain corpses dry to heal, but more than that, drinking blood will also “level up” Kain. The game calls this a “vampire’s lore” (I told you they were leaning on the vampire angle) which is a glorified name for an experience bar. Fill it, and you get a tiny increase in health, with stronger enemies giving more blood/lore.

Stealing hearts...

The problem? For one, you can no longer heal in combat, or quickly stun enemies and dispatch them with a good sucking (don’t take that outta context) but the real issue here is that the animation takes too fucking long! Not only do you have to hold the button until Kain is done feeding (and yes, it takes longer to drain late-game enemies) but he also has this stupid animation of him clearing his mouth every time you let go of the button, even if the enemy isn’t fully drained. Now, imagine doing that for hundreds of enemies, during the whole game. And don’t think you can skip on it! The initial health pool is pathetically small, and enemies hit hard. You’ll need the extra health from when you make a mistake or meet a boss. The worst part is that there’s an easy fix for this: just allow Kain to drain multiple enemies at once like the good old days, that way even if you keep the same drinking time, the downtime is still drastically reduced on the account it’s much more efficient.

Part of the reason Blood Omen 2 plays so differently from Soul Reaver 2—aside from all the weird design decisions—is that it runs on a different engine. Instead of the heavily modified version of the Gex Engine from its predecessor, the game uses a new one based on Mad Dash Racing, a Crystal Dynamics racing game in the vein of Sonic R for the original Xbox. If the internet can be trusted, copious traces of its origin remain in the code (like a mention of a four-player mode), and this would certainly explain why Kain controls less like a man and more like a truck. Another oddity is that you can save any time you want, but progress is only recorded at specific checkpoints. Dying or reloading sends you back to said checkpoints, which is how racing games deal with players getting off the course. Better not forget to save the game after hitting one, otherwise, that’s many minutes of your life you’re not getting back.

Speaking of residue, it’s also worth noting that Blood Omen 2 was originally a stealth game. Considering that the early 2000s was a rich environment for the genre, this isn’t surprising. The original Hitman, the legendary Metal Gear Solid 2, the first Splinter Cell, motherfucking Deus Ex, all these games helped firmly establish the genre and propel it into stardom. Pre-release material for Blood Omen 2 apparently put quite an emphasis on the stealth aspect of the game, and the engine does have an unused (but still in the code) function that shows the state of nearby NPCs towards Kain (unnoticed, neutral, cautious, or hostile). But even without doing the additional research, the absence of stealth elements is (ironically) extremely evident in the final product. Umah talks about how the Sarafan “know our faces,” or how Kain “can go where we can’t,” implying that blending in with the populace of Meridian will be important. The gameplay also suggests this, as Kain can float, slowing his descent and landing silently—Umah also mentions this, being the tutorial she is—and the weapons you’ll find have so little durability they make the sticks in Breath of the Wild look like they’re made of adamantium. There are stealth kills in the game, but you can only execute them in foggy areas where Kain can turn into mist. Allegedly, it was once possible to turn into mist at will, but it broke the game’s balance, so they severely limited it—they should’ve made it consume the same Rage meter as the offensive spells. It’s a shame, because the city of Meridian is a bona fide jungle for a stranger like Kain, and it would’ve been the perfect hunting ground for a sneak-em-up. 

To give the game some praise for once, I like Meridian. 80% of the game takes place inside its walls, so it helps that the city is vast, varied, and feels realized. The slums are old and decrepit, a labyrinth of dirt and poverty isolated in tiny islands. Limited in space, the buildings here are cramped, and can only grow upwards in a chaotic and purely functional manner. The industrial quarter provides its own maze, built of gears, containers, and conveyor belts. A monument of metal and concrete to the inexorable march of progress, where familiar materials like iron and steel carry within unfamiliar energies that are not of this world—it’s kind of Lovecraftian now that I think about it.

Meanwhile, the upper and lower cities house the more distinguished denizens, with places that are ornate, spacious, and frivolous, a stark contrast to the slums. So of course, being the dipshits that they are, these districts are surrounded by walls and under guard all the time. It feels organic, like an actual city would develop, and I also want to give props to the art team here. There’s a fascinating mix of Blood Omen and Soul Reaver aesthetics, hitting a comfortable middle ground with a Victorian-style that fits perfectly for the timeframe the game is set. It’s not quite the steampunk of the latter, but far from the Medieval style of the former, and with the addition of Glyph magic, there’s a pseudo “Industrial Revolution” that brings it all together. Credit where it’s due, Meridian works, even if it is blatantly drinking from “The City of Lost Children” at times.

The (Side) Quest

The biggest issue I have in talking about the story of this game is that the only parts that matter at all to the rest of the series are the plot hole at the start of the game, and the massive monkey wrench they threw at the narrative towards the end. As I’m sure it won’t surprise you, I have a lot to say about both of these events, but I will try to minimize the filler in between. This is also your spoiler warning. If for some reason you still desire to play this game, then I don’t know what to tell you. If you’re still with me, grab yourself a snack and maybe a beverage of your preference. This might take a while...

So, where were we? Right. After the mandatory tutorial, Kain gets separated from Umah but manages to make his way to Sanctuary, the hideout of “La Resistance”, where it’s revealed that Vorador has been leading The Cabal and what the fuck did I just say?

In case you forgot, when we last encountered Vorador at the end of Blood Omen, he was suffering from an acute case of the “French Revolution,” and unfortunately, it was fatal. He actually shows up during the opening cinematic, but since he now looks like Morbo in a bathrobe, you’d be forgiven for not noticing. His appearance and mannerisms are so removed from the image you’d have of him this late into the series that I had to do a double-take when he appeared with zero fanfare and almost no build-up. This is the egregious plot hole I’m tired of alluding to. What makes it infinitely worse is that the writers knew Vorador was supposed to be six feet under! There’s a moment Kain asks him, dead in the eye “Do you so wish to return to the grave, old friend?” And even with this acknowledgment, the plot REFUSES to explain how this development is possible! I cannot express how mad this decision made me. It’s not like it needed to be his character. He’s only here to be an exposition machine, and his relationship with Kain doesn’t factor at all into the story. The hole remains unpatched to this day, but thankfully, it doesn’t affect the rest of the series. At least, not as much as the next one...

Vorador. Supposedly, anyway...

Anyway, while Vorador dumps exposition on Kain, a wounded vampire comes to warn us that Umah has been captured, but she discovered something vital and must be rescued! Why she didn’t just use the magical long-range radio that was established literally 5 minutes into the game—it’s called “The Whisper,” by the way—is anyone’s guess. She’s been taken to the Sarafan Keep, but we need help getting in since Kain can’t just bust the place open. So Vorador sends him to see the Bishop of the city. The Cabal promised him eternal life after their victory in exchange for his help, and the old fart is more than happy to oblige. Kain finds the Bishop mind-controlled by one of his former vampire lieutenants who betrayed him for the Sarafan, which is the perfect excuse for a boss battle.

This reminds me that I need to talk about the bosses! Blood Omen 2 goes back to the puzzle bosses of Soul Reaver 1, and this time, they actually feel like proper fights! Each of them has multiple phases that require you to understand the layout of the arena and use it in your favor, and if it weren’t for the aforementioned clunky controls, these encounters would be quite good! As they stand, they’re just a nice change of pace and a fitting way to give Kain new powers: after each fight, he absorbs their souls (do not ask why a vampire is eating souls. I don’t know either) and gains a new Dark Gift: mind control, in the case of this boss. It’s similar to the one in the original Blood Omen, but it’s been nerfed to hell, as it no longer can possess enemies, only neutral humans. You can hit enemies with it, but it only stuns them for a second, and the controls do not make it feasible to use during combat, so the ability is relegated to puzzle solving.

After using a secret passage to reach the Sarafan Keep (how does the Bishop know of this? Wouldn’t it make more sense if they went with a smuggler or a thief instead?) Kain starts to explore the place and here, I finally noticed something: he is strangely quiet in this game. There’s a stained-glass mural inside the Keep that depicts Kain’s fall at the hands of the Sarafan Lord, a moment that mirrors the Vorador versus Malek mural from the first Blood Omen. You’d think Kain would offer some witty comment about eternal recurrence or something, but no. There’s nothing. His soliloquies are also greatly reduced and sometimes, put in the middle of conversations, messing with the pace of the whole thing. Even the opening cinematic is lacking in voice work of any kind. I suspect this is more of a writing problem than a budget one, but it’s still worth mentioning.

The Keep is a level that revolves around using humans to progress. Halfway through, Kain comes across an old lady that recognizes his nature. Again, the writing kind of implies Kain should be blending in, evidenced by his response that the lady mistook him for “some...thing I am not.” I love the pause there, it’s one of the few moments of brilliance the script has. The way Kain almost says someone but pauses and says something instead is actually good writing. The game needed more of this.

Floating swords. What sorcery is this?

Anyway, this part infuriates me. See, Blood Omen 2 is padded. The plot takes forever to get rolling, every level has locked doors whose switches are always out of the way, the puzzles require so little thought I forgot about them until now, and I didn’t mention this, but there are moments when Kain finds a locked gate and the dude on the other side won’t let him through until he hears the password—ignore the fact Kain can turn into mist because the writer sure as fuck did the same. You need to either overhear a conversation or find one of the humans working for The Cabal. Functionally, this means going somewhere else and returning once the flag has been triggered.

As it turns out, this lady that stopped Kain is one such human, and she won’t deactivate the barrier in your way until you deal with a random ass noble. She can’t even justify it properly, rambling about how that noble is “a traitor that has done immeasurable damage to the Cabal.” It’s “my first DM campaign” levels of blatant padding. But here, I had a thought. I just gained the ability to mind control people! A smile formed on my face. “Oh, I see what you’re doing here game” I proclaimed, with unfounded confidence, thinking myself a clever biscuit. So, I select the ability, press the button to aim, and… I can’t target the lady. It seems metal gates can block mind control! Who knew this ability had the same weakness as Metro Man? If you didn’t get that reference, go watch Megamind, it’s great. Honestly, I don’t know what’s funnier. The fact that the developers missed this opportunity or me expecting anything clever from this game.

This is about the point the writers gave up, so I’ll try to blitz through the remaining plot. We find Umah, and she informs us of a McGuffin: the Nexus Stone, a jewel that can nullify the power of the Soul Reaver. How convenient! Kain finds the McGuffin guarded by another turncoat vampire and learns that there’s a device The Sarafan Lord plans to use to kill every vampire in Nosgoth. It is called “The Device” and you know shit is getting real because we’re using nouns as proper names. Vorador then sends Kain to find “The Seer” so she can help them. The Seer turns out to be neither human nor vampire, but that doesn’t go anywhere. She gives Kain the telekinesis power and teleports him to where The Device is. 

I. Hate. These. Fuckers...

I need to make a brief tangent here. This is the moment when combat breaks, and it starts with the introduction of a new enemy: the Lesser Demon. These Necron-looking motherfuckers are the first sign the rules of engagement are about to change. Up until this point, the combat followed a basic flow of block and counterattack, with the occasional nimble humanoid that has the novel ability to crouch under your attacks. These skeletons break that rhythm. At random, they can decide to just go into their dodge animation immediately after finishing their attack, something no other enemy was capable of until that point. This will cause Kain to miss, and because the game trained you to mash the attack button, Kain will be stuck in a long recovery animation from whiffing the full three-hit combo. They can even start dodging in the gap between each hit if you’re using a slow weapon, or worse, go into their unblockable and uninterruptible special barf attack. If that wasn’t enough, they’re also immune to grabs and take such a toll on your weapons that fighting more than one of these is guaranteed to break whatever you’re holding. Every enemy going forward will suffer from at least one of those issues. Needless to say, I got a lot of mileage out of those Rage attacks. End of the tangent, back to the plot.

Inside The Device, Kain finds an imprisoned beast whose life force is being drained to feed the machine. Its name is Sunaj. Just kidding, it’s “The Beast,” and they’re not happy with their current predicament. The Beast explains that The Device is a few millennia old, and to destroy it, Kain needs to find the one who built it. Their name is “The Builder.” I love how Kain says that it’s impossible for The Builder to still be alive but he and everyone else completely ignores the fact that the Sarafan Lord is still the same after 200 years. Sunaj explains that The Builder is being kept captive at The Eternal Prison, a place where the passage of time means nothing. We find The Builder, and he explains that The Device is merely a tool to channel the mental energies of a creature known as The Mass! Fortunately, the creature can be poisoned by feeding it The Builder’s blood. So Kain takes a sip, grants the dude eternal rest, and pulls a lever that obliterates the Prison. Don’t ask.

Capital letter Beast.

Back to The Device, Kain descends its depths to find The Mass, but not before The Beast warns him of the Hylden! Ten hours into this 14-hour game we finally got the one thing we came here for. The Beast reveals that the Hylden are not of this world, and neither is the magic they’re using to control Meridian. Also, The Sarafan Lord is their leader, henceforth now referred to as The Hylden Lord. Kain poisons The Mass with The Builder’s blood and returns to Sunaj, only to find out it has reverted to its original form: the ancient vampire Janus Audron.

What the fuck?

Mother of All Monkey Wrenches

If you asked me to pinpoint the moment Blood Omen 2 becomes unsalvageable, I would say this cutscene. Up until now, the game was a mediocre ride, with bad controls and a story you could easily discard as a failed “what if” scenario. Not anymore. This nine-minute cutscene, halfway through the final act of a pretty forgettable story, is the one thing that connects Blood Omen 2 to the rest of the series. Unfortunately, they drifted so far away that the only way to come even remotely close to bridging that gap is with a shark jump. And let me tell you, some things are better left undone.

By itself, Janus being resurrected is not a plot hole. Kain’s warning at the end of Soul Reaver 2 indicates that he played a part in something that happened between Blood Omen and Soul Reaver, so logically, his return is something the story was going to address at some point. The issue here lies in the execution. Much like Vorador’s comeback, his return is something that has no build-up or foreshadowing—they even side-step this one with the classic “it’s a story for another time” bullshit—and both characters play the role of exposition dumps. What makes it much worse than Vorador’s case, is that what he does add to the story only raises more questions.

Janus starts by rehashing things we already knew from Soul Reaver 2, namely, the Hylden war with the ancient vampires and their subsequent banishment, but leaves out key details like the curse the Hylden placed on the ancient race before being sealed in another dimension. Then, he explains that Kain’s refusal to restore the Pillar of Balance weakened the seal, allowing one of the Hylden to manifest into Nosgoth once again—no points for guessing who that is. Also, the Hylden are bound to the Demon Realm (the dimension they were banished to), and it’s only the presence of The Hylden Gate that sustains them in Nosgoth. If Kain shuts down The Gate, they can still prevent a full-scale invasion. As a bonus, all the Hylden already in Nosgoth will die. Janus concludes his TED Talk by teleporting both of them to Sanctuary to fill Vorador in and come up with a plan. How does Janus know about Kain, Vorador, Sanctuary, and all of these other things? Good question, let’s move on.

The plot has gone off the rails and so has the art design, but in a kinda cool way.

Besides being a full nine minutes dedicated solely to fucking up the entire canon of the series, this cutscene also highlights how much this game lacks in the presentation department. I praised the art direction and that praise stands, but the characters are rough! The models are lacking in bones and motion capture, making for limited and robotic animation. There’s also no lip-synching of any kind, which only enhances the awkwardness of the dialog. It’s jarring how inferior it is, coming straight from Soul Reaver 2’s extremely polished shots.

Ok, we’re almost done. Turns out that The Hylden City (getting mighty tired of writing these capitalized names) is located somewhere beyond the sea, and it’s protected by a convenient force field that prevents teleportation. Vorador suggests infiltrating a ship, sneaking into the City, and destroying the shield, thus allowing the rest of La Resistance to come and help. Kain and Umah arrive at the wharves and the world’s most obvious and least satisfying betrayal issues: Umah, fearing Kain’s ambitions, steals the McGuffin Stone from him and heads off to fight the Hylden Lord alone. This makes little sense to me. If Kain rules the land that means that vampires do too, so why is she worried? Ah, it doesn’t matter, this is just a transparent attempt at humanizing Kain later when he finds Umah almost dead. She begs him for a little drop of blood, but he kills her anyway because she betrayed him, lamenting that she could’ve been her queen. Can you imagine Kain either sharing his power or loving someone else to that point? I certainly can’t.

Boarding the ship, Kain reaches the City and is immediately confronted by the Hylden Lord. After one very awkwardly animated talk (seriously, watch the scene. Only Kain’s upper torso is animated. His legs never move. It’s so weird!) Kain is off to explore the place and deactivate the generator. To once again give credit where it is due, the presentation on this final level is quite striking! It abandons the pseudo-Victorian style of the last 80% of the game in favor of going full alien. The game teases this as you descend The Device, and here it comes into fruition. Doors take on unusual shapes, the machinery becomes more abstract, and even the music becomes tense and otherworldly. 

The sword I brought with me to the final battle decided to glitch...

Oh right, music! Believe it or not, I only noticed the quality of the game’s OST during this final level. Kurt Harland is not the composer this time—no doubt busy with Soul Reaver 2—but his co-pilot, Jim Hedges, is. It’s a much more atmospheric kind of soundtrack and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, much more suitable to a sneaking game. It’s a shame that the mixing is terrible. Blood Omen 2 doesn’t have the dynamic soundtrack of its two predecessors, but it tries to imitate that by overlaying a combat track on top of the regular level music. It’s not a smooth transition, and this final level highlights that by fucking up the mixing completely and overlaying the combat music without fading out the other track first. So you end up with this really tense piece full of brass and a melancholic piano lead, completely ruined by a random drumbeat that I can only describe as the result of an angry cat randomly flailing at a drum kit.

With the plot shield down, Janus and Vorador transport themselves to Kain’s location, only to be ambushed and wounded by the Hylden Lord. Janus stays behind to tend to the other vampire, but not before warning Kain that casting the McGuffin Stone into the Gate will close it. Kain eventually does as he’s told, and as he’s fighting, Janus intervenes only to get yeeted into the Demon Realm. But that reckless act allowed Kain to recover the Soul Reaver, and a couple of unblockable Rage attacks later, The Hylden Lord is dead. Kain leaves, pondering about Umah’s betrayal and his plans for the Empire he would eventually raise, not far into the future. And yes, this finale is as anti-climatic as the end of this sentence.

Consequences

"BO2's contradictions were thrown 'over the fence' for the SR team to figure out. It made a lot of our storyline stuff hard to reconcile. Personally, I resented it, but damn if Amy didn't come through and tie it all together. The ending of SR2 with Kain's new memories, the Hylden, etc... She just did an amazing job considering the huge amount of crap she had to resolve." — Daniel Cabuco.

Blood Omen 2 is a complicated game, but not for the right reasons. The story is much simpler, the themes are much shallower, and the gameplay much clunkier. It’s the other side of the Soul Reaver coin, the alternative to what happens when an IP is given to a different team: a title removed from the signifiers that its fans crave, and from the qualities that elevated the series in the first place. It tried to put its spin on the series’ mythos and make something it could claim as its own, and while that attitude is commendable, ignoring established conventions and actively harming the story is not the way to do it. Interestingly, it was also written in a way that no knowledge of the previous titles is required, and I’m curious to hear from those that started the series with Blood Omen 2 how was their experience when they played the rest of the games.

In the end, despite its divisive nature amongst the fanbase, the game sold relatively well, with average reviews from the critic at the time. But the seeds of discord were sown. The loose ends and contradictions introduced by this story would have ramifications down the line, limiting the potential of any future title by a considerable amount, something that undoubtedly contributed to sealing the fate of the franchise. But, I don’t hate Blood Omen 2, and neither should you. Had it been given the development time and the team it truly deserved, this could’ve been the jumping-off point of something truly great. I can easily see a universe where this game properly deals with the Hylden, preparing the soil for Janus’s return and setting up an even greater game. Hell, it could’ve even ended up with Kain raising Raziel and his lieutenants. Oh, the things it could’ve been...

Regardless of my restless dreams, the next game would prove to be the last in the Legacy of Kain series, and it had the Herculean task of making sense of this mess. One final act, a proper act, to end this story. A last-ditch effort for a better throw against the series’ destiny.

Join me next time for one last rebellious act against the stars, with Legacy of Kain: Defiance.

- Wine, videogames and top hats.


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About Niorone of us since 5:29 PM on 12.15.2014

Writer for Fun, Shmup Lover, and 16-bit Dreamer.

Brazilian man born and raised. Currently working on a series dedicated to the documentation of the local gaming culture and landscape that I call “Brazil Of Games.” I took the name from an old TV series on the subject that aired a long time ago here, but no trace of it exists on the Internet.

The Brazil Of Games:

[*] The original blog about Nintendo's departure from my country that planted the seed for everything that's to come, all the way back in 2017.

[*] The first real installment, where I explore the origins of the world's first digital-only console, the Zeebo. And why it failed. [Slightly outdated. New version below]

[*] Meet the Locadora, the parlors where we got our first contact with gaming!

[*] A follow-up of sorts to the previous blog, where I explore Brazil's most revered game: Top Gear!

[*] The SEGA Genesis might have been born in Japan, but it was Brazil that made it its home! Here's how it happened.

[*] It's no secret we love soccer games. So here's a brief history of the Mod that forever changed how we played them!

[*] Folklore is not something many games explore. Here's a game based on a local folk tale from my hometown.

[*] Everyone knows that gaming really started in the days of the arcade parlors. Brazil's history with them was a very curious one, thanks to legendary company Taito and their many, many bootlegs!

[*] Every story has a beginning. Here's to the game that created our whole gaming industry, Amazônia! May we always remember where it all started.

[*] Happy 20th anniversary PlayStation 2! Here's to the console that changed everything!

[*] A mini review of the cute little indie platformer Out There Somewhere.

[*] What do you get when you mix history, culture, and Metroid? You get the little hidden gem that is Dandara!

[*] In December 2000, one RTS almost put Brazil in the Triple-A gaming market. This is the unfortunate story of Outlive.

[*] Brazil's Independent Games Festival is a celebration and showcase of gaming in Latin America. Here's the best Brazil has to offer in 2021!

[*] 12 years later, we revisit the Zeebo console. This is an “expanded remaster” of my original blog on the subject, back in 2019.