Kain succinctly describes the situation he finds himself in after Mortanius resurrects him as a fresh-faced vampire:
Now that we are in proper gameplay, I can talk about the UI. I think it being a pre-rendered chunk of the screen betrays Silicon Knight's origin as a PC developer. But it works well, save for the times blood drops filling up your health bar get stuck on the vial. Which will probably happen a lot, given how often you need to refill Kain's ever-draining health.
The mural serves the purpose of displaying what weapon and armor you have equipped (which is currently the basic iron sword and armor), but it also does a much better job of showcasing Kain's design than his smear of a sprite sheet or the waxy FMVs manage to. A vampire knight is not the most complex of designs, but a lot of the important nuance is lost outside of the artwork. It is stuff like this that make me pine for a remake, but let us not lose ourselves in that terrible illusion called hope.
Ignoring the empty item slot and magic bar, we have a sun dial at the bottom of the UI. This part of the game's day/night cycle, which is both more and less impressive than one would expect. It is more in-depth than the one in King's Field 2, but it doesn't really have any noteworthy effects.
Beyond letting you keep track of your in-universe playthrough time, Kain's strength is meant to shift between night and day, but I could never tell the difference. I am glad that is the case, since the game is not really built for long-term planning.
You cannot make time go faster or slower like in Majora's Mask, and as such, whenever you need a particular time of day to activate a secret, it is a giant pain. With that in mind, it isn't strange that they dropped this mechanic in later games, but it was at least planned initially for the next one. It is a fun idea, but you really need to design your game around it for it to work properly.
Stepping all of 5 tiles up takes you to the "dead man's switch" that opens up Kain's crypt. Quite the elaborate setup, but seeing as Nosgoth is a shithole filled to the brim with the living dead, perhaps it is a common courtesy.
More importantly, the switch is surrounded by coloured lighting, which is the most common language used by the designer. So much so, that it is not really worth trying to parse the backgrounds sometimes, it is better to just chase the lighting until progress happens.
I really like the way lighting is handled in this game despite it being 2d. Goes a long way towards selling the player on the atmosphere of Nosgoth compared to what is possible on a 4th-gen console. It is stuff like this that was lost due to Sony's push for 3d on the Playstation, but I do understand it as a necessary evil, since it took years for developers to come to grips with 3d.
Getting around in Blood Omen is pretty simple for the most part, but Nosgoth is pretty big, which is why our first spell, Sanctuary, teleports Kain back to his crypt where he can restore his health a little bit. It is comparable to an Escape Rope or a Homeward Bone, but much stronger, since it can be cast instantly to escape most situations for a miniscule mana cost. Of course, getting yourself back to where you were can prove tedious, so it is best saved for an emergency.
In the next room, we find our first normal enemy, a poor grave keeper armed with a shovel. He provides little resistance, and soon enters a waver state, signifying that he can be fed upon telekinetically. So if you were under any illusion that Kain is not a monster, he offers absolutely no regret upon killing and drinking this man 2 minutes after waking up as a vampire.
The waver state is a key part of the series, seeing as you will be feeding upon your enemies in each game. In Blood Omen however, there is the extra challenge not accidentally killing your prey while mashing X, which will somehow sully the blood and keep Kain from drinking it. There are some weapons that add some nuance to this, but for lack of those in out possession, there is not anything worth thinking about besides fighting and feeding as often as you can.
"Life is precious, Janos discovered - as it was torn throbbing and bleeding from his own body."
Pushing away a rock, we find our first consumable item, The Heart of Darkness (No, not that one. Or that one.). Well, an effigy of it, as Janos did not have dozens of the things. As befits our first consumable, this is the most important one. The hearts are essentially portable blood packs that also serve as auto-revivals. But crucially, letting yourself be revived only gives you the bare minimum of health compared to manually using them.
So while your collection of hearts is a measurement of how much or little you need to pay attention to combat, you need to actively use them yourself in order to make the most use of them, which I think was a very smart decision. As for who Janos Audron is, that is a question for later.
The tutorial continues, introducing us to Blood Vials and Rune Triangles. These items increase Kain's maximum health and magic, respectively. I find it interesting that the game's character progression is strictly tied to exploration through these items. You can kill everything in your path and all it will do at best is refill your lost health.
"These ancient symbols of power contain raw magical energy, which increases my own capacity to summon energy for the spawning of spells."
It puts the onus of combat on the player (outside of dedicated combat rooms and bosses of course), as they will not fall behind a levelling curve by ignoring battles. Instead, it introduces this engaging game-long dilemma where you need to ask yourself if a battle is truly worth fighting, or if it is more worthwhile to run or utilize resources like consumables or magic to make progress. As such, this decision really helps with the game's pacing and makes it easier to focus on the exploration.
With how subtle the health and magic increases are, it can take quite a while to realize just how powerful Kain becomes throughout the journey across Nosgoth. Here at the start, you will be fighting for scraps against common hoodlums, while at the end you will be slinging death en masse against hordes of demons.
The most significant expression of power in this game is in my opinion how fast magic regenerates. There are three upgrades of that ilk to find and without them, spellcasting will be very limited. Scattered throughout the various dungeons there are magical orbs that offer some magic restoration, which combined with the ghosts of felled enemies (or victims) grant you the amount of magic energy you need, but not the amount you want.
As is common for games starting you off with a pittance of MP (like King's Field), magic slowly shifts from a panic button, to a core part of each combat encounter, which is a process that I find quite satisfying. Like with levelling, it is progression tied to the increase of a number, but by easing a mechanic like spellcasting into the core of combat, it proves itself more engaging to me than simply making the same attack hit harder.
Past a save point, we finally find the way out of the mausoleum where Kain exposits on how he no longer feels the same comfort from the light of day.
"For in the embrace of the sun, I could find no comfort, only malice. This would change in time for the worse, along with other things."
Now, I'm not sure what he means here, seeing as sunlight barely affects his vampiric performance and will in fact stop doing so down the line. But things are most assuredly destinied to get worse, that much is certain.
Starting with the weather, letting us know that the simple touch of water proves harmful to the vampires of Nosgoth. I'm not an expert on vampire lore, but this seems to be a spin on the "cannot cross running water" and "holy water melts their faces off" rule, only much more debilitating. Disregarding the implied accumulation of smell, I do not understand how vampires managed to prosper in Nosgoth. But maybe the general populace is adverse to bathing as well.
Since we are outside now, this is a good time to look at our maps. As seen above, each area has a local map showing you the background layer without any interactables on it. It is pretty useful for navigation as the overworld is quite big, though not the 100000 screens big the back of the box claims.
Then we have the world map which both shows us our general progression and our current goal, that being the Pillars. Something Kain is not aware of just yet, since his mind is occupied with thoughts of revenge. And in order to satiate that lust, we need to get through another tutorial dungeon.
Of course, a lust for revenge is not the only thing driving a vampire, there is also the lust for blood. Which is why our most common form of health pickup are chained prisoners littering the walls of most dungeons. It is logical addition, seeing as you cannot justify people just wandering around murder pits all willynilly, but it also serve the secondary purpose of communicating early on just how messed up of a place Nosgoth really is. It is a setting without joy, making it kinda difficult to justify doing anything about it. But that is true to the grimdark theming and the games remain engaging regardless.
The Flay is the game's most common and weakest consumable, but is surprisingly powerful throughout. It can easily shred elite enemies in a few throws, meaning it spells immediate and messy doom for the weak rabble we find ourselves up against currently.
As I was playing this, I found myself wrestling with the game's various menus, as the button layout does not mesh well with modern sensibilities of UI design. Much like spells, items can be put in a quickmenu that can hold 4 of each. Given the range of utility and offense options available, it is not really enough for one to be comfortable.
A big part of that is the cardinal optimization sin the game commits, which is that both the map and the equipment menu requires loading to access. I can think of few games with this issue (Shadow Tower comes to mind) and for good reason. There is nothing quite as immersion-breaking and annoying as having to endure loading screens in order to mess with your options or inventory.
Playing on PC, it is not really a big deal compared to how bad it is on Playstation. It is a limitation of disc-based console gaming that we did not get away from until halfway through seventh gen when games started allowing installation on the HDD. Of course, that led to another bottleneck that got solved through bloated install sizes, but with the approaching standardization of SSDs, things are looking brighter.
Disregarding the technical details I am not privy to (there could have been some giant road blocks in the way of keeping the menus in memory at all times), I do not blame Silicon Knights for putting their focus on the strengths of the system in order to deliver a very cinematic experience for 1996.
I can totally see a Nintendo 64 version of the game with better loading times, but without the storage space of a CD, the game just would not be the same. The thought of replacing the FMVs with still shots and the excellent voicework with text boxes makes the loading times seem quaint in comparison.
The music would probably be different as well, so let us give the soundtrack we did get some love. As you can see, Steve Henifin & Scott Shelly did not compose a lengthy soundtrack, but each song does a great job of setting up a mystical and opressive atmosphere. The most standout track is the one belonging to Elzevir, a minor character we will not run into for a while. It reminds me a lot of the soundtrack of MediEvil. Gothic Playstation games are a treasure and I mourn the loss of them.
Past some more skeletons, we find some rocks on top of a pair of switches. Without a strength upgrade, we cannot move them, but they hide an interesting secret, so I will be back later. The game is stuffed with to the gills with secrets, some so hidden that trying to find them all in this huge game world borders on monotony.
I got a decent chunk of them this playthrough, but most just contain consumables. That is very useful for certain sections of the game, but there comes a point after the midpoint where you get more than you could possible spend without completely ignoring melée weapons and magic. The lategame balancing is a bit off, but we will discuss that later.
"I would find my slayers and send them back whence I came."
Emerging from the second crypt, Kain angrily drops a sick line and sets off into into woods 20 steps to the north where his killers conveniently hang out 3 days after the deed. I decided to test a flail on the first one.
The arcane magics of the bone zone, made manifest.
They are none too happy to see their victim skeletonize their friend, but Kain is even more unhappy to see them and is the one with vampiric powers at his disposal, so you can imagine how quickly this encounter ends.
"I had crossed death for this moment. My mind was empty save from one thought: I would kill."
I dunno, have you ever managed to set up a consistent release schedule for your video game retrospectives?
I would like to thank everyone for giving my writing the time of day and...
"Look to their masters. Look to the Pillars, and gain way to the Fortress of Mind."
Ok ok, so it was not that simple. But I find it entertaining just how quickly that revenge happened. From a modern lens, I could see there being a chunky prologue dealing with tracking down Kain's murderers interspersed with tutorials and worldbuilding.
Not what happened here though, they were just hanging out 20 paces away from the graveyard he was buried in. One would think they would at least have a little camp off-road or something and not be unavoidable obstacles. It does help the pacing though, as we are now free to focus on greater things than mere revenge. Such as the majesty of the Pillars.
Next time, that is. Until then, keep our current quandaries in mind:
As always, Vae Victus!