Being undead is never easy and a protagonist's work is not done until the credits roll, so following the enactment of his revenge against his slayers, Kain's quest continues, this time spurned by the words of Mortanius. He is told to find the masters behind his killers, the Pillars and the Fortress of the Mind.
Having a mysterious character speak into the head of the main character telepathically in order to deliver gameplay objectives is a somewhat common tool in game design, but it being the late Tony Jay doing the voicework is so weird in retrospect.
I say that because he will use this very same voice as a different character in order to guide another protagonist written in much the same way as Mortanius is here. I am not knocking the decision, as Tony Jay was a great actor and not using him would have been a waste. It is just an odd thing that hit me now while reviewing the footage.
"I would not be kind to the denizens that lurk here. They would taste my steel and I, their blood."
Stepping on a red marker, we are given a view of the name of this parody of the German language town where Kain was murdered. These markers are strewn about the overworld, serving as a way for the game to cut in some pre-rendered images from Kain's point of view or to activate some optional narration. It is a bit immersion breaking, but I still consider it an elegant way of communicating to the player that there is something to break up the gameplay nearby.
Speaking of gameplay, here in...Ziegsturhl (a letter away from Zieg Stuhl, meaning goat chair) we finally find some denizens of Nosgoth that are not chained to walls, nor trying to kill us (yet). Towns in Blood Omen are usually not large and dedicated areas, they are more like stops on the way through the overworld. They house the odd secret, but Kain's verb set does not extend much further than his sword, so our options are limited.
Using said sword, you can raid the houses for pick-ups and slay whatever unsuspecting victim is walking back and forth within. If they are sleeping, you can even drink their blood immediately. There is not any kind of infamy or detection system in place, so exploring a town is not very interesting. Again, it helps the pacing, but it could have been so much more.
Walking back into the bar from the prologue, Kain immediately gets jumped by a knight and some random woman trying to slap Kain like he owes her money. This ridiculous display is your first sign that this series is not interested in empowering women or giving them agency in the plot. They are mostly set dressing and plot devices.
Holistically, this is my greatest gripe with Legacy of Kain as a series, as a couple of decent female characters would not have harmed the final product. Buuuuuuuuuuuut, if you can get past that, the narrative and the presentation of it still stands incredibly strong.
This may be a series about a bunch of dusty old men doing cool voices, but seeing as they are some of, if not the best, cast in the history of the medium, I am willing to give the games some rope. That will not stop me from calling out how they mistreat what little female represantation there is however, but we will get there when we get there.
"Was his gift a curse? I would seek the Pillars for answers."
Back on the road, we have some narration reinforcing the selfishness inherent in Kain's character and the negativity it brings about. Per my read, he was less upset about dying and more upset that some snivelling brigands got the better of him. As a nobleman, he is naturally vain, but as a vampire, that vanity is expressed through some incredibly macabre actions. Depending on the player, Kain already has a kill count of one or two dozen people and this is only the beginning.
The sound of these guys throwing knives is the same sound as a magic spell. This bothers me immensly.
After one too many standard brigand, the game throws ranged enemies into the mix, which are a key component to many of the game's battles. Depending on the situation, you have a varying amount of answers to them, ranging from simply evading them, using geometry for cover or rushing them down. It is simple stuff, but the game thankfully does not go overboard with them until we have a specific tool to deal with them.
"I marveled that such beauty should grace our dying world."
Kain's tone immediately changes from his murderous disposition as soon as the Pillars come into view. He may be a selfish git, but he knows when respect for awe-inspiring architecture is in order. Design-wise, what stands out the most about the Pillars is that they extend seemingly infinitely into the sky, lending them a fantastical quality that very much befits the setting. It is never shown just how far up they go, but I think that is for the best.
I also think it is interesting that Kain has picked up on the world dying, when according to a later lore dump, that began around when he was born, meaning he has never known an uncorrupted Nosgoth. But presumably, what grace it once had and has now lost is common knowledge within the populace.
On the topic of lore dumps, stepping up to the Pillars awards us our very first of such, which also serves as the game's first proper dialogue scene, breaking away from the monologuing we have been subjected to so far.
[Kain] Keep your distance or I’ll send you back to Hell, spirit!
[Ariel] There is nothing left of me to fear, vampire. I am only a shadow of my former self . . . Ariel - the Balance of the Circle of Nine. Even so, I can provide the answers you seek.
[Ariel] There is no cure for death. Only release. You must destroy the sorcery. The sorcery that is now poisoning Nosgoth. Only then will you realize peace. The Nine of the Protectors of Hope were sworn to use their powers to preserve our world. Now these pillars have been corrupted by a traitor.
[Ariel] You must restore balance. You must right the Pillars of Nosgoth.
[Kain] I care not for the fate of this world.
[Ariel] Then for yourself Kain...
"Only when all the Pillars were restored, did Ariel claim my curse would end. And so my hunt for Nupraptor began."
That was...a lot, but now we have all of our setup out of the way and can aswer a couple of hanging questions. Ariel is the woman who was murdered in the intro and served as the Balance guardian of the Pillars of Nosgoth, which keep the land together in some nebulous way through the Circle of Nine guardians.
She claims her murder happened through the hands of a traitor. As a result of said act, her beloved Nupraptor (the Guardian of the Mind) went mad, stitched his eyes and mouth shut to deny the outside world (as briefly seen in the previous scene) and in his madness, spread maddening corruption amongst the remaining Circle, setting off the decay of Nosgoth.
Kain is only after a cure for his vampirism, which he assumes will come about after killing the corrupted guardians, even if Ariel's words are rather vague. But that is our quest, to scour the land for Pillar Guardians, kill them and restore Nosgoth. In a more basic fantasy game, that would be all the story we get, but Blood Omen has more in store for us, as Ariel foreshadows when she mentions the Unspoken.
Before we set off, I want to clarify some confusing parts and review our hit list of guardians.
As I mentioned earlier, despite the hurried framing of the game's intro, the slaughter of the Circle and Ariel's murder are completely disconnected events, separated by 5000 years (retconned to 500 later on). Which is clearer now, since Kain needs to kill the ramaining 8, which he would not be able to do if they were already dead.
What this tells us is that there were multiple generations of Circle members, despite them being granted immortality by the pact. Thankfully, said immortality only extends to aging, so we will be able to skewer the current members in due time.
Being the source of the corription, Nupraptor is naturally our first target, but the game allows us to learn a bit about each pillar and its guardian before we leave.
Here we see a familiar name. Seeing as he failed to protect the old Circle from the vampire, Malek was cursed to inhabit his armor and remains the Guardian of Conflict to this day. Much like Kain, he was given a new existance by Mortanius, making his role as our upcoming antagonist all the more fitting.
Again, in a more heroic story, he could have easily served as a dark reflection of the hero. Though in this case, Kain is more like a dark reflection of him, since his fate is a lot more tragic and he does not eat people.
Har har, funny puns.
Ok, this one is quite fitting.
The two states of man: Wolf and Bat. Totally not recycled UI elements.
Now here is an awkward encounter waiting to happen.
One thing I appreciate about the Pillars is that the aspects of existance they represent are not the standard elemental affinities such as water, earth, wind and fire. All it really means in the long run is that we get a lot of bosses to hunt down and that their various themes are diverse, but that goes a long way in making a game feel unique.
"Once I have committed their locations to memory, I can always return."
"From my vantage in the heavens, no region of Nosgoth is forbidden to me."
Just beside the Pillars, we are already presented our first transformation and the ability to fast travel across Nosgoth. I think the Pillar of States holds a world record of foreshadowing-to-payoff ratio and the next form it depicted is not far away either.
The only limitation of Bat Form is that you need to be outside to use it, otherwise you can use it freely to move about Nosgoth, though the game is largely composed of a few intersecting linear paths, so unless you are going back for secrets or returning items to the Pillars, it does not see much use. But you do get some exciting PoV FMVs whenever you do, so it is at least a bit fun to use.
I forgot to show off the descriptions of our basic equipment earlier, as you need to navigate this semi-nightmare of an equipment screen to do so. Gameplay-wise they have no special effects and simply exist as a comparison-point for the more esoteric equipment which has greater strengths and certain downsides.
I find the mention of the Serioli interesting as that is a lore point without any future significance. Fluff lore is common in justabout anything, but it stands out here in Legacy of Kain because there really is not much like it. It is a tighly knit tale with a scant few plotholes/retcons (which becomes a lot more impressive in the context of the whole franchise) where there really are not a lot of major players.
Despite that, it is awesomely dense and a bit confusing, but it is my intent here to make things as digestible as possible, both to myself and everyone reading. It is one of my favourite stories ever crafted and it deserves to be understood fully.
On the way to Nupraptor, there is another dungeon to explore, which contains the ever useful Light spell. I will try to not going into too much detail with each dungeon going forward and only give you the highlights of each one.
The game's lighting system is quite solid as torches flicker and arcane contraptions radiate unnatural light, even if the level of detail is a bit blocky. By casting Light, the whole darkness layer of the rendering is removed, completely destroying the atmosphere with almost comical levels of brightness. But it makes the spike traps borrowed from Zelda easier to evade, so we will have to make do.
A few paces onwards, we aquire the next transformation, Wolf Form. Unlike the bat, this is an active transformation used both for traversal and combat. At the cost of defense and a minor drain of magic, Kain gains the ability to run, to jump and to attack quickly, with the power of the slashes dependant on the moon cycle. Right now, it is a worthwhile form, but the lack of access to magic and strong weapons makes its usefulness wane later on.
The way jumping is implented is a bit janky, as the wolf takes up more space than Kain naturally does and you can only make a leap when you are in a spot with a hole in front of you and a valid landing spot on the other side. It saves us the loss of immersion that would happen if Kain fell into a pit and respawned with lost health, but with how particular the spacing is, I walked into the floor spikes and recoiled multiple times before I learned the specific pixel distance where the jump functions. It felt really awkward and looks ridiculous.
I took the time to backtrack to the bar from the start of the game and jumped over the counter for a secret leading into a tertiary but somewhat interesting area.
"The Wraith Smiths forge their items with forfeit souls."
The spirit forges and the Wraiths and Shades that inhabit them are an odd little point in the lore. As far as importance goes here in Blood Omen, they may as well not exist as they are easily missable and their services are midly useful at best.
But they do all come back later in different and more important forms as THE Spirit Forge and enemies to fight, which tells me that as the series changed hands, Blood Omen was scoured for points of established lore that could be expanded upon. This again reinforces the strict care that goes into the storytelling, despite the tumultuous developments the series would later go through.
In lieu of actual currency (which is an odd ommission for the game, now that I think about it) we pay them blood for a selection of the consumables they provide, Flays in this case. Though from what I can gather, you can actually sacrifice people instead using a the charm spell we get later on instead, which is a cool little intermingling of systems.
One reason I have not tried that is because most if not all the other forges are sealed behind Moon Gates, which only open on a night of a full moon. Those happen about every 8th in-game day, which corresponds to about 2 hours of real time. There are two major secrets in the game hidden behind the full moon and I was only able to get to one of them. But it is the most exciting one, so look forward to that.
With health drained and Flays in hand, I used Sanctuary to return to the beginning in order to recover health. As the game goes on and your health bar increases in size, doing this gets more and more tedious as you need to drink more and more people to get back in fighting shape. This gets balanced out by an ever growing stack of Hearts of Darkness, so it is not much of an issue.
Jumping the fence outside, we find a bunch of gravestones with script on them that we cannot read yet. It is a simple replacement cypher, but it is much easier to wait until we find the key to it later on before attempting to decipher it.
One of the crypts here also houses our next consumable, the Pentalich of Tarot, which randomly murders surrounding enemies through a selection of magical effects particular to other items or spells. It is a clever little piece of recycled assets that proves quite potent while surrounded, but I think it is the rarest of the offensive items and much like the other ones, it deprives you of a chance to feed. But when faced with enemies full of harmful black blood like the zombies around here, feeding should be the least of your concerns.
After enjoying some bat travel and walking past the front entrance to the Flay spirit forge, we end up in the first big challenge of the game, the Energy Bolt dungeon. I say that, because I got slaughtered by these annoying spirits before I adapted to how they function.
Their fireballs can be fired quickly and you cannot stun them with sword swings, meaning that navigating around them or fighting them without projectiles is a fool's errand. Thankfully, the game is quick to provide the Energy Bolt spell after introducing these spirits up on a ledge where you cannot reach them.
The design here is simple, but quite good. They introduce a new threat, disallow you from fighting it in a sub-optimal manner, force you to retreat into the next room with the solution to said threat and then scatter magic-restoration orbs and combat gates to really hammer in the importance of quick and merciless combat in certain situations, compared to the more measured approach that has served us so far. The only issue I have are their weird hitboxes, which are excessively wide horizontally, but almost impossible to hit diagonally somehow.
I am always a fan of combat design that allows for and encourages the player both to be aggressive or defensive depending on the layout of the encounter. Especially when things are dynamic enough that the addition or removal of a single concept (such as slow enemies with punishing attacks, collapsing battle arenas, summoners) forces you to change from one approach to the other mid-battle.
As befitting as it is to Nosgoth, so too is balance key to good game design. Go too far in either direction and the player is bound to find themselves aggravated or bored. Playing Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge, I was constantly on edge due to the aggression required to stay alive, even when compared to its predecessors.
Comparatively, during certain missions in Valkyria Chronicles, the sheer unpredictability of tank placement forced me to progress at a snail's pace to endure. Neither of these games found their true potential in my opinion and the rigidness of their encounter design is part of that.
The town of Nachtholm lies ahead of us and beyond it, Nupraptor's Retreat. But we are running long, so I must bid you farewell. Until next time, keep our current quandaries in mind:
As always, Vae Victus!