With the Mentalist dead, his head claimed and a Hamlet reference dropped ("Alas, poor Nupraptor - I knew him well. Well, not really."), Kain has only to make a swift exit. And as fate would have it, there is a convenient teleporter at the far end of the boss arena.
Not only do we get a shortcut back outside, but there is also a handy mace surrounded by some of those unbreakable rocks that could be found on the way to Nupraptor earlier. I get the feeling that people had trouble realizing that the mace could break these during playtesting, so Silicon Knights went for the nuclear tutorilization option and surrounded the player with them until they figured it out. Not the most elegant solution, but it does the job. There are also some locked chests here to break open for some health vials, which I was in dire need of.
Beyond growing our arsenal of metroidvania exploration powers, the mace is an excellent addition to Kain's arsenal with strengths and weaknesses in tune with the game's core design philosophy of there not being a best weapon.
The mace deals miniscule damage, but has the special property of being able to quickly stun enemies and put them into the waver state. So against singular enemies you wish to feed on, it stands without ilk. You can mash away without any fear of accidentally killing them early, so against the heavily armored knights, it is amazing.
But if you are up against 3 or more enemies, its weakness becomes apparent. The waver state is temporary, so if you cannot feed on enemies fast enough, they will recover and start attacking again. And even if you do manage to get a drink in, you are bound to be attacked by the others, cutting your health regain short. You can offset this by using magic and attack items, but the iron sword remains useful, as there are many enemies that either cannot or should not be fed upon.
"The Pillar accepted its offering; thus it was restored."
"But first I had to defeat their shepherd - Malek, defender of the Nine, lay in a keep far to the north past Vasserbünde. It was time for me to test the wrath of the Pillar of Conflict."
"But to reach a warrior, you must first breach his ward. Find Malek and destroy him. Only then will the Circle fall."
Ignoring the Flays circling around Ariel that I threw at her for reasons I have since forgotten, we now have the next step of our quest. And it is the biggest step by far, as Blood Omen is not as cleanly divided into 8 pieces as one would think. This lends the game some unpredictable qualities, but it also betrays some hurried development as we will see by the end.
"But the rumors failed to prepare us for the horror."
After laying claim to loads of goodies around Vasserbünde and a needed magic regen upgrade just to the north of it, Kain begins speaking of a plague that has begun taking the land. Given the medieval setting and the theme of corruption, a plague is to be expected. And just to make it have a touch more impact, we first see it strike Kain's home of Coorhagen.
"Pity...such a waste; good blood gone bad."
"I had no delusions as to the welcome I would receive."
"A perfect homecoming."
Beyond these comments, Kain makes no big deal out of what has become of his home. This could be a budgetary constraint, but having him cut ties with his family entirely and ignore them as he is starting to accept his vampirism is very much in line with the overarching plot. One the one hand, it feels like a wasted chance to not have him decapitate an annoying aunt or something to really sell his deepening depravity, but on the other, it keeps the pace going to just leave them to the plague. What is here is material enough to depict Kain's shrinking doubts about becoming a vampire, which is the important part.
The townsfolk have some things to say about the plague. I think the third one is a Monty Python reference:
"Whatever spell is cast at me will be reflected back at the caster, leaving me unharmed. It will only last for a short time, however, before leaving me vulnerable once more."
A bit into town, we stumble into a minor clusterfuck of a dungeon, which does a lot with very little playspace. First of all, it piles on regular enemies, turrets, knife throwers, magic-slinging spirits and skeletons. They get away with this because we have access to the mace now, making feeding much easier.
But there are so many enemies that we hit the enemy limit I mentioned earlier, making it almost necessary to off some of them with magic or items in order to safely feed. It is always good when the presented challenge matches the player's abilities. It is a very thin rope to walk, as a game can very easily become braindead or impossible if balance (heh) is not acheived.
When you have had just about enough of this place, you get access to the Repel spell, which is the most significant spell in the game. Despite what Kain says, it actually protects you from all damage, making you invincible for a little bit (about 20 seconds). Given that there were two cut spells that each protected against melée and ranged hits, I assume that it was too annoying to swap between the two using the very limited quick-select slots we have for spells.
Which is a shame, because the introduction of Repel kinda changes the flow of the game. It is costly, so you need to be tactical about its usage, but it is still invincibility on command which lasts just long enough to just ignore a room or two. If it was split into two spells, you would need to make the choice of which type of attack to negate and which o ne to engage with, which I think would be more interesting and open up the game to more complex encounters.
The local tavern is pretty dead.
Beneath the church there is naturally another dungeon, which is filled to the brim with undead. The challenge there is of course fighting enemies you cannot feed on, but there are enough prisoners to keep things manageable.
There is a necromancer miniboss summoning shades a bit into the dungeon, which proves to be barely stronger than the more common zombie-summoning variety. Of greater concern is the increasing frequency of spike traps and ice tiles, which crescendos into this nightmare scenario which is thankfully made traversible by our newly aquired Repel spell. If not for Repel, this dungeon would have been awful.
The Bone Armor is the least interesting of the special armor sets as beyond this dungeon, there really is not much use for it as basic undead are not very common, nor are they very threatening. But it looks swanky and it is important for a blossoming vampire lord to have a certain amount of presence when he barges through a door fangs first, so it is worth using for the time being.
"Quite useful, with all the filth I find myself surrounded by..."
On the way to our third (!) dungeon in Coorhagen, we find our last consumable, which is not exciting at all. Poison will not be introduced properly for a little bit, but it is nice to get some antidote before we need it. Unless you do something stupid later on, poison is not a problem, which is fine by me, as Kain's health drains on its own anyway.
"Minor grievance would escalate to murderous rage and oh, the sweet terror when the spell wore off and they saw their hands covered with their neighbour's blood."
Absolute bastard of a spell, this one. But quite useful when swarmed, even if it is quite costly in this part of the game. As with Repel, this allows the designer to go nuts, making for an especially murderous murder dungeon. But it is about this point where Kain is so powerful that standard enemies cannot touch him, so it goes by with ease. Assuming you can ration your magic effectively.
Spitting in the face of unfair encounter design is a good feeling.
Coorhagen has one last surprise waiting, as just before the exit, there is a staircase leading down to some cultists using this kick-ass skeleton lava cauldron:
Given the surrounding items, I assume they are using the plague victims for sacrifices.
"What manner of man would choose a land so harsh and utterly devoid of life?"
[Malek]: I know you are here, demon. The stench of death clings to you.
It has been a lengthy trek, but we are finally in our next main dungeon and it is a pretty big challenge. As foreshadowed by Kain, the land is barren and devoid of anything living, meaning that our single source of blood are Hearts of Darkness. The game is nice enough to place a few throughout the bastion, but without tactical use of Repel, they will not be enough unless you are adept at dodging the absurd amount of traps in here.
"Life without blood? What a travesty!"
[Malek]: Do you hope to best me, Kain? Do not worry. Your challenge will not go unmet.
Malek's warriors cannot even be fed on to recover magic, making them effectively immune to the mace. Something I learned the hard way. They are not numerous and can be easily dealt with using attack items, but the game shaking up the gameplay loop takes a little bit to get used to. The bastion is not excessively lengthy, so it is not an impossible challenge, but you must be willing to adapt.
"In this cold wasteland, food was scarce, and my hunger grew."
Such an awful way to go.
[Kain]: A corpse held court on a tattered throne, grinning malignantly at me through blackened teeth.
[Malek]: It is not often that a man sees his own corpse, it is a sobering experience. But I am far less interested in my own corpse than I am in yours. Prepare yourself, vampire.
After getting manhandled some more in the second half of the bastion, it was time for the showdown with the Guardian of Conflict. And unlike Nupraptor, he is a much more standard fight, which sadly showcases some holes in the gameplay of Blood Omen.
Since he is immune to magic and attack items, your only course of action is to pop Repel and mash attack. Having a boss relenlessly pursue the player like this reminds me of the Tyrant battles in classic Resident Evil, only kinder, since you have Repel. But it is such a boring way to do a boss, since all you can do is run back to create distance, attack and repeat.
I am also unsure of the exact mechanics of Malek. There are some enemies that can block during certain parts of their attack animations, making it difficult to judge when you will deal damage. Malek does not do this, but he has so much health that I am not sure if it only counts when you hit him with a combo finisher. Some better feedback beyond him grunting would have made things clearer.
Not that it matters, since we cannot actually beat him. After knocking him down a couple of times, he rushes to the top of the arena and casts waves of magic forcing Kain to retreat through yet another convenient boss arena teleporter. And just like last time, we end up on top of a new weapon.
The axes are my least favourite weapons in the game. They are powerful, but there is not really a proper use case for them beyond chopping down trees to progress. Despite not being able to cast magic with them, I feel like you need Repel active to make them useful.
They have a special death spin combo finisher that does tons of damage, but you move slowly with it active and can be easily staggered out of it. And should you manage to spin through some enemies, they will fall to the ground before you can feed on them. If the spin was easier to use and there were more big enemies in the game, perhaps I would use them more.
"Very well, go east of Malek's Bastion. The Oracle shall give you aid."
Defeating Malek is a multi-step process, well-fitting for our rival character. Since he is nothing but enchanted armor, Kain will have to aquire the counsel of Nosgoth's very own oracle to defeat him.
This will be the focus of the next installment. Until then, keep our current quandaries in mind:
As always, Vae Victus!