Against all odds, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver managed to get released in 1999 on Playstation and PC, giving us one of the most iconic covers of 5th gen.
It is a very simple idea for a cover, but leaning into the excellent design of the main character, having him stand on something physical and representing the game's two main colours makes it work very well.
Of course, 1999 was still in the 90s, so the back of the PAL box is what it is. The plot blurb needed a little rewrite (He is cast down from the material world and one does not negotiate puzzles unless one buys or sells them), but the selling points are very accurate to the game's strengths (especially the higher-than-standard resolution and unique mechanics), save for the omission of a mention of the excellent scriptwork. The NTSC box on the other hand:
THIS GAME IS 10 HOURS LONG IF I'M BEING GENEROUS, YOU DAMN LIARS!
This is slightly more sane than claiming the 7 hours of Blood Omen equals to 100 hours of gameplay, but not by much. Also, even if the game was finished as intended, it would have had like 70 cutscenes, most of which are really just static camera angles with voice overs. In the finished product, I would estimate there are around 30-40, unless you are desperate and count the miniscule cutscenes following puzzles being solved.
A year later, the game also released on Dreamcast, which is slightly less wrong on its packaging.
3 more rereleases and maybe the cover would have become accurate. I know playtime was and still is a big deal to many, but come the fuck on, marketing department. And while I am giving them flak, that first bullet really undersells the Dreamcast port.
It is basically a full remaster, sporting better models, removed texture warping, removed dithering, removed polygon seams, better render distance, higher resolution and double the framerate target, aiming for 60 FPS instead of 30. I say aiming, because according to this Digital Foundry video, neither verson is particularly stable. Still, the Dreamcast version is delightful (save for its camera controls) and will be the basis for the retrospective.
After the logos, we are presented with a very dry picture clearly spelling out which developer made each game, despite members of Crystal Dynamics having explicitly worked on Blood Omen. I can only assume this is a result of the settlement between the two companies.
The main menu is quite minimalistic, save for the mural, which seems like a remnant of Shifter's more overtly religious themes. I have read that the men here are meant to represent (though not depict) Kain and his soon-to-be-introduced vampire sons, which I find odd. Given Kain's obession with vampire supremacy, I think it should instead radiate strength and the beauty of the vampire form, perhaps in a now broken form to exemplify the failure of his empire.
Starting a new game immediately launches us into Soul Reaver's iconic intro cutscene, which firmly establishes the tone, the story, the ambition and the graphical jump of the game. I have watched this cutscene so many times that I can almost recite it from memory. It is such a step up from Blood Omen's intro and not just graphically. Blood Omen's intro depicts three different events separated by great spans of time (counting Kain's death and revival as the third), which is not clear to the player at the time and makes it drag a little bit.
Soul Reaver's on the other hand is shorter, more intense and entirely focused on the immediate events that kick off the game. Helping matters is the music used, which is epic as all hell. I do not know by what whim of fate someone on the team stumbled upon the song Ozar Midrashim by the electro-dance band Information Society and decided that its second half should accompany the intro to Soul Reaver.
I find it extra baffling, as the album the song is from, Don't Be Afraid, is a lot darker and industrial compared to their hit song, What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy). Not that I am complaining, as Kurt Harland did an excellent job with the rest of the soundtrack, giving the game an ethereal, oppressive and haunting tone, with songs that even adapt to the amount of action on-screen.
Kain is deified. The Clans tell tales of Him. Few know the truth. He was mortal once, as were we all. However, His contempt for humanity drove him to create me, and my brethren.
I am Raziel, first-born of His lieutenants. I stood with Kain and my brethren at the dawn of the empire. I have served Him a millennium. Over time, we became less human and more ...divine. Kain would enter the state of change and emerge with a new gift. Some years after the master, our evolution would follow.
Until I had the honor of surpassing my lord. For my transgression, I earned a new kind of reward... agony.
There was only one possible outcome - my eternal damnation. I, Raziel, was to suffer the fate of traitors and weaklings - to burn forever in the bowels of the Lake of the Dead.
"Cast him in."
Tumbling, burning with white-hot fire, I plunged into the depths of the abyss. Unspeakable pain... relentless agony... ... time ceased to exist... Only this torture... and a deepening hatred of the hypocrisy that damned me to this hell.
An eternity passed, and my torment receded, bringing me back from the precipice of madness. The descent had destroyed me... and yet I lived.
"Raziel, you are worthy."
Some intros go hard, and some intros go reaaaally hard. Props to Hennig for being such a kick-ass writer and director.
Despite the small amount of text, we get quite a lot of information out of this intro. Following his refusal of the sacrifice, Kain raised himself to godhood as implied by the bad ending of Blood Omen and created vampiric sons to lead clans of their own vampire kin to conquer Nosgoth. In the millenia Raziel served him, they succeeded.
But Kain being vain (ha!), could not stand Raziel upstaging him by developing wings (the very symbol of divinity, befitting someone named after an angel with the name "The Secrets of God") and had his top lieutenant executed immediately. And that is the thrust of the story, Raziel's quest for revenge after having suffered death at the hands of his vampire dad, mirroring Kain's relationship with Mortanius. Only this time, it will be the major focus of the game.
The voice from the end of the intro continues as we move into in-game cinematics:
[Elder God]: I know you, Raziel. You are worthy.
[Raziel]: What madness is this? What pitiful form is this that I have come to inhabit? Death would be a release, next to this travesty.
[Elder God]: You did not survive the abyss, Raziel. I have only spared you from total dissolution.
[Raziel]: I would choose oblivion over this existence!
[Elder God]: The choice is not yours.
[Raziel]: I am destroyed!
[Elder God]: You are reborn.
Despite the similar circumstances, Raziel immediately sets himself apart from Kain as he decries the nature of his newfound circumstances, seeking a death he now cannot claim. Kain was not keen on his "curse" to begin with as well of course, but he was much more concerned with revenge and jumped on the opportunity for revival. Raziel on the other hand, was given no such choice and simply finds himself betrayed and a shell of his former "glorious" self. While Kain was much the same, Raziel is explicitly a tragic character stuck in a destiny he cannot escape.
Vampire Raziel gets very little attention outside of the opening narration, but the manual has a nice lore blurb from Raziel's perspective that offers us a look into just what kind of society Kain developed and Raziel lived in:
A millennium has passed since Lord Kain set his capital in the ruins of the Pillars of Nosgoth and began his conquest of the world. His first act was to recruit a cadre. Dipping into the underworld, Kain snared six souls and thus birthed his lieutenants of which I, Raziel, was one. We, in turn prowled the twilight of purgatory building six legions of vampires to pillage Nosgoth.
The destruction of the major human Kingdoms was inevitable. Within a hundred years, humanity had been thoroughly domesticated. To be sure, there remained some feral humans scattered across the hinterlands, clinging to their hopeless holy war to rid Nosgoth of 'the vampire scourge'. They were tolerated. They made existence for the fledglings more challenging.
After the taming of the humans, our real work began; shaping Nosgoth to our will. Around the Pillars, slaves constructed a shrine worthy of our new age, worthy of our new renaissance. Huge furnaces were built to belch smoke into the sky, shielding the land from the poisonous effects of the sun. Never had the world known a time of such beauty. However, we grew bored.
We allowed the remains of the legions, the lesser vampires, to have their intrigues. They provided amusement and spice to an increasingly uninspired court. As faction fell against faction we bet upon the outcome. We helped and foiled plots at our whim. We were the Council and Lord Kain, our only master.
Details are sparse, but we get enough here to confirm that Raziel was not virtuous prior to his execution, continuing to spin the thread of gray-and-gray morality from Blood Omen. The series-wide question is less "Are we the baddies?" and more "Are we the right baddies and does Nosgoth deserve better?"
The manual continues:
The humans think it is a poison of the blood that makes us what we are. Fools, the blood only feeds the bodies we live in. To create a vampire, one must steal a soul from the abyss to reanimate the corpse. It is the body that demands the blood sacrifice; our souls gain their advantage from the powers of the underworld. As we matured, our earthly bodies evolved into a higher form.
We assumed the powers and nobility of the Dark Gods. With each change, the trivial affairs of vampire and man held less interest. Always, it was Kain that would change first. After the master had experienced a new gift, one of us would follow in a decade or so. That is, until I had the audacity to evolve before my master. I was gifted with wings. And for my impertinence I was damned.
I had not considered before that all of the clan leaders would also lose themselves in their power and start to disregard the will of their subjects, not just Kain. Corruption through ascension into "divinity" is such an on-brand addition to the setting, I love it.
Of course, said divinity comes at a price, as the Elder God explains:
[Elder God]: The birth of one of Kain’s abominations traps the essence of life. It is this soul that animates the corpse you ‘lived’ in. And that Raziel, is the demise of Nosgoth. There is no balance. The souls of the dead remain trapped. I can not spin them in the wheel of fate. They can not complete their destinies.
Just like Ariel explained in Blood Omen, for Nosgoth to be saved, balance must be restored. Only, in that case, it was by killing the corrupted Pillar Guardians, whereas the Elder God implies that the very existance of vampires is antithetical to balance. In either case of course, Kain needs to die, being both the last corrupted Guardian and a vampire.
[Elder God]: Redeem yourself. Or if you prefer, avenge yourself. Settle your dispute with Kain. Destroy Him and your brethren. Free their souls and let the wheel of fate churn again. Use your hatred to reave their souls... I can make it possible. Become my soul reaver, my angel of death...
And with that title drop out of the way, we have our stakes and motivations firmly established and I must bid you adieu. Raziel's quest for revenge begins in earnest next time.
Until then, keep our current quandaries in mind like usual:
As always, Vae Victus!