For those of you who forgot what was going on last time, the last little plot blurb in the manual is happy to catch you up to speed:
To us the touch of water is agony; it burns our flesh like acid. My punishment was to be cast into The Lake of the Dead, our execution ground for traitors and weaklings. As my brethren heaved me into the air I could see the bemused expressions on their faces. The transitory thrill of something new. Then the pain. Melting, twisting, burning, falling. A new experience indeed. Time. I have no concept of how long I fell. Only that there was an end to the fall and through the pain I heard the voice. At first I though it merely the echoes of my own tortured mind, but I grew to understand that it was more. Something primal. Something angry. Something righteous. Something ancient.
The Elder explained much to me. It told me of creation, of death, of souls and of hunger. For eons the Elder fed upon the souls of Nosgoth. Then Kain's vampire dynasty deprived the Elder of sustenance. For centuries his hunger grew and festered in this place.
The Elder offered me a solution to my sorry existence - if I would stalk the Material Realm slaying my former brethren then I would have the chance to avenge myself against Kain. How could one refuse such an offer?
Point taken, Raziel. But it should be noted that this write-up paints the Elder God as something possibly Lovecraftian that feeds upon the souls of the dead. This would perhaps be obvious given its name, but said name is never spoken and only revealed outside of the game, like in this manual and the credits.
I did not speak of this before, as Raziel and the Elder God were not a thing in Blood Omen, but I consider them, alongside Kain, to be what makes this series tick. And not just for their influence on the plot (which only has a scant few characters of note left to influence it), but for their stellar writing and acting, all of which have similar cadence, but with key differences.
Simon Templeman's performance as Kain in Blood Omen is layered in distrust, disgust (for vampirism and Nosgoth at large), anger and eventually self-absorption. Come Soul Reaver, he softens up somewhat and instead sounds wiser, more mysterious and defeated in a way, without letting go of the selfishness and anger that defines the character and his later actions.
Tony Jay essentially reprises his role as Mortanius for the Elder God, using both the same voice and a similar writing style, that of an omni-present guide for the protagonist to set them on the intended path. The difference being the now changed context and greater presence in the plot. This voice of his is exactly what you would want of a god with questionable motives. It is grand, powerful, righteous and ever so slightly self-entitled as befitting something so old, powerful and allegedly unquestionable.
Micael Bell's performance as Raziel on the other hand is soft in comparison, often inquisitive, downtrodden and later on even a bit sassy. I think he is a fun spin on the "hip and young" newcomer character, as he is a lot younger than the other two and more relatable due to Kain's betrayal, but still over a millennia old.
Not to say that he will not be shown to share traits with the brash younger Kain and be filled with righteous indignation over wanting to destroy the vampires like the Elder God wishes. He sits inbetween them both, having served Kain in his previous life and now doing the bidding of the Elder God in his current.
But even so, he is not theirs to command, as we will eventually see. He acts upon what free will he has in order to get answers to the mysteries of the world (in service of both the player and himself), discover his destiny and what to do with it. That is why I think these characters are so important to making the series interesting. Depending on who you believe and what you know, each one can be considered good or evil. And in Raziel's case, having ties to Kain and the Elder God means his moral compass is even more complicated, making him an excellent protagonist as his views shift throughout the series.
Of course, to get there, we need to actually talk about what comes after that earlier cutscene.
Now, I know that the effect is a bit ruined thanks to the passage of time and the continued breakthrough in graphics technology, BUT LOOK AT THIS JUMP IN QUALITY COMPARED TO BLOOD OMEN.
There is not a single piece of spritework (outside of maybe some fence somewhere) or pre-rendered material in Soul Reaver. It is all real-time 3d graphics with a free-ish camera achieved on the same console a mere 3 years later. It looks even better on Dreamcast:
As has been bemoaned by many, we do not get that level of increased eye candy anymore since diminishing returns on GPUs are what they are. Now, I was barely cognizant at the time, so I could not properly comprehend the insane technological jumps the industry went through at the time, but suffice to say, it was a big deal. The Silent Hill trilogy is an excellent example of this rapid development for those who wish to dig deeper.
I was however, aware of all the "wonders" the industry partook of during seventh gen and with that experience in mind, I can draw some parallels between the jump From Blood Omen to Soul Reaver and the jump from sixth gen to seventh gen. Remember this list I made about the features of Blood Omen?
Adjusted for Soul Reaver, we end up with this:
As you can see, most things have remained intact (technically even the interactable population, but I am not counting that for reasons I will get into later), making the transition between studios, dimensions and games a digestible one.
Of course, this simple list does not tell the full story of this dimensional shift, as certain elements have been further neutered, making combat slower and less common (and less projectile-spammy to boot), with exploration and puzzle-solving ending up emphasized as a result. I think this is partially due to the higher fidelity, which comes at the cost of a stricter rendering budget, not unlike the graphics chased during seventh-gen that ended up standardizing 30 FPS. There is also the wow-factor of full 3d environments that deserved its fair share of attention at the time.
Soul Reaver fared quite well all things considered, but combat is certainly less visceral and responsive than Blood Omen with less options to play with. It feels less "video gamey" and more "cinematic" which really invites the comparison to the likes of Uncharted (which Hennig actually worked on). Still, there is cool shit to discover, starting with this thingamajig:
[Elder God]: These gates twist space, laying a path across great spans.
[Elder God]: You must visit other gates before this portal will be opened to you.
As per metroidvania customs, there is a warp system to get you around quickly. Though I find it strange that we unlock it immediately, as it is usually reserved for a few hours into the game when the player has come to grips with standard controls and needs a quicker way to get around the huge map.
I can think of two reasons for it being introduced immediately. The first being that the environments are quite large and even at the end of the game, Raziel does not get the kind of traversal powers needed to speed through it. So teleporting is the best way to get around, even though warp gates are sparse and there is no map to help you get to where you want to go.
As an aside, I find it interesting that this seamless warp system has endured the ages and found its way to God of War (2018), which I recently played. Only instead of it being quick and fully seamless (after selecting another warp, Raziel just walks through the gate to the new room), there it has to dump you into the loading dimension and cheat with a couple of light flashes to make it work. A technical achievement nonetheless, but one marred by a great discrepency between the amount of data needed and the read speed of the storage medium.
The second reason to introduce warping now has to do with the inventive death mechanics, which forego the standard immersion-breaking check-pointing games usually have and instead weave "respawning" into the narrative. The likes of Prey (2006), Demon's Souls and Apsulov: End of Gods have toyed with it since, but Soul Reaver was the trailblazer as far as I know.
The gist of it is that dying in the Material Realm boots you back to the Spectral Realm in the same spot, which is usually an impediment for reasons we will get into later. Then you can simply return after refilling your health and finding a portal. But if you falter once more in the Spectral Realm (which is unlikely, thankfully), the Elder God will snatch up Raziel's soul and boot you back to this starting chamber. It explains as much once it happens the first time:
[Elder God]: As my agent, you are beyond death, Raziel. Your enemies cannot destroy you. If you grow too weak, however, you will always be drawn here, to recover.
Had you not been able to go back to your previous location through the warp gate, this game would have been awful. It is still a bit of a trek depending on where you fell, so I am glad the game never tries overtly hard to get you killed in the Spectral Realm. Outside of that one place of course, but that is more of an easter egg really.
[Elder God]: You are weak - you must feed.
[Raziel]: The old hunger has left me; I have no desire for blood.
[Elder God]: You are changed. Your blood-thirst is replaced by a deeper need - you have become a devourer of souls. To sustain your strength, you must hunt the lost spirits of the Underworld, and consume the souls of your enemies.
This series is pretty metal inbetween all the soliloquies, in case you forgot. Helping matters is how scary the now jawless Raziel looks when consuming souls.
Feeding does lock you in place, but with how non-aggressive the enemies are, getting your desired health back is not very difficult. Onimusha this is not.
"Your wings, though ruined, are not without purpose. Take hold of them as you leap, and they will carry you across this chasm."
After that we get the platforming tutorial, which is nice and simple. Raziel can jump, crouch to safely get to the edge of a platform and then do a high jump. Holding jump lets him do a weak glide, serving as a constant reminder of what Kain did to him. If this is all you played, it would be easy to assume that the platforming is fine. It is not, as the these large, flat platforms mask the inelegance of the controls. More on that when it gets annoying.
[Raziel]: What scabrous wretches are these?
[Elder God]: Sluagh, the scavengers of the Underworld. Their feral hunger has claimed countless souls - spirits who now shall never find their rest.
A fight with these cowardly goobers serves as our combat tutorial, which I think is perfectly summed up with this unflattering screenshot:
Given the numerous failed attempts at 3d action combat during the 90s, simply ripping off Ocarina of Time was the way to go, so I do not begrudge Crystal Dynamics for doing just that, Z-Targeting is the shit. But much like the platforming, it feels unrefined. All the components are there (dependable lock-on, basic combos and a dodge), but they fail to come together.
My first gripe is clearly felt in this tutorial fight, as without a weapon, Raziel's reach is very lacking. Hell, even with a weapon, it often feels like you should be able to attack from farther away. I think what is missing is him stepping forward a bit during the first part of his combo to make up for misjudged spacing in a 3rd-person game. It is such an important little cheat in the player's favour for making combat feel right.
Dodging is fine in a vacuum, but enemies are so erratic that achieving proper evasive action is a bit of a dice roll. When standing far away, enemies are not very aggressive, but when you close in, they just suddenly decide to flail at you. These Sluagh are pretty easy to read, but even then, countering does not feel as good as it should. There is more to the combat in the Material Realm, but we need to get there first.
[Elder God]: These portals are your conduit between the spectral and material realms. With their aid, you may gather matter and will yourself to become manifest in the physical world. This is taxing, however - your strength must first be fully restored. You require no conduit to return to this plane - you may abandon your physical body at any time.
[Elder God]: Sustain your strength to prolong your manifestation in the physical world. If you fail to feed, or absorb too many wounds, this fragile matter will dissolve.
That is the essence of the gameplay loop, avoid damage and devour souls to stay in the Material Realm, shift back to the Spectral Realm manually as needed and then find a portal to return to the Material Realm. These simple rules are the backbone of the game's traversal and puzzles, which I will get into next time.
Until then, keep our current quandaries in mind like usual:
As always, Vae Victus!