Escaping the Spectral realm not only opens the way forward, but also seals the way back into the Elder God's chamber, making it the one location we cannot visit in the Material Realm. Even warping there immediately robs Raziel of his flesh. Of course, there are other things around here waiting to do just the same.
"You are young yet, Raziel - you still retain many of your vampiric weaknesses."
[Elder God]: Immersion in water, while not fatal, will dissolve your physical body, forcing your return to the spirit world. Be aware that in the spectral realm, water has neither heft nor lift. It stands as thin as air.
Thanks to the 3rd dimension and the Spectral Realm, water proves a more interesting hindrance in this game compared to how it was in Blood Omen. It is generally bad to fall in, but it hides a few secrets and is required for progression. I like it well enough, but it is also used as a frustrating punishment for failing at bad platforming later.
"What are these creatures?"
[Elder God]: Do you not recognize them? They are the children of your brother, Dumah.
[Raziel]: That’s impossible - these foul, scuttling beasts could not be kin of our high blood.
[Elder God]: Do you suppose that time stood still for you, Raziel? Much has changed since you passed from the world of men.
These are the Dumahim, our first (thus most basic) vampire clan and one that clearly embodies the festering corruption that has taken hold of Kain's empire. Gone are the glorious days Raziel so vividly remembers, the memories of which are soon to be replaced with the disgust Kain himself felt upon initially turning into a vampire.
I appreciate the dichotomy of Raziel being more concerned with the ruination of the world and his former home than his own undeath compared to Kain, whose selfish nature dictated he be more offended at the slights Mortanius' spell made to him. It helps sell Raziel as the more heroic of the two, despite being fueled by the same thoughts of vengeance against his father figure.
"I knew my opponents’ weaknesses, having suffered them myself. Physical wounds are fleeting - a vampire’s immortal flesh begins to close as soon as it is cleaved."
[Raziel]: Vampires need only fear those wounds that impale, or inflame. Water scorches like acid, and fledglings are devastated by sunlight’s touch. I would have to modify my tactics to suit my foes.
This right here is the most interesting aspect of combat, which helps lessen the impact of Raziel's lackluster moveset and puts him in an underdog situation compared to Kain in Blood Omen. Since we are mostly fighting vampires and Raziel eats their souls instead of drinking blood, the player cannot just kill them as soon as they have been put in the waver state like before.
Instead, the waver state opens them up to a finisher should he have a weapon on him. If that is not the case like in this tutorial room, you need to pick them up and throw them into spikes, water, sunlight or fire. The spikes can be a bit tricky due to the tank controls while carrying enemies being a bit sluggish and the hitboxes being very particular, so I picked the pool of water in this room as my means to a tasty treat.
"Unfettered from the flesh, a creature’s soul fades swiftly into the spectral realm. Draw it in quickly, Raziel, or you will be compelled to follow."
Quickly scrounging around for environmental weapons when entering a new area is pretty engaging at first, but with how limited the tools are it soons becomes old hat. This is not an Immersive Sim, so there are not a lot of exciting interactions save for one a bit later which is delightful. But I think the important part is selling the severity of the threat and Raziel's lackluster power, needing to rely on wit instead of brute strength, which he actually has, surprisingly enough.
"Your physical prowess surpasses what you knew in life. Even massive obstacles can be moved effortlessly."
And all he ever uses it for are block puzzles. Tons and tons of block puzzles. For as inventive as the Spectral Realm puzzles are, a good chunk of the game's puzzles are just moving blocks around. I would not call them bad per say, as they can be satisfying, but there are so many of them and they can take a very long time to clear. I will expand on this later, as for now we simply have to move this singular block next to a ledge.
I mentioned before how the game does not have loading screens after loading into it the first time. Instead, it spearheaded the technique of artificially slowing the player down like the the doors in Jak 2 & Dead Space or the ever popular modern "squeezethroughs" that make you FEEL the weight of the Data Bus being overloaded. Here in Soul Reaver, it is pretty painless and barely noticeable, especially on Dreamcast with the greater render distance maintaining the illusion.
The one little hassle is that these doors cannot be opened in the Spectral Real, as the Elder God explains should you attempt to do so:
[Elder God]: Your efforts are futile, Raziel - such objects are but shadows in the spirit world.
This not only lets the devs have control over the geometry and colourscape when you first enter an area for cutscene purposes, but also challenges you to maintain your form in the Material Realm, which has the more challenging set of enemies. If this was not the case, you could just stroll through the levels without a care in the world.You can still do that to an extent, but now is not the time to get ahead of ourselves.
"My God...The Sanctuary of the Clans, reduced to ruin..."
[Raziel]: Beyond these walls lay the Pillars of Nosgoth, the seat of Kain’s empire. How humble it now appeared, collapsing into the dust of its former magnificence. And yet I had only just emerged... In the instant between my execution and resurrection, centuries had apparently passed...
[Elder God]: This world is wracked with cataclysms - the earth strains to shrug off the pestilence of Kain’s parasitic empire. The fate of this world was preordained in an instant, by a solitary man. Unwilling to martyr himself to restore Nosgoth’s balance, Kain condemned the world to the decay you see. In that moment, the unraveling began... now it is nearly played out. Nosgoth teeters on the brink of collapse - its fragile balance cannot hold.
I would not call this a twist exactly, as the game was not exactly trying to hide it, but it is an interesting reveal nonetheless. Not only has Raziel "travelled" into the future, putting us like 1500 years after Blood Omen or so, but we can see the result of Kain's "legacy". The world is a gray hellhole (making my comparison to 7th gen games earlier all the more apt) that can barely sustain life at this point.
All the more reason to start killing some vampires and cleanse the land. The torch is the most dynamic weapon in the game, as it can only set one enemy ablaze before it needs to be relit. It is not terribly common, so it feels more like technical showpiece, since it has a simple lighting system attached to it as well.
The spear on the other hand is both common and reusable, with a very sick impaling animation that stood out to me as the most violent thing ever made when I stumbled upon the trailer on a demo disc as a wee babby. Raziel is kinda bad at using it however, wielding it more like a huge stick or a twinblade, wasting a lot of the potential reach, making it almost as bad as his claws. Still, hard to say no to a portable and durable killing implement.
On the way from the locked entrance to the sanctuary, we get the sneaking tutorial, which is about the only place in the whole game where stealth is a thing. There are no mechanics implemented for stealth in the game save for the sneaking, but with how easily enemies can detect you from range, I have no idea why this is here. I know we are a bit early in the history of video games for standardized stealth takedowns, but come on.
[Raziel]: This, at least, had remained constant. The endlessly swirling vortex of the abyss. My tomb, and the womb of my rebirth.
[Raziel]: Though much of Nosgoth’s landscape had changed, these cliffs gave me my bearings. My clan territory was to the west - I was anxious to see how my descendants had fared during the centuries of my absence.
The Abyss serves as our hub of sorts, being both the center of the world and a cruel shortcut back to the Elder God's chambers, whould you feel the need for a quick dip. Sadly, the game provides no map of its own like Blood Omen did, leaving things to fans instead.
As you can see, the areas are connected through twisted passages (that probably mask loading) emanating from the lake. Unlike the layered map of Dark Souls, a metroidvania-adjacent game, Soul Reaver's world is quite spread out, which is why I said lengthy traversal is such a pain. But if you stick to the intended path and only do a couple of sweeps for collectibles, it is not that bad.
On the way to Raziel's clan territory, I remembered that throwing weapons is a thing you can do. It can impale an enemy in the waver state if you are using a spear, but it is not exactly practical. Still, if you want to take a spear with you through a Spectral Realm shift, you can sometimes just chuck it past obstacles, which makes you feel clever, but is pretty unnecessary given the abundance of weapons in combat arenas.
Speaking of that, when approaching the entrance to Raziel's clan territory we are met with one of very few forced combat encounters in the game outside of bosses. I consider this both a positive and a negative. Positive, because combat gets old quickly, so not forcing it down the player's throat is nice. Negative, because with level design, movement and enemy AI as-is, you can just bunny-hop past enemies and often end up with more health than you would have if you fought, took damage and then ate a soul or two.
I found this cool rock.
There are two major elements at odds here. First is the change in perspective, which prohibits enemies from taking up as much playspace as they do in Blood Omen. The third-person perspective needs bigger environments to give the primitive camera room to breathe. Then there is the change to the waver state system, which makes it impossible to kill enemies directly without using special optional powers.
As a consequence, in order to make combat feasible, they are not very aggressive outside of striking distance, which is great when you actually decide to do battle. But if you do not, that inability to chase down the player means you can stay safe in most situations.
This is obviously a flaw in the design, but working with the assumption that the core of the combat is the best they could manage, I approve of letting the player choose if they want to engage with a good 60% of encounters or so. Designing something good is praiseworthy, but not forcing something bad you designed onto the player is also nice. Countless games exist under the pretense that certain ideas are not terrible and actually worth the player's time when they most certainly are not.
"Utter desolation. My once-proud kin, wiped from this world like excrement from a boot. I knew the hand that wrought this deed..."
Venturing deeper into the area, past all the Dumahim that exterminated Raziel's clan, we find a strange dial, which is linked to the biggest nothingburger the game has to offer. More on that later.
"I didn’t recognize these flayed wracks of flesh. Their scent was vampiric, but they gnawed upon their victim’s carcass like dogs."
These are the Melchahim, zombie ghouls of even lower rank than the Dumahim, though in practice they are about as tough. Their one claim to fame is the ability to burrow out of the ground for surprise attacks, but said attacks are not strong enough to ever be a threat. Unless you are human like the poor guy they mulched in this scene.
"This charnel house bore the unmistakable marks of Melchiah’s clan. To what depths had our dynasty plummeted, if these ghouls were the descendants of my high-born brother? Were they so debased as to recruit fledglings from the desiccated corpses here interred?"
I like that to really sell the desolation, we start our quest with the shittiest of all the clans. The rest are not much better off, but they can at least keep up appearances.
[Raziel]: My brother, Melchiah, was made last, and therefore received the poorest portion of Kain’s gift. Although immortal, his soul could not sustain the flesh, which retained much of its previous human frailty. This weakness, it seemed, was passed on to his offspring. Their fragile skins barely contained the underlying decay.
Kain's and Raziel's names clearly communicate some meaning, as Kain maps quite well to the first murderer and Raziel maps to the angel who stands closest to God's throne. Kain's name is even more appropriate if you know your World of Darkness lore.
But beyond Melchiah's name meaning "The king is God", a statement one can connect to Kain, there really is not much there to parse. You get a decent bit about him from the manual though:
Melchiah's vanity was such that he would search among the human slaves for the most stunning specimens. After feeding on them, he would skin them and don their flesh to cover his putrescence. His children, the Melchahim, also skin their victims to help hold their own rotting carcasses together.
Classic monster stuff there, being based in tragedy and dealing with it through the mutilation of the innocent. But before we can lay our eyes on his ugly mug, we need to get past this shit:
This lake is where the platforming goes from acceptable to miserable. It is really only two jumps, but the controls are so awkward and the second platform is so awfully small. One can always judge a platformer after how much panic it instills in you when jumping on tiny platforms.
After some experimenting, I came to understand what aspects bother me so much. Making it so the crouch keeps you from walking off a ledge is great, but doing a high jump after that leaves you with precious little momentum, meaning you have to rely on the glide.
And despite the glide being intended as a crutch, it is really difficult to get the hang of it. Here for example, I needed to swerve in a circle and grab the side of the platform (the real crutch of the platforming) because the camera did not give me a good enough view of the ground to measure depth correctly.
To land on the smaller one, you need to internalize just how unresponsive Raziel is if you do not stop moving as you stop gliding. For some godforsaken reason, if you stop moving as you land, Raziel still takes an extra step forward, which is enough to drop you off the game's dozen or so comically tiny platforms. I will make an effort to point them out as we go along, if only to give me something to focus my anger on.
"Beware, Raziel. These wraiths are vampire spirits, fettered too long in the spectral realm. When their vampire natures adapt to this plane, they become eaters of souls. Do not allow these spirits to reinhabit their corpses..."
Currently, Wraiths are the most threating enemy we can run into, as they can drain your health from a distance. Steady aggression keeps them in check, assuming you can fight them alone. The mechanic of them repossessing their corpse to add the health drain to their regular moveset is interesting, but a seldom occurrence unless you let them.
It is at this moment about 37 minutes in that Soul Reaver starts asking something out of the player. This room where the Wraith is fought is where the game finally forces you to shift to the Spectral Realm to progress. Not only that, but it integrates all aspects of the Spectral Realm and mixes it with block pushing to create our first proper puzzle.
The puzzle can be broken down into these steps:
It is a really good introductory puzzle, save for the fact that it has not been evident yet that shifting not only affects space, but also time. The manual mentions it, but it would have been nice to showcase it in a cutscene somewhere. The game is otherwise really good about doling out combined pieces of worldbuilding and tutorials as you go through this first hour up to Melchiah.
Right aftwerwards, we get our first proper block puzzle as well, which challenges you to separate a stack of them by pushing the topmost one off and then flipping them to match their slots. This is important to establish for the later ones, but they really fail to develop further beyond these basic interactions. I happen to like iterative puzzles built around exploring, experimenting and inching towards the solution compared to execution-based puzzles that challenge you to solve them under a time or movement limit (such as those godforsaken sliding tile puzzle boxes in Onimusha).
But before long, the player will have worked out the algorithm needed to untangle these proverbial Christmas lights and just be left with busywork. If the distance between thinking out the solution and implementing it is too great, then the puzzle is no longer fun. I will not harp on this point too much when there is platforming to bitch about, but I will make note of just how long these get later on.
Past a minor block puzzle teaching the player to stack blocks, we get into the "dungeon" part of the area, which revolves around this central platform. Besides block puzzles and shifting puzzles, the game also features a couple of these large multi-step puzzles that span multiple rooms. They are pretty fun, assuming you do not miss a step somewhere along the way and have to retrace your step while evading respawned enemies. That is unlikely to happen here, as this area is pretty small compared to the others.
Hang in there, pal.
Much like Raziel's claw combo, interacting with these winches lack a little cheat in the player's favour, as the hitbox to interact with them is absolutely tiny. Not a huge flaw, but annoying all the same. To operate it properly, you just need to hit a switch on the other side to connect some gears, but if you take the other corridor to/from this room, you run into an interesting encounter.
This is one of the game's vampire hunters and he has decided to offer up his soul to Raziel in tribute. This is part of the game's hidden morality system (again deepening the comparison to 7th gen game design), which is mentioned in the manual. The exact mechanics are unclear, but the gist of it is that if you do not attack humans and instead save them, the word will spread and you can take a "sip" of the souls of the willing without killing them. I somehow screwed that up this playthrough, so we will be seeing what they are capable of combat-wise soon enough. Not that it matters either way, since humans are weak, rare and provide only a little bit of health. Still, a neat bit of natural storytelling.
Down below him, we get some environmental storytelling as well, as the hunter has seemingly managed to stake a vampire. Pulling out the spear immediately lets the local wraith revive the corpse for a nasty surprise for first-time players. Unless you get blindsided, a wraith Melchahim is easily disposed of however.
The puzzling continues, as after the machinery has been activated, the central platform can be lowered, leading to some torch blocks that can be arranged to break support beams and then placed on the fallen central platform, opening up the path to Melchiah. It is barely a puzzle, but I think it serves as a fine little setpiece to cap off this leg of the journey.
[Raziel]: Show yourself, creature!
[Melchiah]: Do you not recognize me, brother? Am I so changed?
[Melchiah]: Yesss, brother. You should have stayed where the master sent you, Raziel. You will find Nosgoth less pleasant than you remember.
[Raziel]: What has become of my clan? Answer me, little brother, or I will beat an answer from your horrid lips.
[Melchiah]: Everyone is afraid, sibling. You awake to a world of fear. These times of change are so... unsettling. Do you think I feel no revulsion for this form? Do you believe for a moment that our Lord would risk his empire upon an upstart inheritance?
[Raziel]: Enough riddles - what are you saying?!
[Melchiah]: You are the last... to die...
With the annihilation of Raziel's clan confirmed, our first boss fight begins. The bosses of Soul Reaver are certainly more exciting than the ones from Blood Omen due to the spectacle involved, but most feel rather lacking. I assume that due to the lackluster core combat and Raziel's effective immortality, it was decided that most of them should be puzzle fights where progress is retained between "deaths". It is certainly a unique spin on things, but they do not give me that special "mechanical exam disguised as an awesome duel" vibe.
Still, we get some inventive environmental kills that are gruesome to behold. Melchiah here cannot be harmed by mere weapons, so for the first part of the fight, we need to lure him under two of these spike gates and impale him with him. The challenge lies in the timing, as he can harmlessly pass through them if you miss and come get you, albeit slowly.
The hardest part is goading him into the center of the arena where his favourite death crusher can be used against him in an ironic twist of fate after the winch loosens up during the fight. I naturally find it silly that he would hang out in the only room where he can be easily killed, but that is video game bosses for you.
[Raziel]: Tell me, Melchiah - where can I find Kain?
[Melchiah]: The master is beyond your reach, Raziel. He makes himself known when He sees fit, not when commanded.
[Melchiah]: I am released...
I think we can safely assume that Melchiah made this place his home in the hopes it would one day become his grave. As the weakest clan leader, he had little hope beyond this end.
[Elder God]: You have done well, Raziel.
[Raziel]: Am I reduced to this? A ghoul? A fratricide?
[Elder God]: Elevated, Raziel, not reduced. Consuming Melchiah’s soul has endowed you with a new gift. Insubstantial barriers such as these are no impediment to you in the spectral realm. Will yourself to pass through, and you shall.
With the Metroid power-up jingle hopefully playing in your head, this is where I leave off, having finally breached an hour of gameplay and defeated our first boss. More to come, as we go to hunt down Kain for some answers.
Until then, keep our current quandaries in mind like usual:
As always, Vae Victus!