Upon loading a save, the game boots you back to the chamber of the Elder God, so the game incentivizes play sessions capped off with boss fights or the discovery of new warp rooms. It does save all progress save for Raziel's location, which you are allowed to do at any time from the menu, so holistically, I think the game ends up more user friendly than its competition in the console space.
"Return to the Sanctuary of the Clans, Raziel. Melchiah’s soul has endowed you with the means to gain entry. Beware, however - this hollow derelict is abandoned, but not uninhabited..."
As an extension of that friendly design, the Elder God can provide directions whenever you return here, which hopefully means you can quickly get back to where you need to be. Of course, you can aslo take this moment to go backtrack using our new phasing ability, which allows Raziel to pass through grates and gates in the Spectral Realm by either doing his best Jesus impression or by T-posing the meagre matter into submission by asserting dominance. The lore is not very clear on this point.
As an aside, trying to phase through non-valid surfaces locks Raziel in an annoying animation that I accidentally triggered way too many times.
This means that there are now "doors" that can only be surmounted in each realm. It is obviously easy to pass into the Spectral Realm, but it also gives the designer another way to force the player into it, either to showcase something about the environment, or to challenge the player to find a portal back to the Material Realm afterwards. I think it is important that we get this ability now in order to establish that neither realm is the standard and only by using both equally can progress be made.
"These artifacts enhance your stamina, enabling you to prolong your material manifestation. Gather five to complete the emblem, and thereby augment your strength."
This slice of health pie is on the critical path as soon as we enter the Sanctuary of the Clans. There are a couple more to find right now (like the one you saw in the combat tutorial room last time), alongside a special power. But with how the game is designed, I do not find it worthwhile to go treasure hunting just yet. The game is not hard enough to necessitate getting health upgrades as soon as possible and as with many metroidvania games, there are other upgrades next to the ones we can get that require even more abilities. As such, I put it off until I got a couple more upgrades.
The sanctuary is surprisingly small and really only features this oddly Egyptian room with the music to match. The pots back there work in a similar way to the rocks, only they can also be destroyed by the enemy, making their usefulness limited. We need to defeat a whole pair of Dumahim to proceed, but with the pools of water nearby, that proves to be a simple task. And as a reward for that battle, we get the best thing this series can offer us: A dialogue scene between Kain and Raziel:
Before we get into the actual scene, I would like to take a moment to discuss the Pillars and a minor epiphany I had. Here we see that the centuries of decay have finally caught up with the Pillars of Nosgoth and robbed them of their sky-piercing allure.
It it no surprise that Kain would choose this as the seat of his empire, the very symbol of his corruption. The thing I realized is that the Circle of Nine meant to protect them is probably a reference to Dante's nine circles of hell. It does not mean anything really, but the reference makes for good set dressing. Anyway, onto the scene!
[Kain]: The abyss has been unkind.
[Raziel]: I am your creation, Kain - now, as before. You criticize your own work. What have you done with my clan, degenerate? You have no right--
[Kain]: What I have made, I can also destroy, child.
"Damn you, Kain! You are not God! This act of genocide is unconscionable!"
[Kain]: Conscience...? You dare speak to me of conscience? Only when you have felt the full gravity of choice should you dare to question my judgment!
[Kain]: Your life’s span is a flicker compared to the mass of doubt and regret that I have borne since Mortanius first turned me from the light... To know that the fate of the world hangs dependent on the advisedness of my every deed -- can you even begin to conceive what action you would take, in my position?
[Raziel]: I would choose integrity, Kain.
This dialogue is absolutely delectable. In 9 lines, we have already established their now ruined relationship, while also reinforcing Kain as something more than a mere tyrant and Raziel's deeprooted hatred of him that sits together with his willingness to do what Kain would not and save Nosgoth.
On the topic of their relationship, I love how it is portrayed and developed. It has such a grand air about it, father and (adult) son, god and creation who spent centuries as master and servant, only for the latter to be gruesomely betrayed by the former. Having the protagonist be betrayed by the villain is one thing, but having him be betrayed by the protagonist-turned-deuteragonist does so much more.
Raziel despises Kain, but there is this underlying curiosity to his character that gives their interactions texture. He tries to understand Kain's motives, while also dealing with his lust for revenge. Kain on the other hand, is not interested in Raziel's perspective, only that he understands his own. It is great stuff and continues with the rest of the scene.
[Kain]: Look around you, Raziel - see what has become of our empire. Witness the end of an age. The clans, scattered to the corners of Nosgoth... This place has outlasted its usefulness -- as have you.
[Raziel]: The Soul Reaver, Kain’s ancient blade - older than any of us, and a thousand times more deadly. The legends claimed that the blade was possessed, and thrived by devouring the souls of its victims. For all our bravado, we knew what it meant when Kain drew the Soul Reaver in anger - it meant you were dead.
And so the titular Soul Reaver finally makes itself known, with more gravitas than it ever had in Blood Omen. This is because Dyack never intended it to be anything special beyond a cool magic sword (lifted from the Too Human project no less), but now Crystal Dynamic has decided to make it the centerpiece of the franchise alongside the Pillars. Quite the upgrade I must say, but sadly not enough to make this boss battle with (a now oddly ginormous) Kain anything worthwhile.
This battle is insultingly simple for such an important encounter. There is no puzzle element, you simply need to slash at Kain before he finishes charging a more focused variant of his lightning spell from Blood Omen. He teleports around the arena and if you do not catch him in time, he will instakill you, at which point you can just revive and continue until you have attacked him thrice.
Given the resulting scene of Kain effortlessly knocking Raziel on his knees with lightning, I fail to understand why this is even a fight. Unwinnable bosses are tricky business but there are ways of making them work. It does take an obscene amount of planning and design however, so I understand why Crystal Dynamics settled on this.
"The blade is vanquished. So it unfolds... and we are a step closer to our destinies."
[Raziel]: I swore I saw a glint of satisfaction in Kain’s eye when the Soul Reaver was destroyed. I did not understand the game that Kain was playing. But I knew the finishing move.
Elder God: From this moment and ever afterward, you and this blade are inextricably bound. Soul Reaver and reaver of souls, your destinies are intertwined. By destroying the sword, you have liberated it from its corporeal prison, and restored it to its true form - a wraith blade, its energy unbound. No longer a physical blade, it can only manifest itself in the material realm when your strength is fully restored. Once manifest, it will sustain you.
As before, the Pillars deliver us yet another banger of a scene, culminating with the unification of the two soul devourers. In truth, the game's title refers to them both and with Soul Reaver in hand, the gameplay loop is now completely defined.
Though probably inspired by the Master Sword from Zelda and the sword beams it gains when at full health, the Soul Reaver ends up less of a bonus reward for skilled play and more like a necessary tool that should always be sought after and sustained.
As the Elder God explained, it can only be manifested in the Material Realm when at full health, whereas in the Spectral Realm it is always available, meaning that any Sluagh and Wraiths are now an absolute joke, making death in the Spectral Realm extremely unlikely.
Having it in the Material Realm is very empowering, as it can not only put enemies in the waver state in a couple of slashes, but also comes with a built-in finisher that detonates your enemies in a shower of body parts just like its material counterpart did in Blood Omen. And if that was not enough, it even keeps your health from draining.
This again changes up the formula, making Raziel stronger than Kain ever was in Blood Omen as long as you can maintain full health. As soon as you eat a hit, it is back to being underpowered and needing to scrounge for some way to destroy the enemy, claim their souls and hopefully recover the blade. It is in interesting loop, only brought down by the erratic attacks of Raziel's foes, making it difficult to sustain the Soul Reaver for a meaningful length of time. At least for now.
"What are you, little soul? Another of Kain’s creatures, come to taunt this bound spectre?"
[Raziel]: I did not intend to disturb your rest.
[Ariel]: Rest...? A body is needed for sleep... Flesh and bones are required to recline. No, child, all I may do is watch, and remember, ceaselessly conscious as this wretched world’s history unfurls. Ghastly past, insufferable future, are they one and the same...? Am I always here?
[Raziel]: How have you come to haunt these Pillars?
"Kain refused the sacrifice."
[Ariel]: The Pillar of Balance, corrupted to its core, stands as a monument to his blind ambition. Now these pillars serve only to bind me here -- my prison and eternal home, thanks to the avarice of your master, Kain...
[Raziel]: That bastard can claim no allegiance from me.
[Ariel]: Then we share a common foe, Raziel. Return here when you have need. Ariel remembers what others have forgotten...
And just to drive the point home, we also get a quick follow-up scene with Ariel, who has remained cursed here at the Pillars ever since the dawn of Kain's empire. Whereas Raziel can still muster rage, Ariel is just tired of it all. Now all she can do is offer more flowery and obtuse guidance on where to go than the Elder God does, which is not very helpful, but I am glad she gets something to do, even in this version of the story.
With Soul Reaver in hand, the way to the next clan leader shall soon be opened. Until then, keep our current quandaries in mind like usual:
As always, Vae Victus!