Soul Reaver 2
A Soul-Sucking Tale
Possibly the most surprising aspect of Soul Reaver 2 is the storyline. While the dialogue is absurdly overblown at times, on the whole it’s a compelling, intricate and well-paced yarn that actually keeps you guessing. Each of the major characters with whom you interact appears to help and deceive you by turns, and there’s a refreshing lack of moral transparency at work. It’s commendable to see such robust storytelling in a game that’s essentially console-oriented.
The puzzles themselves are also extremely well constructed, if occasionally a little on the easy side, but there are more than enough variables to keep things interesting throughout. For a start there’s the plane-shifting -Raziel's capacity to move between the material and spectral realms at will. This device functions on several levels, and is just one indication of the expertise evident in the game’s design. Most significantly it’s a puzzle-solving tool, each major puzzle area requiring you to shift planes in order to take advantage of different abilities and environmental features available in each realm. But it also functions as a punishment for 'dying’ in the material plane, as life in the spectral plane is generally crippling to progress in and far less fun, as you can’t interact with objects or use physical weapons. Thirdly, of course, it’s a hugely aesthetically pleasing feature of the game, as shifting planes sees the environment morph fantastically around you in real time.
I'M Reaving Today
There’s also the eponymous reaver itself, a symbiotic weapon immutably linked to Raziel. The reaver can be imbued with a variety of powers (light, darkness, fire and air), adding another level of depth to the puzzle mechanics, as well as being Raziel’s most potent weapon. Refreshingly, the frequent combat in Soul Reaver 2 is rewarding in its own right, with a satisfying dodge-and-counter dynamic that makes battles consistently enjoyable.
There are countless other praiseworthy features that I could mention given the space, but instead I'll simply assure you that, generic in nature though it may be, this is still one of the most consistently entertaining and elegantly constructed games I have played in a long time. Indeed, it's among one of the finest action/adventures available on the PC.
Download Soul Reaver 2
Soul Reaver 2 in the third installment of a saga that started inBlood Omen: Legacy of Kain. And just like the first two installments, the plot here has more twists than a bag of pretzels. The saga started several thousand years before the opening of this installment, when our protagonist Raziel was the lieutenant of Kain, a powerful vampire who took power by corrupting the pillars of the world. After being cast into an abyss and mutilated beyond repair by Kain, Raziel awoke many years later to find himself transformed into a being that now survives on the soul energy of his foes instead of their blood. At the direction of The Elder God (who resembles a giant squid in a decidedly Cthulhu-like fashion) he sets off after Kain. At the climax of Soul Reaver, Raziel finally catches up with his former master, who escapes his wrath through the time streams into the distant past. Enter Soul Reaver 2, in which Raziel follows Kain into the vortex in his continuing quest to wreak revenge. Got all of that? No? Well, don’t worry. Soul Reaver 2 doesn’t assume that you’ve played the first two games and does an admirable job of filling you in on important pieces through narrative cut-scenes interspersed throughout the action. And if the cut-scenes aren’t enough, there's a very complete text-based timeline to fill in the gaps.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Soul Reaver 2 is a very involved and engrossing game. It’s part adventure, part combat action, part puzzle solving, and all fun. Many of the locations in the game are places first visited in Legacy of Kain, but with definite changes. The pillars in this era are uncorrupted, and the land of Nosgoth basks in the beauty and peace it enjoyed before Kain twisted the world. But the health of the land isn’t the only change -- locations that were present in the original PSX title have been updated and reworked to take advantage of the PS2’s more advanced capabilities. Shown from a third-person perspective, Soul Reaver 2 plays and feels almost exactly like its predecessors. The game is much easier to move around in -- a map option has been added to help you find your way around and the addition of an on-screen compass is invaluable. The map doesn’t give much detail, but it does help you figure out where you are and where you need to be going.
As you move through the world you’ll encounter two main obstacles: enemies to fight and puzzles that must be solved. The combat system is very easy to pick up, but complex enough to allow you to choose your own style of attack. In most fights you’ll want to use the "auto face" control, which keeps you focused on your current opponent. You can then attack with either quick jabs and swipes, or more powerful but slower attacks. You can also dodge, duck, and lunge at your opponent or throw weapons or blasts of energy at your foes from a distance. You’ll need to mix the attack modes, since your enemies learn from your attack patterns -- duck every time and they’ll soon start swiping at your feet instead of your head. Raziel still has the Soul Reaver, the mystical, ethereal blade that’s been bound to him and serves his will, but very early in the story it becomes changed, growing much stronger and more willful. The changes in the Reaver make it so that Raziel can summon it at any time, instead of at limited times as he previously could, but there is a price. When a foe is killed by the Reaver the blade devours the energy released, becoming more aroused and angry. If you use the blade to kill too often, too quickly, it will turn on Raziel and start destroying the soul energy he needs to maintain his own physical presence in the world. To succeed you will need to mix using the Reaver with attacking with hands or more mundane weapons you find or take from defeated foes.
The puzzles are complex, requiring you to move columns and blocks, line up mirrors, jump, climb, and make use of all of Raziel’s magical and vampiric abilities, such as gliding through the air with his tattered wings or shifting from the material realm to the spectral realm where reality is slightly altered. Often locations in the two realms differ slightly -- a ledge that's too high to jump to in one plane will be easily reached in the other or an impassable wall will become a staircase. You're also able to pass through certain barriers such as gates in the spectral realm, a handy trick that you learned back in the original Soul Reaver. Mixed in with the puzzle solving and fighting is a wonderful storyline that really makes the game worth playing. Told through a wealth of cut-scenes, Soul Reaver 2 has a plot that rivals any I’ve seen in any game. I do have one complaint though -- whenever I came to a cut-scene that I’d seen before, I was unable to skip it, but had to watch it in its entirety. This happened more often than I would have liked due to my other main complaint about the game -- its save system. Rather than allowing you to save the game at any point, you are limited to special save locations which are scattered much too rarely throughout Nosgoth. There are checkpoints frequently, but they only mark your progress while you’re actively playing. If you need to stop for work, food, or (gasp) sleep while playing you’ll have to start over from the last save point. While this type of system works well with action titles, with the more involved adventure style of Soul Reaver 2, it is very frustrating.
To tell its involved story, Soul Reaver 2 uses an abundance of cut-scenes. Many of them are fairly short, but there are several that are long and rich with lots of storyline. Raziel and the other characters and creatures you meet throughout the game are detailed -- most with over 3,000 polys. Add in their detailed texturing and smooth movement and animation and you’ve got a package that looks fantastic. The game also has plenty of eye candy in transparency and lighting effects. Lighting plays a particularly important role -- many puzzles rely on it.
With all the storyline behind the game, the quality of the voice acting in Soul Reaver 2 is vital -- and it more than meets the bar. The game is rife with well-known talent -- Michael Bell as Raziel, Tony Jay as the Elder God, Simon Templeman as Kain, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Rene Auberjonis as Aerial to name a few. And the involved story gives this talented crew plenty of chance to strut their stuff. The dialogue is elaborately gothic and the eloquent presentation of the story of Nosgoth is involved enough that it may try the patience of gamers looking for quick action. But for those looking for more depth in their gameplay it’s a more than welcome change from the standard fare found in most titles. In addition to the great voice acting, the folks behind Soul Reaver show they really know how to integrate music and sound to build and maintain a mood. The music is atmospheric, dark, ominous and even creepy, and the sound effects blend together into a seamless whole that works extremely well.
Overall, Soul Reaver 2 is a remarkable game. It features a rich background that’s used fully in the involved and intricate plot and has fantastic graphics, voice acting and music that combine to deliver Raziel's and Kain's story to the player. With this game, Crystal Dynamics pulls together the history of theLegacy of Kain universe and gives players answers to many questions that have been unanswered in previous titles in the series. The characters are all given greater depth -- even the villains in the series are more likeable by the end. If it weren’t for the frustration I found with the limited save capabilities and the inability to skip story sequences I’d already seen several times, I’d have rated Soul Reaver 2 much higher. If you liked the first two games in the series, go get the latest installment now -- you need to play it today.
Players who beat SR remember--and probably even griped about--its abrupt to-be-continued finale, which saw Raziel stalk after Kain into a star-swirling time vortex. Some gamers even cried conspiracy. After uncovering dialog sequences on the game's CD that they never heard during Raziel's adventure, cynics figured publisher Eidos and Crystal slapped an ending onto the already late SR and shipped it half finished. Lack of story development for the vampire lieutenant Turel supported that theory. The truth isn't so sinister. "The stuff we cut was the equivalent of the Silenced Cathedral level from Soul Reaver," Hennig said. "It would have been nice to keep that in, and all the denouement and character resolution, but there was just no time....We couldn't spend five years making that game.
It was just as well to do it in two parts. I just wish we had planned that from the start and had a more elegant cliffhanger. That's the only thing I regret. But for all those people who like to pick apart all the game's audio files and try to deduce what we were trying to do with the story, they'll be disappointed, because it's not gonna be like that at all."
Instead, SR2--which hits the PlayStation2 and Dreamcast in March 2001-takes a few of the gameplay elements originally planned for the prequel and drops them into a time-tripping story that picks up right where that game left off. Players start the game as Raziel, with all the abilities he earned last time, including phasing, swimming, scaling walls and constricting. He wields the Soul Reaver at the game's outset, except now he doesn't need a full health coil to whip out the blade in the Material Plane. The reaver is much more crucial to the gameplay this time around--by tracking down and dipping his blade into the seven elemental reaver forges, Raziel will gain the new abilities he needs to reach every area in the game (see the Reaver Rack sidebar for more details). The Glyphs, on the other hand, have been removed from SR2 entirely. In their place are spells Raziel must find to open certain portals and figure out puzzles.
Players spend SR2 chasing Kain through three time periods: one set before Blood Omen, during the prehistory of Nosgoth; a period right around the time of that game; and a period soon after. "We're not revisiting the destroyed wasteland world of Soul Reaver in this game," Hennig told us. "We're kinda going back to say, 'Well, the wasteland is unredeemable, but what can we do about the past to change that?'" The pillar area Kain used as his headquarters in SR serves as the central hub of all three time periods, which offer new types of terrain and locations such as swamps, forests and cities (a new on-screen compass will help save you from getting lost).
According to lead animator James Guilford, SR2 will pack many new vampire types, as well as much greater variety of human NPCs and enemies. You'll encounter catlike vampires, hunters clad in stylized swashbuckling attire, the Sarafan warrior priests, vampire- and demon-worshiping sects of humans and other creatures similar to the undead minions and extra-dimensional demons that plagued Nosgoth in Blood Omen. Combat will work pretty much the same as before; Raziel needs to pummel enemy vampires into submission, then do 'em in with a fatal feat such as impaling or hurling them into water--except now he'll encounter hardier vampire types invulnerable to those old-school finishing moves. The skeletal Thralls you face near the start of SR2, for example, don't go down when you run them through with a spear. Fortunately, the designers are expanding the combat system to include more types of fatal moves. Some enemies can only be dispatched by decapitation, some are only vulnerable to weapons made from certain materials, etc.
Hennig is still keeping SR2's story a guarded secret, but you can expect key characters from Blood Omen and SR to appear in the game. You'll see Kain and the Elder, of course, as well as Moebius, Ariel and missing-in-action SR2 lieutenant Turel. Raziel will also run into characters from Nosgoth's past, including Vorador and the Sarafan. "What we're doing is reinvesting in the mythology of the original Blood Omen, as well as how it all ties into Soul Reaver," Hennig explained. "Our last game was more peripheral for all sorts of reasons, but now we can really get in there and roll up our sleeves and get back to the mythology, and it's going to be really important for this game and future games that people get familiar with it."
Of course, you're gonna need the newest hardware to follow along. Crystal recently announced that SR2 will only be available for Dreamcast and PS2. Although the game was originally supposed to be a PSi title, the team's now ramping up the engine to take advantage of the slicker--and, they believe, more lucrative--new machines. "The impression we're all getting is the PlayStatiom market is dying a quicker death than anybody thought," Hennig said, "and whether that has to do with the readily available CD burners and the fact that people are just renting games rather than buying them, who knows. It just doesn't seem like it would be as financially sound as we'd hoped. And obviously, for what we wanted to convey with story and architectural richness and character detail, this new hardware gives us so much more creative freedom."
Not a single member of the SR2 team regrets the decision to move on to the newer hardware. "When we were making Soul Reaver for the PlayStation, it got to the point where we were afraid to add code," lead programmer Marc David told us. "We would add code to support some feature, and then we would have to spend some time removing code from other places and shrinking it. Our memory was so tight. But now we have more memory and can push more polys. The game experience will be much richer."
"And the other really important thing is the frame-rate," chimed in programmer Jason Bell. "The PS2 and Dreamcast versions will run at 60 frames per second. That's one of the reasons the DC version of Soul Reaver looked so much nicer than the PlayStationi game. It played so smoothly." Programmer Scott Krotz added, "Plus, we're going to get into the PlayStation2's vector units. We'll have antialiasing. We're going to push the hardware. We have a lot of experience with that."
But while the programmers tweak SRz's engine for the Dreamcast and PS2, it's ultimately up to the texture artists, animators and mesh builders to make the game shine on the new hardware. "When we worked on the first game for the PlayStation, it was, like, OK, here are all your restrictions," texture artist Matt Mocarski told us. "Now we can do whatever we have time for." Every member of the game's art team stressed to us again and again that SR2 will look much better than the screens you see here (these shots were taken from a version the team started building back when the game was going to be a PS title). The programmers are now in the process of revamping the game engine to take advantage of the new systems' boosted horsepower. We're told to expect a 150 to 200 percent increase in detail in the final Dreamcast and PS2 versions. Monsters will be built from at least twice as many polygons as before. Raziel's character model will be beefed up by about 1,000 polys. Textures will be higher-res and in 16-Bit color. The environments will teem with ambient critters, little animals like dogs, rats, snakes and birds.
In the end, though, it's not SR2's visuals that the team is most proud of--it's the puzzle system. "We fell back on the block puzzles too often in Soul Reaver just because we didn't have enough tools to make more creative puzzles," Hennig explained. "But the cool thing about this game engine is it's been more and more generalized so the creative power is in the designers' and artists' hands now, as opposed to relying on the programmers. The designers can think up a puzzle and just make it, because the pieces are all there. We don't have to make special-case requests for the programmers to hardwire anything anymore." You'll find puzzles in SR2 that require a lot more exploration and attention to your surroundings. You'll need to examine murals on the walls for clues. In an early level, for example, you'll see a painting of an obelisk blocking the sun. Look nearby and you'll find an obelisk and a giant reflector, which you must rotate to catch sunlight. Pulling the obelisk in front of the reflector creates a magical shadow bridge you can traipse across to reach a new area.
Raziel can haul around more than just spears and torches in SR2; he'll often need to carry items from one area to another, thus completing lock-and-key-type puzzles. And since Raziel can't carry physical objects in the Spectral Plane, many of these puzzles require you to invent novel ways of carrying something from point A to point B. "We want players to look around, remember stuff, think about what they're doing and deduce the relationship things have with each other rather than just plowing through the game," Hennig told us. "You're gonna have to use your brain." Ultimately, though, SR2 is still early in development, and Hennig emphasized that some of the gameplay elements covered in this feature may be modified when the game hits next March. But Crystal still has plenty of time. The team has already learned the hard way what happens when you try to cram too much into a single game. And they plan to make SR2 much more than just the conclusion to the first game's cliffhanger. Crystal Dynamics wants Kain and Raziel's universe to fuel an ambitious franchise; this game-more so than its two prequels--will set the stage for all things to come. "This isn't sloppy storytelling," Hennig said. "We're spending a lot of time making sure we're paying attention to the consistency, and I think fans of the series will appreciate that."