Soul Reaver 2 – PS2, PC

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This link takes you to page one of Finnegan’s Wake, a 1939 work by James Joyce that demonstrates both the limits of beginning a story in media res, and a depressing vision of what literature looks like after it suffers a massive stroke. I hope by drawing a comparison between a book that uses the term “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!” and Soul Reaver 2: Legacy of Kain, I will make it very clear how I felt about this game. “But Jake,” you ask, “Why play through Soul Reaver 2 when only a few weeks ago, you clearly did not like or finish the original?” I have a very complex response to that, involving the tendency of video games to improve upon their originals, but really, Anne gave me the game as a gift, so I had to play it. Kind of like inscribing “Homer” on the disc. She wanted to see it, but didn’t actually want to play it herself. Now I understand why.

So as I mentioned, you select “start new game” from the option menu and the game immediately expects you to understand the names of the characters, their back stories and motivations, game mechanics, the history of Nosgoth, macroeconomics, the depths of human psychology, the meaning of life and the true nature of the universe. Also I suspect a few lines of dialogue from the end of the first game would have helped out a little. I suppose, however, the game doesn’t quite deserve the comparison to James Joyce I previously made–the characters use English words with proper sentence structure and grammar, but the content of the text sticks together with all the cohesiveness of a thin film of pond scum. Characters–usually Raziel–tell the story through extensive internal monologues in an accent as authentically British as french fries. The writing carries a very refined sense of self-importance, sounding very lofty, as though an E. coli patient swallowed the King James Bible.

These things. They matter. Apparently. Also, watch Raziel float like a plastic action figure! No Deku leaf required!

These things. They matter. Apparently. Also, watch Raziel float like a plastic action figure! No Deku leaf required!

Customarily, I give you a synopsis of the story, but honestly, I have no idea. Soul Reaver 2 breathes life into the term “convoluted.” It opens with a verbal spat between Raziel and Kain. Then comes Moebius, who I assume we met in the last game, and whose name in no way indicates the cyclical nature of the plot twist or time travel. Themes of the sword–the Soul Reaver–seemed to spring up time and time again. I also picked up that Raziel somehow longs for his pre-vampire human form because of his former goodness and nobility, but–spoilers–he becomes disillusioned with himself after…witnessing his human self kill a vampire? Even evil Raziel mentions early in the game that vampirism “is a plague and had to be wiped out,” but somehow felt morally opposed to the persecution of vampires. Also they talk about some pillars. Apparently somehow these pillars broke and it bummed everyone out. No one ever bothered explaining why. Kain, the ultimate evil upon whom Raziel swore vengeance, skulks around like Smeagol, having pleasant chats with Raziel instead of fighting to the death. Also the Elder God, apparently Cthulu’s estranged cousin or something, appears every so often to have no bearing on the plot whatsoever.

Gameplay involves Raziel running through the Nosgoth, a magical land where every location connects to exactly two other locations adjacent to it. Raziel runs from one end of this course to the other, backtracks, travels through time, then runs through Nosgoth again. Along the way he walks past enemies who would otherwise take too long to kill, recites bland, lengthy monologues, and occasionally pushes some blocks or flips some switches, all the while spending hours and hours lost. In pitch black environments. While people may enjoy video games with “dark atmosphere,” developer Crystal Dynamics may have taken that term a bit too literally. To quote writer Amy Henning’s wikipedia entry: “She also feels that focusing too much on graphics can inhibit a game, saying that once game writers focus on creative expression, video games will greatly improve.” I agree wholeheartedly. But could you at least focus enough on graphics to give us, say, a wall or a floor. Maybe a flashlight, at the very least? People don’t understand how to use darkness and light. In real life, darkness scares people. You don’t know what lurks in the shadows. You have to rely on other, lesser developed senses. However, darkness in a video game usually means tapping buttons unresponsively while staring at a black rectangle and wondering whether you should make ramen for dinner or order a pizza.

No did I just find a door, or the floor. Or the ceiling. Or did I visit the night side of Pluto? And get this--the section I described in the post, even darker than this one!

No did I just find a door, or the floor. Or the ceiling. Or did I visit the night side of Pluto? And get this–the section I described in the post, even darker than this one!

Even better, the game sends you through an underwater labyrinth of caves where the Elder God dwells, utilizing a swimming mechanic that works as well as folding laundry underwater. So in a pitch black environment (with a handful of glowing rocks every so often), you have to navigate through hidden tunnels with a “jump out of the water” button combination that will send you shooting downward (or sideways) if you nudge the control stick even a smidgen of its zeroed axis. And even better yet, the game makes you do this three damn times! I guess they really wanted you to talk to Squidworth. You know, some deep-sea creatures have bioluminescent qualities….

Who lives in a cesspool deep down in the ground? Who turned all the lights off and cannot be found?

Who lives in a cesspool deep down in the ground? Who turned all the lights off and cannot be found?

Crystal Dynamics deserves some credit for fixing a few of the more obnoxious features from the previous game. For instance, you can kill enemies on your own now, instead of hunting around for a boy scouts with some flint to finish them off. Puzzles have also improved, albeit only slightly. If the first game said, “We gave you some generic video game stuff. Do it,” Soul Reaver 2 says, “We finally figured out how other games use these generic video game things. Now do that.” Except do them right, because not only did we not focus on graphics, we also didn’t bother fixing glitches. The game has a number of them, usually the result of failing a puzzle. At one point, I had to float from one side of a cathedral to another without dousing a torch in the pool of blood filling the room. I made it across, but couldn’t figure out what to do with the torch in time. Then the blood rose so high that it covered up everything I needed for the puzzle. I finally figured out that the game had done something wrong–not me–when I swam from one room to the next and fell to the floor, looking back on a room full of blood polite enough to not cross the threshold unless invited.

A save point. The game generously gave you two or three of them. Don't start playing unless you definitely have three hours to kill at a time.

A save point. The game generously gave you two or three of them. Don’t start playing unless you definitely have three hours to kill at a time.

A further improvement, the soul reaver sword doesn’t vanish when you get hit–although that doesn’t exactly make combat smoother. If you kill an enemy who has a weapon, the reaver will automatically equip you with that weapon, which all invariably have far less strength than your reaver, and which Raziel can’t use quite as quickly as his opponents can. So combat often involved me dashing for cover, trying to put down weapons so I could use the useful attack again. The reaver does also inhale enemy souls before you can use them to refill your life, but considering the massive amounts of health I lost while whittling my enemies away with a weapon only slightly more powerful than a bronze toothpick, I never saw any reason to not use the reaver. Unlike in Onimusha, where souls come straight to you when you call, like a faithful and well-trained Labrador, when Raziel calls souls, they act like cats, fat and sluggish, interested in the treat you have, but kind of lazy after the big meal they just ate.

Unfortunately, small tweaks that bring the game up from “beginner’s effort” to “uninspired” don’t really make the game worth playing. I found it tedious and frustrating–like when I encountered enemies shorter than Raziel’s waist. He swings his sword in waist-high horizontal strokes. Only. So I’d always have to lure these monsters to a hill or incline because my character, named for the Hebrew Angel of All Knowledge, couldn’t figure out the first trick that Link learns in every game. Then by the end, approaching the nearest thing the game has to a boss fight, they hand me an upgraded soul reaver that makes Raziel invincible. Totally invulnerable to anything. For the rest of the game. Yeah, I suppose the plot twist after the final boss did entertain me for about ten seconds, but seriously…why even have a battle if you can’t die.

I spent a lot of time looking for this guy. Raziel felt very close to him during the three minutes of screentime he has. This is him wonder why.

I spent a lot of time looking for this guy. Raziel felt very close to him during the three minutes of screentime he has. This is him wonder why.

With writing full of cliches like “this opened my eyes!,” stupid puns like “feel the pull of history” as some mystical force drags me across the room, and human enemies lobbing taunts learned in a night-school course on one-liners for minor characters in fantasy games, I easily grew bored. The relentless monologues put me to sleep and the hoity-toity language just sounded like a sophomoric attempt to sound cultured. At one point Raziel shouts out the phrase, “Spare me your elaborate metaphors!” Please do, Soul Reaver 2. Please do.

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Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver – PS1, Dreamcast, PC

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I knew it would come to this eventually. When I decided to play every game worth playing–and some not worth it, but nevertheless amusing–I made every effort to finish the game before I wrote about it. I couldn’t always keep that promise: some games have no real end, while games like Donkey Kong would require unemployment, a government grant, and ten years of having literally nothing better to do than jump over barrels in order to get to the kill screen. Also, Bubble Bobble kept crashing and Gauntlet just got boring after 64 virtually identical levels. But I knew eventually I’d find a game that would force me to quit just due to its sheer awfulness. A game with not only picture and sound, but a pungent aroma–probably of dead fish. As of tonight (and by “tonight” I mean November 5th when I actually wrote this), I have found that game. Ladies and gentlemen, if Satan himself handed me a clarinet carved from his own petrified shit using a reed soaked in Drano, I would rather play that then Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

Yep...spectral realm here. Not too much going on. Nice and blue, though.

Yep…spectral realm here. Not too much going on. Nice and blue, though.

Soul Reaver draws inspiration from arcane Hebrew myth in a way that makes God of War look as canonically accurate as Bullfinch’s Mythology. You play as Raziel, named for the Jewish Angel of Knowledge, God’s own version of Astinus of Palanthas, who records all knowledge and delivered a book of magic to Adam and Eve with the instructions to help them return to Eden. Naturally, none of that interested the designers, so instead they give us an anthropomorphic hoover vacuum cleaner. A former servant of Kain, one day Raziel sprouts a pair of wings. Kain passes up the chance to found his own personal Luftwaffe, and interpreting these wings as an obvious threat to his manhood, rips them off with his bare hands, and to add more injury to injury, drops you into a swirling lake of fire to burn for eternity. Eventually, an Elder God revives Raziel and empowers him to take his vengeance upon Kain, entirely ignoring the fact that the past few thousand years has reduced the world to a post-apocalyptic shit hole with no one in it but a few monsters and nothing to do except writhe in the agony of boredom.

Here we see light. Not sure what it means, but it broke up the monotony.

Here we see light. Not sure what it means, but it broke up the monotony.

If we can describe games like Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6 as “action packed” and Metroid or the Legend of Zelda as “adventure packed,” then Soul Reaver proudly sports the label of “unpacked.” Critics in the late 90s may have praised the game for its dark, gloomy atmosphere. Perhaps they wouldn’t have focused on the atmosphere so much if the game didn’t had any other aspects to it. Raziel runs through a sparse, open world much like a hamster dropped into a brand new maze. Everything looks the same; kind of a dull brownish-green, a lot of rocks, stones, dark sky and murky water. Large portals connect various parts of the game, but labels each one with an complex symbol and no text, handing you about half a dozen of these things straight off with no context for why any of these locations matter. Raziel could pull out a GPS unit, input a location, and the thing would shoot back, “Sorry dude. Even I can’t find this one.” I spent most of the game just looking for the next important location, running through a big empty world, trying to avoid the random enemy the game so graciously bestows upon us every so often. And to make matters worse, upon loading a previously saved game, you get to start from the beginning! Of the entire game! Good luck finding where you left off! I’ve come to grips with the fact that even accomplished players often have to consult a walkthrough, but when my time playing versus time reading ratio reaches 1 to 9, I figure I might as well go all out on the walkthrough and save myself some money on the electric bill.

Use this portal to exchange the green filter for a blue one, but blue filters make you too weak to turn a door knob.

Use this portal to exchange the green filter for a blue one, but blue filters make you too weak to turn a door knob.

The game’s core feature lets players shift between two parallel realities, the spectral plane and the material plane, kind of like the light world and dark world from A Link to the Past, if you never picked up the moon pearl and had to play as the bunny while in the dark world. In the spectral realm, Raziel can’t alter or interact with anything physical. He can’t carry weapons, open doors, push blocks, but he can walk on rickety platforms and survive underwater. Don’t get too excited about that, though; they rarely do anything with this. I imagine Soul Reaver’s developers as the kind of people who could stumble upon a huge supply of gold and use it to weigh down a handful of papers in their office so they wouldn’t blow around when they chucked the rest of the gold into the alley behind the building.

As if sliding blocks didn't insult us enough, they actually managed to make it more infantile by putting it on a track.

As if sliding blocks didn’t insult us enough, they actually managed to make it more infantile by putting it on a track.

Rather than use this shifting-between-planes bit in a way that made the game creative and fun, you get to…wait for it…push blocks around rooms to solve puzzles! Yes, apparently the dark ancient god has resurrected Raziel in order to perform the most nonsensical overused cliche in all of gaming. He will extract his vengeance upon Kain by…slightly reorganizing all his stuff. “Ha ha,” says Raziel. “Now you will come through here at night and probably stub your toe because I put this block in a different place!” Gloomy atmosphere aside, the game sounds like an Eddie Izzard routine. I’ll put up with sliding block puzzles once in a while. The Legend of Zelda often uses them quite well, forcing you to think, “Now why did they put this sliding block here? What can I do with it?” In Soul Reaver, I’d often find a block, and way on the other side of the room you’ll see a block-shaped hole. “Oh no!” I say. “How ever will I slide this block all the way across the room!” Unique to Soul Reaver, Raziel has a mechanic that lets him flip blocks over, which as usual utterly disappointed me in its failure to incorporate this in any way that actually makes this fossilized corpse of an idea fun.

Because apparently the developers forgot to make the game fun. Usually in a game that installed the crap filter backwards, a modicum of fun will occasionally slip past the net to break up the time consuming tedium of wandering around lost and rearranging the furniture, but even Soul Reaver’s combat refuses to relent. Apparently on his checklist of “bad ideas for vengeance on Kain,” the elder god also included, “not giving my emissary the power to actually kill anything.” Sure, you can poke the monsters with your claws or occasionally whack them with junk you find lying about, but that only stuns them momentarily. You can’t reave their souls unless you happen to find a staff to impale them with or a handy campfire to chuck them into. And no, the game does not provide you with them; after all, such entitlement programming might make you dependent on killing enemies. You can’t even damage the first boss: you kill him by running away and luring him into places to drop gates on him Rancor-style.

I need to take vengeance upon this guy? He looks like he should be trying to gasp out the phrase, "Kill me, please!"

I need to take vengeance upon this guy? He looks like he should be trying to gasp out the phrase, “Kill me, please!”

After the second boss, Kain, you get a sword, coincidentally named Soul Reaver–which leads me to think the developers built the entire game around a really cool sounding name, and then spent most of the project bickering over whether it would describe the protagonist or the weapon. You can kill things with the sword, but unfortunately it only appears when you have full health. Eventually I found myself unable to attempt a sliding block puzzle because of two monsters tag-teaming me. With no fire or sticks about, I could only switch into the spectral plane, reave some energy to fill my life and charge my sword, then return to the physical plane just to get whacked before I could deliver my own whacking. After repeating this cycle about ten times, I finally stunned a single monster; however, Raziel prefers a wind-up to the finishing blow that could fill the plot of two solid Dragonball Z episodes, giving the other enemy ample time to knock my health down, or if I targeted that one, it the stunned enemy had plenty of time to recover. After another twenty or thirty rounds of this, I threw down my controller shouting, “Fuck it! I will not play this game!”

And I finished Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So that should tell you something.