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.

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Evil Dead: Hail to the King – PS1, Dreamcast

Evil Dead Annie

Halloween inspires people to act like idiots. As far as holidays go, this one takes root and festers in more people than almost every other holiday.  It creates almost as many idiots as Thanksgiving, which exists to bring entire extended families together in a single house until they remember how much they hate each other and the courts have to debate the grayer areas of the definition of “premeditated.” All the while, it tries to recall Halloween’s suggestions for the more creative uses for a bread knife, can opener and turkey baster.  But while all the family holidays bulge with volatile anger, the horror-themed holiday pushes people to a different kind of idiocy. Namely, filming barely scripted movies on their iPhones, hoping to produce the next Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, and forcing the courts to debate the grayer areas of the definition of shit. Since Anne likes to burn through these movies like a chain smoker on a lunch break, I’ve seen more of them than I’d care to, but since Halloween demands my attention year-round, I thought I’d discuss one of the most horrific aspects of life on earth just shy of the GOP platform: a movie adaptation video game.

Bad Ash Evil DeadOkay, so strictly speaking I can’t call Evil Dead: Hail to the King an adaptation. It acts more like the Army of Darkness sequel that will never happen. Set eight years after Ash returns to his normal life–also the number of years between the last movie and the game’s release–the iconic swaggering hero still suffers from nightmares stemming from his cabin vacation. His new girlfriend, Jenny, suggests he conquers his post-traumatic stress disorder by facing his fears and returning to the cabin. You know, much in the same way that sending soldiers back into active combat or raping a rape survivor will cure them of their PTSD. Naturally, when they arrive at the Knowby cabin, Ash’s evil hand shows up, plays the professor’s recording of him playing the literary version of “Bloody Mary,” and all hell-on-earth breaks loose. Bad Ash jumps out of a mirror, kidnaps Jenny, then vanishes. Ash has to collect five pages from the Necronomicon. Begin.

If you didn’t see the films, that may not have made sense to you, but from a series seemingly written by an alzheimer’s patient with ADHD, Evil Dead has never really cared much for continuity. Hardcore fans will enjoy walking through the familiar layout of the cabin, swinging the chainsaw, maybe even wandering out back to the work shed. But after the first few minutes, you venture out into the surrounding woods. Which, as it turns out, have a much higher population density than the movies suggested. The pages have scattered around a moonshiners’ cabin, a boy scout camp ground, and a church, all within a few minutes’ walking distance from the isolated setting where the cast of the films had no hope of reaching civilization.

They're coming to get you, Barbara.

They’re coming to get you, Barbara.

You hardly venture a few steps from the starting point when the first monster attacks. Excellent! Monsters! The one thing that would make an excellent game adaptation, right? Well, the first monster rises up out of an interdimensional portal on the floor. Floating just off the ground, you come face to face with a flying torso ghost thing. Because who could forget, right? All those torso ghosts that Ash…hacked with an axe…in the movies? Get used to it. Johnny-haunt-lately here becomes the basic enemy for the game. The goomba. The octorok. The met (hard hat, for those of you unfamiliar with Mega Man nomenclature). Fortunately, fighting them almost never pays off, so if you can figure out how to run (with the ever-so-intuitive R1 button), you’ll live much longer. Otherwise, the game’s combat feels less like a system and more like trading blows. You stand facing it and hit it with either your ax or your chainsaw like a post-modern Green Knight, and the monster stands there and slices off your head like Sir Gawain. All in all, fighting one of these things usually takes about three minutes and five health items. They don’t go down easily. Sure, you get guns later on, but the game limits ammo and has no mechanic for aiming, so you just have to point yourself in the general direction and hope for the best. Early in the game, most enemies leave health items when they die, but this has all the effect of getting a box of band aids and an enema from the guy who gives you ebola.

Now if only I had some alternative way of getting through this door...

Now if only I had some alternative way of getting through this door…

So having mentioned the absurd play control, I should point out that Hail to the King shoots for the survival horror genre, imitating Resident Evil like an obnoxious little brother. It keeps all the most exciting moments, but skips over the finer details that actually make for a finely-tuned sort of stressful experience. Ash gathers items that he uses to open up new areas. Usually it doesn’t take much effort to figure out how to use them. The map for the game doesn’t have nearly as many locations as even RE’s Spencer mansion, so often you’ll find your keys right under the mat. Still, you need a few leaps of faith to bypass the usual flaws in survival horror puzzling; Ash approaches the door to the hellbilly cabin. “I can’t get in! The lock doesn’t open from this side!” I almost had to put down my ax and take off my chain saw arm so I could relax enough to figure out how to get in. (Rest assured, when I do an article on Silent Hill 2, I will say something about how James can’t reach the key on the other side of the bars, but doesn’t think to use his monster-whacking stick.) At the very least, I felt justified in playing this game if not for one puzzle near the end, which said, “A complex scale used to measure the specific gravity of six nearby materials.” Thankfully, the powerful cliche keeping the door locked proves no match for Ash’s (finally) direct problem solving approach–he blasts the scale with his shotgun and the door opens.

Fuck that shit. Finally I get to use my weapons creatively.

Fuck that shit. Finally I get to use my weapons creatively.

While it plays like an uninspired rough draft of Resident Evil that rushes you from boss fight to boss fight like it had a moral objection to down time, Bruce Campbell’s Ash saves Hail to the King from the piles of utter failure. The story revolves around a series of excuses for his swaggering, Army-of-Darkness bravado to take over, and the player even has a button dedicated to firing off taunting quips at the enemies. Bad sequels tend to rehash the same jokes, putting out more fan service than plot. If this game got one thing right, they built new dialogue around an existing character, and naturally Campbell knows how to bring out the finer nuances of cocky cynicism that turned Ash into the Beowulf of low-budget horror.

Oh yeah. They send him to Damascus. Did I mention he spends all of disc two in Damascus? Because that makes sense.

Oh yeah. They send him to Damascus. Did I mention he spends all of disc two in Damascus? Because that makes sense.

This game takes the trophy for biggest disclaimer I’ve ever attached to a recommendation. “You should play this game…if you really liked Army of Darkness or Evil Dead 2…and you didn’t have to pay much for it…and you don’t have access to a Resident Evil game…or Onimusha.” Despite its blandness, it plays well enough, and you can run through the whole thing in a few hours due to its boss-rush design, so it doesn’t require much of a commitment, and I do sometimes lament the fact that they don’t make any Mega Man-length games anymore. But if you have the choice this weekend, opt to see the Evil Dead musical instead.