Version tested: PlayStation 2
The Legacy of Kain : Soul Reaver 2 is one of the most disturbingly elaborate sequels I've ever encountered. After the events of the first game, Raziel has emerged from the Chronoplast time portal in his relentless pursuit of Kain, and returns to various eras of Nosgoth's past, confronting the mysteries of Nosgoth's ancient races and the secrets behind the corruption of the Pillars and the vampire genocide. Dimly lit memories of his past egg Raziel on and, as the game's literature puts it, his destiny comes full circle as his personal vendetta is transformed into a hero's journey, with the fate of Nosgoth hanging in the balance. Melodramatic to say the least. For those who don't know, Raziel is an ancient vampire, one of Kain's first brood. A former lieutenant to the mighty Kain, Raziel was eventually condemned after he dared to commit an unforgiveable transgression. For sprouting wings - a step which took him further up the evolutionary ladder than Kain - Raziel was punished with eternal damnation and all that, and dumped into Nosgoth's deepest lake by the wrath of Kain's remaining lieutenants. With much of his flesh burnt away and blue fire shooting from his eyes and mouth, Raziel found himself in the seat of the Underworld, where a mysterious god revived him. After being transformed into the Soul Reaver, Raziel emerged as an angel of death, galvanized by a hunger for revenge and the treacherous souls of his fellow vampires. And so on.
A New Beginning
Soul Reaver 2 has much in common with its predecessor. A bit over-furnished in the storyline department, it's the rich tale of a power struggle with all the trimmings. The game is played from the third person perspective, requiring equal skills in the areas of conflict and puzzle-solving, and runs to over twelve hours of gameplay all things considered. Although it feels the same at first, a number of subtle changes have been made to the formula. Like Raziel, Soul Reaver 2 has evolved into a greater being. Puzzles no longer consist of increasingly tricky block formations, but take on a much broader shape. New problems for the player to solve are extremely diverse, often using environmental variables like light and shadow. This time around they have an almost Half-Life-like fluency to them. As an introduction to the Kain legacy, Soul Reaver 2 is an excellent game. Players will gain much from a bit of past experience with the series, but failing that the Soul Reaver 2 disc also includes a few DVD-style extras, including the History of Nosgoth text, which will fill in a lot of the blanks. In keeping with the trend of recent PS2 games towards including bonus materials, there is a new preview feature on Blood Omen 2 amongst the extras, along with amusing out-takes from the game's voice actors. It's nice to see them screw up their faces in embarrassment at some of the lines too! The package as a whole reeks of superb presentation, and that's carried over into the game world. Enemies and puzzles are encountered at reasonable junctures, and slipping between the Real and Ethereal worlds is no longer as chaotic as in the first game, making the adventure a lot less hair-raising in places. That said, in places the game has gone from intimidating to pussycat. Despite facing countless hordes and running into some truly sticky situations, I can't have died and restarted more than a handful of times…
Death or Gory
Interface tweaks and engine tuning account for some of the rest of my favourite bits. Fear of getting lost is a thing of the past thanks to Raziel's compass and map, which can be an indubitable aid when you're wondering about that next objective. Controlling Raziel is fairly simple, but changes to his repertoire of moves deserve attention. Apart from the usual skills like walking, running, jumping, hovering, swimming and such, Raziel can also make use of any weapons that happen to be lying around. Weapons turn up all over the place, but the Soul Reaver itself remains with you at all times. It overheats after a while, which causes you to lose some of your health, so raiding corpses and plundering the undergrowth for a fresh supply of slaughter is never a bad idea. If nothing shows up Raziel can always resort to hand-to-claw, and he's quite capable of a little mortal combat. Fighting in Soul Reaver 2 is second to none. R1 targets an enemy and can be released and reapplied, allowing you to lay waste to anybody on the screen that takes your fancy. Once targeted, Raziel can circle and avoid his enemy's attacks by strafing. This advanced manoeuvrability allows him to appear all over the shop, confusing the attacker and allowing Raziel to land some serious blows. Compared to the relatively cumbersome original, this system is a godsend. Along with some of his larger opponents, Raziel is also capable of pulling off specialist moves, combinations and even the odd finishing move. Collision detection does its best to mar the otherwise exciting finishing moves, but you can't take the satisfaction out of a good decapitation.
Visually and aurally Soul Reaver 2 is as accomplished a PS2 game as I have seen. There is a not-quite-Metal Gear Solid 2-but-almost level of CG usage, but the story makes up the very core of Crystal Dynamics' game, which is more excuse for it than Kojima had. Excellent (if a little candid) voice-acting coupled with some truly stunning CG makes up for whatever annoyance its presence causes. What did you expect them to fill the DVD up with after all? After a stunning intro sequence the cutscenes don't die down, but reasonable load times make this a pleasant rather than unwelcome intrusion. Of course, compared to his PSX predecessor Raziel is a high-end model, boasting some 3,000 polygons along with the rest of the major characters in the game. The usually lightning fast framerate comes as a surprise, and it does a good job of accentuating Raziel's fetid state. Not since Silent Hill 2 have I encountered a game quite so gruesomely ornate. Particle and light effects come into play in a lot of areas and, combined with stained glass windows and water sources, fill the game with an eerie, if not occasionally vibrant, cascade of colours. The PlayStation 2 is hardly a texture monster though, and as such it does look a little worn in places. In large areas the framerate sometimes takes a hit too. One of the best looking PS2 games is also one of the best sounding. I've already mentioned the excellent voice-acting (with real, even recognizable, actors like Rene Auberjonis of Odo / Deep Space Nine fame), but the sound effects and music are something else. I can't even begin to describe it, but if anybody can design a score to fit a story of vampire genocide and preaching damnation, Crystal Dynamics can. Like everything else about this game, it contributes to an outstanding whole.
For fans of the original, Legacy of Kain : Soul Reaver 2 is a dream come true. It's amuch better game than its predecessor, built from the ground up with a strong story element, and although extremely linear in places, it's an adventure well worth partaking of, whether you're a grizzled veteran or a newcomer to the series. Although occasionally a bit too balanced, allowing the action to let up more than one might expect, and despite a sum total of no replay value, Crystal Dynamics have created one of the finest examples of a third person action adventure game on any system. If I had to choose between this and something like Abe's Oddysee, I know where I would be.
9 / 10