Over the course of the 1990s, the horror genre went through something of a reawakening. The Goth subculture of the late 80s had grown so large that by the mid-90s it was influencing the mainstream. In computer games, a landgrab was happening as new creators jostled to feed the public hunger for horror. 1999 was an incredible year for horror games. So we come to Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver by California-based Crystal Dynamics, is my favourite game of all time.
A technically and aesthetically outstanding action game about vampires, with a moody, synth-goth soundtrack by The Information Society’s Kurt Harland. Crystal Dynamics were hitting the cultural nail on the head. This was a moment of peak cultural convergence.
The roots of Soul Reaver: Blood Omen and Shifter
After publishing supernatural platformer Pandemonium and vampire RPG Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain, Crystal Dynamics stepped down from publishing to focus squarely on games development. They acquired the rights to Pandemonium and developed the sequel in-house, adding unlockable powers, upgradeable health and boss puzzles. Shortly after, Crystal Dynamics developed Akuji the Heartless – a supernatural horror game where the protagonist is betrayed and murdered in the opening act. By the time Soul Reaver went into production, CD had a pretty solid hold on where their strengths lay. As they’d done with Pandemonium, this time they had designs to create a sequel to Blood Omen.
Leading up the design was Richard Lemarchand. He’d been senior designer on Gex, Pandemonium 2 and Gex 2. Writing, design and production was undertaken by Amy Hennig, who had been with CD since 1996 and had helped to manage Blood Omen. Hennig had been working on a design document for a game she was calling Shifter, where the main character was a fallen angel, betrayed by his brothers. Shifter would see this fallen angel shifting between different planes of reality as he tracked down and killed his brothers. This was exactly the kind of broody stuff Crystal Dynamics were looking for, so asked Hennig to merge this concept with the groundwork already present in Blood Omen. The angels became vampires and Bob’s your uncle.
In the opening cutscene we see our main character Raziel, his vampire brothers and their leader, Kain. Kain is the king of the vampires and a total badass. He and his vampire army have hunted mankind to near extinction, keeping them alive as a food source. For reasons I don’t need to go into here, Raziel ends up betrayed and murdered by his brothers. But instead of dying, Raziel is brought back by a Cthulhu-esque elder god which resides far below the world. The elder god tells Raziel that vampires are a blight on the world of Nosgoth and so Raziel is given the opportunity for revenge against his brothers and his former master. Raziel soon finds out he’s been gone for several centuries. Nosgoth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The vampire clans are now mutated monsters. Reduced to infighting, cannibalism and retreating to their clan strongholds to better defend themselves from each other. To his utter disgust, Raziel finds out that it’s not just them who are changed.
I want to say right away that the story is probably the number one reason I love Soul Reaver so much. I also think it’s really important to say that when I first played it, I’d never even heard of Blood Omen, let alone played it. I just thought “Wow, what a lot of worldbuilding”. Soul Reaver is set 1500 years after the events of Blood Omen, and I can honestly say you do not need to have played it.
The Soul Reaver review
On the surface, Soul Reaver looks like your run of the mill dark fantasy melee combat. But out the gate we’re hit with the first major gameplay pillar which helps make it unique: shifting. In order to better serve him, the elder god gave Raziel the ability to shift from the world of the living to the world of the dead and back again. It’s as spooky as it sounds, with Raziel shifting from dead, empty cathedrals in the material realm to find them teeming with angry ghosts in the spectral. It’s not just a narrative conceit either. Raziel’s ability to shift between the physical and spectral realms forms part of the core gameplay loop.
The differences between these two realms forms part of the puzzle-solving experience. Doors can be opened and switches can be thrown in the physical realm. But nothing moves in the spectral. Time doesn’t pass, water has no substance. The spectral realm is a distorted mirror of the physical, with parts of the game only accessible after shifting between realms. Twisting and mutating the environment in realtime might not seem particularly impressive now, but Crystal Dynamics were flexing some impressive tech for 1999.
Another unique part of the Soul Reaver aesthetic is that Raziel’s vampire bloodlust is replaced with a hunger for souls. In a practical gameplay sense, Raziel’s health constantly drains when he’s in the physical realm and the only way to keep it topped up is to keep the player actively fighting and eating the souls of defeated vampires. The combat is pretty shallow in terms of movements and combos, but the range of environmental finishers gives the player just enough to enjoy the early stages of the game. Keeps them moving forward. Straddling the worlds of the living and the dead means there’s no penalty to dying anyway. Losing all his health in the material realm will drop Raziel into the Spectral. And as this is opposite land, his health automatically increases over time and he can soon pop back into the physical world to fight some more.
As I’ve mentioned, the vampire clans in Soul Reaver have evolved over the centuries into specialised forms, each clan taking on unique characteristics. The designs and of these evolved vampires are all masterfully realised. Each one is recognisable at a glance and the character animation and sound design is quality. The spider vampires are so damn creepy! Historically, Nosgoth’s vampires all suffered from the same traditional weaknesses associated with vampires. But as each clan has evolved on their own path, they’ve gained new strengths and some have become immune to these weaknesses. Each clan’s territory then reflects their unique abilities. The Silenced Cathedral with its sheer walls and turrets is the perfect fortress for vampires which have evolved to climb. The Drowned Abbey is the perfect hideout for aquatic vampires. Thematically this is good but also gives the level design variety.
Once Raziel has fought and puzzled and platformed his way through their lair, the clan’s leader serves as the end of level boss. Each one of these vampire lords is a masterclass in monster design. A fully-realised vision of a fish vampire, a spider vampire. Once you see Melchiah, the game’s first boss, who is this horrid construct of dead bodies, you know you’re in for a treat with the rest of them. Fighting the bosses rarely relies on combat alone. There’s usually an element of puzzle solving. Each encounter feels unique, reinforcing the strengths and weaknesses of each clan. Once Raziel has defeated one of his brothers, he then drinks up their soul and gains their unique evolved abilities for himself. Soul Reaver’s core loop is so beautifully realised. It resonates thematically with the vampire theme and it still feels so internally consistent.
As I can’t find ANYWHERE better to put this in the review, I’ll mention here that about 20% of the way through the game Raziel acquires a magical sword called the Soul Reaver. That’s not a spoiler, it’s on the case. Kind of a spooky lightsaber permanently grafted onto raziel’s arm, the Soul Reaver eventually becomes one of the central parts of the mythology. From a gameplay perspective, the Soul Reaver renders all mundane weapons moot. It also maintains his life force too.
You can’t take on your brothers in any order as you’ll need a certain skill before you can enter each kingdom. You are funnelled into a pretty linear progression through the game, but it makes sense and doesn’t feel like you’re being railroaded.
There are some regions of the map which are entirely optional, so exploring and experimenting with Raziel’s new skills is openly encouraged. The human citadel is rendered entirely optional due to huge amounts of content which was cut from Soul Reaver during production. The Citadel was originally intended to have a human priestess boss who would give Raziel the ability to possess humans and vampires, but everything was cut. The human citadel is now just an empty, sad castle filled with the remains of the human cattle. Ironically, the human citadel ended up feeling extremely cool because of this. It’s atmospheric and lonely, causing my imagination to do a lot of the worldbuilding.
Soul Reaver’s ambition
There is a lot of voice work in Soul Reaver, especially for 1999. I don’t remember a game before this which had so much voice acting in it, and I’ve played precious few since which stand close to the quality here.
Michael Bell stars as Raziel and his delivery is spot-on. It’s such a strange and nuanced role but he plays it completely straight, fully embracing the character. Simon Templeman previously played Kain in Blood Omen and he flawlessly delivers Kain’s menace and hubris. The shining light of the entire production is the late, great Tony Jay. His incredible baritone voice made him perfect as the Elder God. There’s a mysterious air to his performance, you’ve never sure if Raziel is in the employ of a benevolent god and Tony plays that beautifully.
The rest of the modest voice cast is made up of Anna Gunn, Richard Doyle and Neil Ross. It was still uncommon to have any voice acting in games in 1999, and for the time the assembled cast is absolutely astounding.
Is Soul Reaver still worth playing?
Crystal Dynamics utilised sophisticated methods to tell a high quality horror story at the time the market wanted it. 1999 was the year horror films like The Mummy and The Blair Witch Project were wrecking the box office. Soul Reaver was the right game at the right time.
Soul Reaver’s combination of exploration, combat and puzzle-solving with strong horror themes was cast a boilerplate. It’s easy to argue that games which followed like Castlevania, DMC, Darksiders and Bayonetta all owe a small debt to Soul Reaver.
At the time of writing, Soul Reaver has been pulled from Steam but the game is still present on GOG. If I were you, I would emulate the Dreamcast version. You can run it in 4k at 60fps and it support analogue pads out of the gate (something the PC port doesn’t do).
Soul Reaver is a captivating look back into late 90s culture. The quality of storytelling and the sincerity of execution is unmatched for a 1990s horror game. This is my favourite game of all time and I’d recommend it to anyone.