Legacy of Kain: Defiance (Windows)

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Written by  :  Diogo Ribeiro (340)
Written on  :  Feb 20, 2006
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars

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Defiant but not as one would expect

The Good

The ability to play as both Kain and Raziel is welcome. Various improvements to the combat system, with new abilities, combos and an overall more fluid control. General graphical and special effect update. Quality voice overs still present. Many of the series' past questions are answered.

The Bad

Camera is atrocious and often contributes to a sense of disorientation. Combat and puzzles are overly easy and only contribute to prolong what is otherwise a fairly short game. With one or two exceptions, both characters feel and play exactly the same. Many levels share the same design and feel repetitive. Music is mostly composed of variations of tunes which have been used before in the series. Very linear, and it also has the smallest gameworld in the series.

The Bottom Line

Defiant but not as one would expect

A long time sucking

Ever since the arrogant nobleman Kain took the chance to come back to life in the form of a bloodthirsty vampire to exact revenge against those who had murdered him in Silicon Knight’s Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen back in 1996, gamers have been drawn into the character’s dark tale. The plight of Kain to come to grips with his undead condition and to deal with the restoration of the Pillars of Nosgoth, the center of balance of the world, and the multiple machinations perpetuated by those that sought to control them has given way to one of the most popular videogame series, famous in so small part due to its seemingly endless plot twists and cast of characters.

One such character was developed for a title which took the series into a new direction. In 1999, Raziel, a former vampire inadvertently turned into a tormented soul-sucking wraith by Kain himself, was the star of Crystal Dynamics’ Soul Reaver. The game followed Raziel’s journey trough a Nosgoth corrupted by Kain’s decision of not restoring balance to the world, and his quest to take revenge against his former master. Raziel eventually confronted Kain but it proved useless, as the characters would endure much more before they destinies could be decided and the game ended with a cliffhanger. And even after two games later - Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 (2001) and Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2 (2002) - their stories seemed to be no closer to a resolution.

In 2003, Crystal Dynamics released Legacy of Kain: Defiance and with it aimed to answer many long time questions posed by the games’ intricate – and many would say convoluted – storyline, as well as finally revealing the destiny of all its major players. Defiance is clearly aimed at fans of the series and especially at several recurring complains made towards its gameplay shortcomings. Because of this, the game introduces some new gameplay mechanics as well as addressing some issues, but does it work as a whole?

Defiance it may have, but not as one would expect.

Will the real plot twist please stand up?

The Legacy of Kain series spans a centuries-old extensive storyline involving many different characters and situations, which is expanded in each new game. At his heart lie the chronicles of the vampire Kain and the wraith Raziel, two characters who have more often than not found themselves the unwilling pawns of greater forces at work in Nosgoth’s background. Further games in the series have exposed the struggle between the Vampires, the Hylden and one creature known as the Elder God, characters who have considerably manipulated everyone involved to such a degree that often some events won’t have an understandable result until several centuries have passed.

Plot progression in the series is generally detailed by the main playable characters during specific events, either as they appraise a situation or are engaged in dialogue with a supporting cast as they explore a dark fantasy land. The series has shown a considerable involving story, with a healthy combination of believable characters and their characterization as well as questioning the notions of fate and free will, but as the series advance it has caused some confusion among its followers. Since the story is largely built over elements of time travelling, dubious prophecies, and subtle machinations devised and executed by some characters, a game’s story can create events which will only be explained in a sequel or even make the characters live trough events which happened in a prequel but from different perspectives. This has made many fans question the continuity of the storyline.

Defiance does the hard task of answering many of these questions, including the resolution of the prophecies, and the destiny of nearly all characters involved as well of characters long thought to be gone. Long time fans will be pleased to know that nearly everything comes full circle for characters such as Moebius, Mortanius, the Elder God, and Ariel. Even Turel – the mysteriously absent vampire lieutenant from the first Soul Reaver title – makes a great appearance that ties him into the very first title of the series in a surprising way.

While Defiance is clearly aimed at long time fans of the series, it’s surprising to see there isn’t much done to fill in some new players to the series. While Soul Reaver 2 had included an introduction movie that condensed the events that happened in Soul Reaver, Defiance does not do this to bridge the gap between itself and Soul Reaver 2. Instead, it includes an introduction movie that does little else than the one used in Soul Reaver 2. There’s some dialogue along the game that clarifies matters a bit but it never feels enough. If they want to get up to date, they will have to read the manual. To their credit however, Crystal Dynamics have included a ‘Dark Chronicle’ option as in Soul Reaver 2, which will permit players to see trough any story-related movie or cutscene that they come upon in the game.

But while it’s true much of it will be answered by the end of the game, there will still remain situations which will be unexplained. To make matters worse, the progression of the narrative is generally slow paced but in the last moments of the game players are thrown many twists, surprises and general odd moments. Because of this, it’s questionable that Defiance will be the conclusion of the series some believed it to be.

The vampire in me is the vampire in you

Defiance’s main feature is set to please some long time fans, in particular those who have fervently expressed the desire to play as both Kain and Raziel. Throughout the span of the game, players will take turns controlling either one of them as they advance trough the levels. The gameplay mechanics are almost the same as past titles, with only the more basic ones still being present in regards to control or character skills. Kain can explore Nosgoth and go trough the game’s levels by use of unique skills. Raziel also has some unique skills but has one ability that is tied into his condition as a spectral agent. At any time he can shift into the Spectral Realm, a bleak version of Nosgoth which exists at its twisted counterpart. It is a realm of lost souls trying to adjust to their surroundings and escaping the vicious attacks of spiritual wraiths who try to consume them, and it also twists some constructions found in the Material Realm.

This is paramount to solving some puzzles and navigating some areas of the game which Raziel goes trough, as sometimes a path may be blocked in the Material Realm but may have an opening in the spectral version, a ledge may be only reachable as it is twisted into a lower position in the spectral realm, or an entity holding power over something in the material plane can actually be found in the spectral one. Also, Raziel cannot pass trough barred gates or similar impediments in the same way as Kain, who can pass trough them as mist; he must go into the Spectral Realm in order to pass trough them, and this often makes it so his levels take longer to finish because of this very mechanic. Shifting back to the Material Realm involves finding a conduit that will allow Raziel to teleport back; these conduits are scattered throughout the levels but sometimes may be guarded by strong wraiths. Kain on the other hand doesn’t need to do this but he will perish if he touches water while Raziel can deftly swim trough it. Another change to the gameplay is that Raziel now dies if all his energy is lost in the Material Realm, instead of being teleported to the Spectral Realm.

It’s unfortunate, however, that the main attraction of the game is also the one that comes out being the one that is less developed. For the most part, Kain and Raziel play exactly the same. Aside the aforementioned differences, nearly all else is the same. They can both climb walls with jagged textures, they can both leap and glide down to the ground below, they can both sneak, pass trough barred gates and broken windows, and use telekinetic powers to break walls or manipulate characters or objects (which for the most part will be clearly identifiable as breakable). However, Raziel’s ability to constrict targets or manipulate objects by running in a circle around them is gone, and so is his ability to crouch then jump to perform a higher jump. And Kain’s ability to momentarily possess targets or to perform high distance jumps towards unsuspecting targets or distant locations is gone as well; instead, like this is replaced with the ability to perform these long distance jumps between only in specific points highlighted with a red circle, and can only jump into predetermined platforms.

In the end, most differences feel superficial and it’s a shame that more wasn’t done to flesh out the uniqueness of the characters in terms of control, and that things that would further distinguish them were removed.

Nosgoth, why do you torment me so?

Kain and Raziel’s story in Defiance is played out in a series of levels which are mostly exclusive to each character, although some levels will intertwine. For story reasons which I will not spoil, Raziel will find himself thrust 500 years into Nosgoth’s past while Kain will start out exactly where Soul Reaver 2 ended, in a present day Serafan Stronghold. As the game progresses, Raziel and Kain will sometimes find themselves in levels where one or the other has passed previously but this has little if any ramifications other than superficial changes made to suggest the passing of time or someone’s presence. It would have been interesting to have the actions of Raziel in the levels which occur in the past to cause some impact in the places where Kain travels to in the present such as opening alternate or secret paths, but there’s almost no situations where this happens. When it does happen, it’s because characters need to progress and as such changes made in the past would have had a future consequence regardless. Perhaps having to deal with a similar concept for the Spectral Realm limited development time for this element to be further developed, but it’s a shame this wasn’t better integrated.

Even the concept of travelling trough time in Nosgoth, while initially appealing, isn’t executed all that well. It’s hard to believe that in 500 years Nosgoth shows little change in its vast landscape. You know you’re in its past and in its present mostly because you know each character is played out trough a unique time period. Shifting between the Material and Spectral realms with Raziel shows more changes to the gameworld’s landscape than this.

The first Soul Reaver and the second Blood Omen games made extensive, and some would argue boring uses of unnecessary environmental puzzles or key hunts to the point where it felt like they were simply there to slow down progress. Soul Reaver 2 considerably used less puzzles which in turn provided a better flow to the entire game. Defiance is a mixed bag. It features many situations where one particular important-sounding item must be found or one particular event must be triggered, which just leads to much backtracking peppered with some combat situations. But perhaps more damning is that these puzzles and combat scenarios are some of the easiest in the entire series, and it’s pretty disappointing that they sometimes feel detached from the game or do nothing but slow you down. Even Kain will have a couple of snide remarks about this very thing, which leads me to believe since the developers couldn’t get rid of pointless combat and puzzles then they decided to mock them. It’s also pretty bad when you stumble upon a particular situation and see it repeated many other times as the game progresses, such as statues that come to life once you activate something, or the need to light braziers in some order so you can keep going.

As players travel trough Nosgoth they will find collectibles which will give additional benefits to both Kain and Raziel. Health Talismans increase each character’s health for every three talismans acquired, while Telekinetic Runes increase the power of Kain and Raziel’s telekinetic powers. There are also Ancient Tomes which will unlock additional content in the form of concept and promotional artwork, 3D models and assorted info across all games of the series. Players who finish the game will also have access to a “Making Of” of the game, although this is largely comprised of the same previously mentioned material but exclusive to Defiance.

Reaver me this

As in previous titles of the series, combat has an important role. Throughout various parts of the game enemies will actively seek out characters and will try to kill them, and fortunately Defiance sports enough changes to the standard combat model that would easily marks it as the best system in the series were it not for some drawbacks. Gone from previous games is the ability to use the weapons of killed enemies as secondary weapons; this has mostly to due with the fact that Kain carries the Soul Reaver and Raziel’s wraith version of it no longer requires him to be at full health in order to manifest itself. Gone are also the characters’ ability to block incoming blows, which means you’ll have to use dodge and jumps to avoid blows instead.

One of the most noticeable change is that characters will gain further combat abilities the more enemies they kill. You’re told when a character acquires a new ability via a small pop-up window, and more information about it can be seen on a character’s status screen along with the necessary movements to pull it off. There’s a total of 5 abilities to be learned for both characters, and each has different uses. For instance, Kain’s Cadaverous Laceration will allow him to perform a flurry of stabbing attacks, while Raziel’s Phantasmal Tempest will have him performing slashing combos in the air which will hit anyone in its radius. These abilities, coupled with other standard ones such as dodging or using telekinetic blasts to repel enemies can make combat very satisfying and with a certain edge to it. You’ll often find yourself performing some quick and outlandish moves to dispatch foes, and the smoothness of the system just makes it all feel very intuitive. Unlike previous games in the series, combat won’t feel a chore in terms of control and you’ll likely hunt out for some enemies to try out newly gained abilities and combos.

Each character will also be able to forge their respective Reaver blades with various additional attributes. Among these are attributes such as Dimensional and Time for Kain’s sword, and Light, Fire and Earth for Raziel’s blade. A small bar will fill the more hits a character lands in combat and once it’s filled a special attack may be unleashed. With a charged Dimensional Reaver, Kain can land additional damage to surrounding enemies when he deals the last blow of a three-hit combo; whereas with a charged Fire Reaver, Raziel will be able to incinerate all enemies within the blast’s radius. Aside combat, some of these reavers will have other effects, such as the Earth Reaver which will create temporary stone platforms, and will also allow Raziel to become heavy and therefore able to walk underwater, while the Water Reaver will allow him to freeze an waterfall so he can climb it.

However, it’s far from being perfect.

The main drawback is that the combat abilities are exactly the same for both characters, with only their names changing. This was another opportunity to make them distinct individuals that was lost and with the exception of Reaver abilities you’ll rarely notice any difference in combat between them. Aside feeding habits, Kain still has a clear sadist nature to him, as seen when he laughs at an impaled victim or when he says his signature line “Vae Victus!”, but even these smaller touches are inferior to their original incarnations. There’s simply no “Vae Victus!” like the original. Some of the basic abilities also get reduced in importance. You can no longer use telekinesis to control an enemy in air into all directions, you can only hold him in position and either use that time to attack, or throw him into a handful of directions. Stealth is also downplayed since there are very few opportunities to use it; it could be useful to avoid pointless combat and just go by unnoticed in some level segments, but it won’t work.

Reaver effects are also mostly of predictable use in the game’s puzzles, and while they all have different combat effects their application is actually quite similar: whether you’re burning foes in an area with the Fire Reaver or pushing back and stunning enemies with the Air Reaver, the idea is always the same, to momentarily gain the upper hand or to slow enemies down. In this regard, Kain’s Reaver effects are much less than Raziel’s but are more varied in combat. Also, some effects come so late into the game that their use will be little and limited to a couple of obvious situations.

Enemy intelligence has taken a severe hit. One of the natural extensions of Kain and Raziel’s condition is their predatory hunger which means that at some point they have to feed in blood or souls. As was previously possible to do, they can attack an opponent until it is near death and then feed on it. In previous games there was some care required as enemies could interrupt this feeding and cause even more damage to a character with his guard down. Not so in Defiance, as enemies will not attack the characters while they are feeding off near death foes or performing a killing blow to them. This is just one of those situations that have no particular justification and end up having a negative impact on combat, especially in cases where exits in combat areas are closed until characters kill all enemies. What’s the point in this? There’s no sense of danger if Kain or Raziel can feed without enemy interference.

But perhaps the worst offender to the entire game that just ruins much of the experience is the camera. Simply put, this is the worst camera system in the series. Instead of using the standard camera mode, Crystal Dynamics saw fit to include a camera mode which attempts to give a cinematic feeling. This works well in scenes where appraisal of backgrounds can be done, but it’s terrible when players are exploring or are involved in combat. With the camera showing you the action from unlikely places you’re going to run into problems. Sometimes you’ll fight enemies off the screen, sometimes you’ll be attacked and won’t know where attacks are coming from. Sometimes the camera follows the characters from their front and the game expects us to fight enemies which are ahead of us. I found myself drawing enemies into areas where I could see what was happening otherwise my character would keep getting pummeled. It’s also a common occurrence to be pressing a direction to enter an area but when you enter it the camera has changed places and the button coordination is switched back, making it so the character will go back to the area he was in if you keep pressing the same button. This was one of the things that was painfully obvious they shouldn’t change – yet they did. Granted, there is an additional firstperson perspective but it’s only there to look at surroundings, not to navigate trough them.

Also, am I the only one to think that seeing characters jumping into the air and performing combos has more to do with a game like Devil May Cry or Dragon Ball Z than it does with Legacy of Kain? For some reason this seemed to evoke images of acrobatic and zany moves which feel somewhat cartoony and ouf of place in a game which has tried to take itself seriously over the years.

The coin is still turning

Defiance probably has some of the best graphical depictions of all the 3D iterations of Nosgoth, with very detailed constructions and decorations although there’s not much variety to locations; since most of the time both characters will go trough the same levels the quality of the textures and artwork loses to repetition. An example comes from ancient vampire ruins or the entrance to Reaver chambers, which are made up of the same basic renditions with only a handful of changes to texture and colors really making them different. The Spectral Realm is also very detailed with even more twisted paths and distorted chambers; wandering, afflicted souls are more lifelike in appearance and no longer generic energy forms floating about. It also uses a blur effect surrounding the scene which gives a sort of ghostly and spiritual feel to it, along with background voices giving off a sense of loss and despair. All of this combined has me believe this is quite likely the best vision of the Spectral Realm to date.

Characters and animations are also very adequate, and are often accompanied by nice touches – such as Raziel pulling souls out of dying enemies – which help it all come together, but for the most part character movement and combat is so fast you won’t be seeing the animations in detail. Graphics are of higher quality than past titles and there are some nice blur and particle effects as well. Although the standard higher resolution support is included in this port, some textures still seem a bit washed out and lifeless; you’re also likely to encounter console leftovers in the form of heavily pixelated trees. There’s also a surprising lack of polishing in some models’ textures which show pixels floating around some of their parts, though you’ll likely be too busy playing than noticing these things. Nonetheless there’s a satisfying amount of supported tweaking in the form of different resolutions, buffering and vsync options to name some.

Voice overs in the series have always been of high quality and Defiance is no exception, as it’s top notch and still succeeds in providing great fan service by recruiting previous artists to perform their roles again. Included are Michael Bell (Raziel), Simon Templeman (Kain), and Tony Jay (Elder God), and their work is still great. On the other hand, music doesn’t seem to get as much attention; while it does its job it’s mostly composed of reworked versions of past tunes in the series and strangely there’s no music in Raziel’s Spectral Realm. Sound effects are pretty basic as well.

There are also some collision detection problems. Sometimes characters will enter combat mode and face an enemy but the enemy is behind a wall or below ground. Other times enemies will get trapped into the background and won’t be able to leave it; if you’re fighting in one of those areas which has placed barriers on its exits until all enemies are dead, better load a previous save. And speaking of saves the PC port of Defiance uses checkpoints like the console versions which means that even if you save further down one level, a save will record all you’ve done but will have you start out from the last save point you reached. I also suggest getting a gamepad to play trough the game because you’re in for trouble if you try playing it with the keyboard.

Final Words:

I really wanted to like Legacy of Kain: Defiance, but it is a mixed title. On one hand it improves on the combat system trough the use of character abilities, combos and an intuitive control system. The story for the most part is gripping, the characters remain well defined, and the game is generally fast paced enough. The ability to play as Kain and Raziel is a welcome addition, and graphics are overall solid.

However, the good stuff is not good enough. Combat is incredibly easy and so are the puzzles, which just convince me more that they are only there to inflate playtime. The camera is very atrocious. With the exception of a couple of things, the main characters generally play and feel like the same. It’s also the smallest and most linear game of the series which wouldn’t be bad in itself except it’s littered with things that plague, rather than help, the series. Even the inevitable confrontation between both of the main characters feels much less than what it could have been.

In the end it’s a satisfying game experience which is worth playing trough at least once, but not one you’ll want to return to again after you’ve completed it. Go for a rental or a bargain bin price.