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Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 (Windows)

81
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3.9
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5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  Dr. M. "Schadenfreude" Von Katze (590)
Written on  :  Aug 21, 2003
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.43 Stars4.43 Stars4.43 Stars4.43 Stars4.43 Stars

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Summary

Continue Raziel's journey into the deep secrets of Nosgoth's history... when perfection gets even better.

The Good

First of all, if you're like me, meaning that you really care about storyline above everything else, I totally recommend you to start the series from the very beginning, the first BLOOD OMEN.
Of course, it's a very old game, totally outdated, and possibly quite hard to come by. On top of it, it needs an unofficial patch in order to run in WinXP... I did all that and I played the game anyway, but if you haven't got that much patience, at least you could go HERE and HERE to find out some background on the series' plot.
Finally, whatever you decide to do or not to do, I would STRONGLY suggest you to play the first SOUL REAVER, since Soul Reaver 2 is a plain follow-up to the first game. The pre-rendered intro cutscene is in fact a re-make of the last 15 minutes of gameplay from the first game, and right there we pick up and start this one.

The legend tells that the first SOUL REAVER was a delayed game, and that it was ultimately released by pressure of Eidos (the publisher) when it wasn't yet completed. Crystal Dynamics decided to cut the game in half, giving us an open —WIDE open— ending. This got some people pretty angered, since after all those hours of kick-ass gameplay, and right when the plot would begin to unfold, they met a dissapointing 'to be continued'.
Someone even said (and very accuratedly) that the game doesn't end, it just stops.
However, looking back I feel that Crystal Dynamics made the right decision. Not only the already awesome SOUL REAVER has an amazing continuation in a technically beautiful full DirectX 8 compliant game (more on that in a minute), but also both games are rock-solid rounded up products. Watching as how other developer groups decided to face thier publisher's deadlines pressures —namely, Core Desing with TRAOD— one has to admit that Crystal Dynamics made the right choice.
I prefer two good half-games before one big insanely buggy piece of software crap.

Plot-wise, the first game sets us in the land of Nosgoth, thousands of years after the vampire Kain destroyed the remains of the Circle of Nine, wiped out the Sarafan armies, and established himself as an emperor. We knew the story of Raziel, firstborn of Kain's lieutenants, who has been punished for developing wings before his master, and cast into the abyss. Raziel was resurrected right before his body would be completely decomposed, and given the mission to kill Kain and his vampires, in order to free their undead souls and bring back the balance to the Wheel of Fate. This would of course also grant him the possibility of taking revenge against his former master and brethren. His old vampiric skills and blood thirst have been replaced with new skills —among which count the ability to shift between the material world and the spiritual realm at will— and the hunger for souls.
Raziel would take down one by one his old brothers, and finally meet Kain in a time-streaming chamber, a place from which one could travel to whatever time he wants. After a short-lived fight, Kain will exit through a time portal with a mysterious sentence: 'this is not where, or how, it ends...' Raziel follows him into the past, meeting on the other side one of the Nine Guardians of the Pillars of Nosgoth, Moebius, the Time Streamer, who would adress to Raziel as 'destroyer, redeemer, pawn, and messiah' and greet him welcome to his 'destiny'.
And thus, Soul Reaver 2 begins.

Soul Reaver 2 is slightly different from the first game in several ways.
First, the time portal Raziel passed through following Kain, took him thousands of years before the first game, to a time when the forest were still green, the waters were transparent, the sky was blue, and the world vibrated animated with life. The Nine Pillars were still standing in all their majesty and purity, and the armies of Moebius were following the Sarafan tradition in a successful hunting of the 'undead scourge' that the vampires represented. However, things are just about to get ugly, since Raziel arrives the same day that Ariel, Guardian of the Pillar of Balance, was murdered. The day that the Circle of Nine started decaying with madness, and the very day that Kain is born to human life.
Soul Reaver 2 will show a very calmed Kain that might not be the foul villain we thought; an intriguing Moebius that seems to have some hidden agenda in which he involves Raziel; a much less-powerful-looking Elder God about whose true part in all the drama there will start rising doubts; a much more mature and wise Raziel who will learn that nothing is what it seems, and will have to embark in a long journey to the past, the future, and even further into the past, in order to unravel his very important part in Nosgoth's destiny, daring to question everyone who has crossed in his path like he never did before; and LOTS —LOTS— of amazing plot twists.
Along this second part of his journey Raziel will also meet a few other important characters like the old vampire Vorador from BLOOD OMEN and the legendary —and even older— Janos Auldron.
As always in the series, the storyline is so complex and FULL of events, that you can rest assured that you won't walk more than 5 minutes before you found another important piece of the puzzle.

The game is technically gorgeous. I love when a game takes full advantage of the API in which it's based, and Soul Reaver 2 is a lesson on how to implement the DirectX 8. Impressive poly count, huge environments, beautiful lighting effects, high resolution textures... you name it, it's all there.
There are lots of in-game-graphics cutscenes, in which the expressions of the characters when talking are nothing short of impressive, they count among the most lifelike I've seen in any game so far. This is specially true in the case of the dramatic Moebius, and maybe even more in Raziel. In case you don't know, Raziel only has half a face (an almost-skinless half skull in fact), and it's hidden by a cape, leaving only his eyes uncovered. Nevertheless, they managed to make those eyes so expressive that Raziel takes a life in his dialogues like you wouldn't imagine. Comparing this to other games (like the awfully inexpressive characters of AITD4 who wouldn't even move their lips, and even the technically higly-hyped SPLINTER CELL), this crowns Crystal Dynamics as a master in the field.
There are thousands of small details to pay attention that show how incredibly much the developers cared about the atmosphere, specially in the beautiful all-living forests of Nosgoth's past. The scene when Raziel comes out of the Sarafan stronghold and sees this land in all its beauty for the first time, is just breathtaking, and it just HAS to be seen.
The list goes on and on, there are 'great small things' all over the place. When Raziel steps with one foot higher than the other, like in a staircase, his legs will actually position themselves according to the height difference. Weather-wise, we have just everything: fog, sunshine, nocturnal storm, snow; actor-wise, we have birds, fish, insects...

The character graphics are magnificent. Not only the poly count takes full advantage of the DirectX 8 hardware and the textures are as detailed as it gets, but the design of the creatures is way better than it was in the first game. Of course, there is not much to be done about the human enemies —who are by the way most of the population of the game, unlike the first game, where they were almost all vampires— but at a point of the game there will start to appear some demons, which are really scary, starting with their HUGE size, the ferocious appearance, their fighting skills, and at a point they start talking with a menacing and disturbing voice.

Kudos to Crystal Dynamics once again about the fact that all this impressive package comes at almost no performance cost:
First, I ran the game with a Radeon 9000 (the lowest range DX8 graphics card, must be around 70 bucks in the US, as of August 2003) with ATI's Anisotropic Filtering x8 and Antialiasing x4, and in-game's Sharp Image all the way to 20, at a 1024x768 resolution, and the game runs incredibly smooth. I didn't find any built-in benchmarking method, but I dare to affirm that it's running easily over 35 fps or maybe more, since no fast-camera-movement nor actor-crowding of the screen nor anything else seems to affect framerate at all.
Second, as it also happened in the first game and some other reviewers pointed out while I passed by (my bad), the game doesn't load! ever! I fail to imagine how the hell did they do it (I don't know a thing about programming, to begin with), but you get to play the whole game through and rest assured that the time you spent is pure gameplay, you won't face a loading time of more than a fraction of second anywhere. This is specially amazing when shifting between the material and spectral worlds, since the whole lighting, the colours, the actors and even the SHAPE of the world are DRAMATICALLY changed. The game just seems to load object on the fly in some kind of God-knows-where-hidden buffer, or maybe taking advantage of some not-playing moments, like the (brief) animation when you open a door... I don't know, I just know it works, and it works amazingly well.
Looking at almost every other game in the market, with their annoying (sometimes INSANELY annoying) 'loading' screens this is easily brilliant and unmatched, and most developers out there should really think of taking some classes with these guys (Core Desing, anyone?).

Once again, the sound dept. shines with its own powerful light.
All the voice actors that fans of the Legacy of Kain series already love are back with all their great acting and awesome-sounding voices, to bring life to more of the classic smart and sharp dialogues we already know and love. In this case, the first-ever-seen detailed facial animation gives a whole new dimension to the dialogues.
In this regard, Kain remains my favourite of all times, and in this game he seems specially inspired, with a couple of metaphors I just felt tempted to write down and start using right away myself.
The music once again does an awesome job joining the action, with some tunes that really outstand. I personally love the beautifully dark title track, and I often just leave the options menu on just to listen to that music.

The game is basically, like its predecessor, a third person perspective action/patform game. However, several changes have been made, gameplay-wise.
Since Raziel basically completed his 'quest for revenge', we have no boss fights, and the 'levels' are divided in a rather different way: we will learn that the Soul Reaver (Raziel's symbiotic sword) is much more than everyone thought it was, and that there are four Ancient Forges throughout Nosgoth which can imbeeb the 'blade' with the power of elementals: fire, air, light, and darkness (I know, those are not the elementals, but then again this is another world, who knows). By gaining each one of those powers, the Reaver will give Raziel the possibility to open his way into formerly unaccessable areas, thus moving forward in the game.
On the other hand, this also means that once again we will be walking back and forth through the same map several times. Luckily, the time travels we are also going to make will grant us that the environment will change enough as to make the journey entertaining to the eye.

The puzzles have been reworked, there are no more block puzzles to begin with; just a few jumping puzzles, which are so easy that they can hardly be called puzzles; and the ACTUAL puzzles are about taking advantage of the structure of a —usually huge— place in order to bring each one of the Forges to life, and thus, empower the Reaver.
For example, in the Forge of Light we'll have to assemble a number of mirrors throughout the labytrinth-ish place, working out the position of the doors, blasting windows, and whatnot, to finally bring a ray of sunlight to the center of the Forge. While not too hard to figure out at all, the puzzles are so big, in the way you need to walk around an entire building to 'put together' the pieces, that they will make do some serious thinking.
I said how I loved the puzzles in the first game for being so imaginative in their design, and I didn't imagine how they could make that particular point even better; yet they have done it.

The game has also been enhaced in several 'minor' points, like the fact that we now have a compass; we have a map (which is not that useful anyway but might come in hand a few times); we have a few different kind of weapons with different ranges, strenght, and attack speed; and the control interface has been made much better: now we have the ability to cover from attacks; the 'autoaim' button works better, and now Raziel faces the 'engaged' enemy all the time while the button is pressed, hence being able to move and jump AROUND the enemy to avoid his attacks without getting too far; we have two buttons for two levels of attack strenght; and —VERY important— we can use the mouse to look around!!! Yay!!!
The useless 'glyphs' from the first game have been totally removed, along with the 'grab' button, and the need to impale or burn the enemy to finish him (Raziel can finish any enemy with his claws now).

A much welcomed addition (or better yet, a re-appearance) is the Dark Chronicle. Much like the Dark Diary of BLOOD OMEN, this is a record of every important cutscene seen, and it's a handy way of putting yourself into context in case you missed or forgot something. However, this is not a replay of the cuts like in the first game of the series, but rather a written chronicle, in fact it's the script for the scenes. This is good in the way that the written word is very detailed in descriptions and also helps clearing up any misunderstandig that might result from the spoken dialogue, specially if english is not your main language. On the other hand, it would have been good to be able to re-view the actual cutscenes...

Finally, the game features an ending which is totally opened for a new sequel (no spoilers here, it's no secret that 'Legacy of Kain: Defiance' starring both Raziel and Kain as playable characters, is scheduled out October 2003) but it has been accomplished in a much more smart and subtle way that in the first game. Not only the series might as well just end where this game ends, but also the 'opening' might not be totally apparent to whoever doesn't pay close atention to the whole final cutscene.
Very smart, much better than the somewhat dissapointing ending of the first game.

The Bad

Like it usually happens, the technical issues are much more noticeable in a product this beautiful, if only for the fact that they point out exactly WHAT is the thing that keeps the game from being just perfect.
In Soul Reaver the glitches are pretty minimal, some almost unnoticeable clipping issues (like Raziel's feet sinking in the stairs when viewed from a certain angle, or the eternal problem of the dead bodies passing through walls); and some graphic bugs that might as well be particular to a given video card anyway. However, in this regard, there is a pretty important bug: the game doesn't work right with a GeForce4 MX / Radeon 9000, requiring the user to disable the vertex shaders in windows registry, or else applying a pretty big patch (20MB or so).
I suffered the Radeon 9000 issue and it's strange in several ways: the game just doesn't work, it loads alright but all the colours are kind of washed out and turned to dark shades of blue, which makes it impossible to see anything. This easily means that the game has not been tested in this card, since it's impossible not to notice the issue. On the other hand, this is to a certain extent understandable with a GeForce4 MX (it doesn't have hardware vertex shaders), but I fail to understand why it happens with a Radeon 9000 card which is fully DirectX 8 compliant.

The exceptional detail level on Kain's and Moebius's facial expressions somehow make an awkward contrast with other faces (like Janos Auldron and a Sarafan warrior we will talk to) which are not as good, either in design nor in animation.

As it usually happens, the use of in-game graphics for cutscenes sometimes require certain camera angles which would not be possible while playing, frequently zooming too much into certain backgrounds, making their textures to appear very blurry, which spoils the picture a bit.

Onto more practical issues, looking back at the gameplay one can't help but feel that he hasn't actually played that much. Most of the time goes in dialogues and minor fights, while there are only four puzzles to solve in the whole game (one for each Forge).
Even though they are great both in design and in the fact that they are physically big, it would have been good to have some more; even a few of those good old block puzzles...


Finally, the elimination of the glyphs brings attached a nasty side effect, in the fact that there is no 'side-exploring' to do at all. There is not a sole place you won't see upon completing the game once. To my eye, this is plain bad, since it totally takes away any replayability value.
In that regard, there is not even a 'hard' difficulty level, nothing to push you to replay, other than just the sake of reviewing the cutscenes and the —admitidly, beautiful— landscapes.

The Bottom Line

Soul Reaver 2 can be resumed with one single —and quite cliched— sentence: a worthy sequel.
The graphics, the gameplay (both fighting and puzzle-solving), the story... everything has been reworked to make up for a game that's easily double the amazing than its —already fantastic— predecessor, proving that Crystal Dynamics has made the right choice when they decided to 'cut the game in half' to rush the release of the first part.

Technically the game is brilliant, featuring a huge and beautiful gameworld populated with very lifelike actors, and a spectacular set of DirectX 8 special effects at no performance cost, not even in the form of those so sadly common in-game loading times. Quite an achievement.
All of our beloved Legacy of Kain voice actors are back, making once again an oustanding work, this time paired with extremely expressive character faces. Even Vorador makes a brief appearance too.
And the story... in this regard, the Legacy of Kain series just gets better and better, at dramaticly huge steps.

The only serious and un-workable drawbacks might be the almost total lack of replayability value, specially considering the huge sub-worlds that SOUL REAVER featured as 'secret areas'; and the very few puzzles to solve.