Soul Reaver 2: Revisited

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So in my last article, I said that I loved Soul Reaver 2, and then spent most of the article talking about its flaws. Let’s redress that wrong and return to Nosgoth to take a proper look at what I really like about the game. To do so, let’s also look at the series as a whole.

The last article didn’t have particularly huge spoilers, but I still gave a warning about it. This time around, I’m 100% spoiling like the entire series, so there you go.

The Legacy of Kain series had two similar yet wildly different entries before Soul Reaver 2, not to mention that Blood Omen 2 would switch up the formula yet again. Defiance would build on Soul Reaver’s style while also taking a few cues from Blood Omen to finish off the series.

 Blood Omen, which released in 1996, was a top-down RPG that played as a more violent version of Zelda. Once a nobleman, you are murdered right at the start of the game and raised by the necromancer Mortanius as a vampire, and sent on a quest to restore the Pillars of Nosgoth. Death is everywhere you go, there are few, if any, heroes, and to maintain your own life, you’ll often find yourself consuming the blood of innocent villagers.

The game is set across an expansive wilderness populated by villages and dungeons, and you can travel between locations as a bat so long as you’ve unlocked the related area. Along with your weapons, you also learn a variety of magic spells. Towards the end of the game, the areas you can visit get shrunk down, as things go wrong, you get betrayed, and time gets mucked up.

Soul Reaver was released in 1999. Similar to Zelda again, it made the move to 3D while maintaining much of the same style, but it also drastically departed from its predecessor in many ways. This time around you take on the role of Raziel, in a decaying empire ruled by Kain, following on from the evil ending of Blood Omen. Vampires have become so long-lived that they’ve started developing new powers and evolving, and Kain was always the first to evolve. When the vampire lieutenant Raziel gets wings first, Kain tears them from his back in what appears to be a jealous rage, and has him thrown into the Well of Souls. Raziel survives the ordeal but is reduced to a wraith-like being, and is recruited by the mysterious Elder God to kill Kain.

Once more, you have an open world, and each area is locked away behind the various abilities you learn from killing your former allies and consuming their souls. With a 3D, third-person viewpoint, jumping puzzles and towering environments take focus. In addition, Raziel has the ability to enter the Spectral Realm, either by choice, or when he loses all his health. The Spectral Realm is a somewhat spookier version of the normal world, but some walls, platforms, or paths are warped and twisted, offering new routes for Raziel to explore.

It’s a bit less grim and violent this time around. While the world is basically a series of ruins, with dusty wastes between each location, you spend less of your time murdering innocents, and the spells you learn are not quite so malicious as Kain’s arsenal. Though Raziel still holds some questionable opinions from his time as a leading lieutenant in Kain’s empire, he steadily becomes more of a righteous hero, and he sounds ever so polite when he talks.

I’ll get back to Soul Reaver 2, but first, I’ll look at the other two games. Blood Omen 2 came out in 2002, after Soul Reaver 2 in 2001, and it embraced the 3D era while also going back to the original game. Once more, you play as Kain, so your adventure is of the darker variety again, murdering villagers and generally acting out of malice or pride.

The general idea this time around is that Kain was building up his empire after destroying the magical Pillars of Nosgoth in Blood Omen, only to get trounced by the Sarafan Lord and his army. He wakes up later in Meridian City, which is ruled over by the Sarafan, who are all acting a tad odd. Allying with the local vampire underground resistance, you pop around the city (and outside it on a couple of occasions) to find out what’s wrong with the Sarafan and try to reclaim your empire.

It’s something of a mandatory entry if you want to understand the stakes in Soul Reaver 2 and Defiance, because you eventually discover that the Sarafan are being controlled by the Hylden, a race of beings behind much of what is going wrong in Nosgoth. Kain briefly references them at the end of Soul Reaver 2 with zero context, and their storyline is almost entirely covered in Blood Omen 2.

Indeed, while you have another run-in with them in Defiance, it’s pretty much the lead-in to Kain facing them in Blood Omen 2. You have bigger fish to fry in the last game.

Speaking of which, Legacy of Kain: Defiance came out in 2003. Bringing together the main plot points of the series, it has you take on the roles of both Raziel and Kain as they each traverse Nosgoth in a handful of different timelines on their way towards defying the Hylden, each other, and ultimately, the Elder God.

Raziel fails to stop the Hylden plan, but we know that Kain will defeat the Hylden Lord in Blood Omen 2. He does, however, come to understand the mystery of the Soul Reaver blade, which Kain initially used as his signature weapon, before it broke in Soul Reaver and attached itself to Raziel as a magical wraith blade. Joining his spirit with Kain’s version of the Soul Reaver, Raziel grants Kain the ability to both see and defy the Elder God itself. Kain defeats the Elder God but does not kill it, ending the series on a note of hope without fully fixing everything.

So in each of those four games, you face down one of the major antagonists, marking a clear end to each game’s story arc (except perhaps for Soul Reaver, where you defeat Kain but he runs off for a cliffhanger).

Where does Soul Reaver 2 fit in, then?

Soul Reaver 2 is a strange little game that I was really expecting to just have Raziel chase down and kill Kain in an extension of Soul Reaver’s storyline. Instead, it takes Raziel off the vengeance track and gives him some exploration of the world and himself, while Kain starts to become a bit more reasonable. He wasn’t a total villain in Blood Omen, after all. Well, er, sort of. He occasionally did vaguely okay things.

After chasing Kain through the time-streaming device at the end of Soul Reaver, you find yourself in an earlier period in Nosgoth’s history, where Moebius and his mercenary army are tackling the vampire threat from the stronghold that once belonged to the Sarafan. As Raziel explores this older era, he comes to see that those fighting the vampires were just as ruthless as Kain’s empire would eventually become in the future.

There’s a little bit of wonkiness here, as you never really see the average vampire or come to view them as sympathetic. While Moebius’s army is clearly brutal, with vampires staked on display around the wilderness, Raziel isn’t exactly much better.

In any case, after slaughtering mercenaries on your way to the Pillars (something that would-be ally Moebius says he’s fine with you doing), you finally get your showdown with Kain. But it’s a bit more of a muted affair; Kain just wants to talk, and Raziel goes along with it.

Kain raises the notion of a darker plot at play, something more sinister than just the Circle of Nine’s madness, or Kain’s own destructive empire. In revisiting the past, Kain seems to have realised that someone’s been playing them both for fools. He discusses the idea of flipping a coin, but where either side of the coin means losing. Perhaps, Kain suggests, it’s still possible that the coin might land on its edge.

This conversation really grabbed me, and it’s probably what turned Soul Reaver 2 into my favourite game in the series. I suppose it’s because it made me really feel like Raziel in that moment. I’d been so focused on killing Kain as the goal of the game that the idea of a larger plot hadn’t really occurred to me.

There’s a lot that could be said about this scene. Part of what makes it so strong is how it ties back in to the original Blood Omen, revisiting the moment that the Pillars were originally corrupted. There’s a distinct horror in that moment, and it becomes all the more sinister when Kain goes on to tell you that someone’s manipulating everything beyond what we’d previously understood.

It’s also in Kain’s coin metaphor. While a fairly common one, at least these days, Kain’s delivery of it, both from a writing and acting perspective, is spot-on. The entire conversation builds up to, and ends on, the coin landing “on its edge”, which gives such focus to a notion that changes the entire goal of the story. The cutscene ends at this point, leaving you and Raziel alone to ponder the significance of what Kain has said, surrounded by the corrupted Pillars and their mysterious and slightly sorrowful theme.

From here, you carry on to meet up with the Elder God, who speaks to you in a chamber beneath the Pillars of Nosgoth. In this chamber, Raziel finds imagery of an ancient war, with angelic beings displayed who seem to resemble a less corrupted version of Raziel’s wraith form. The Elder God dismisses these as lies, leading Raziel to engage in a brief dispute with his former master.

I’m influenced because I enjoyed Tony Jay’s performance as the antagonist Megabyte in ReBoot, but I find the Elder God to be an engaging villain. In Soul Reaver, he served as your guide, and a companion of sorts, but you never really get on with him at all after this conversation at the Pillars. Raziel no longer trusts anyone after speaking with Kain, and the Elder God’s presence here, his tentacles grasping at the Pillars of Nosgoth, is incredibly suspicious.

I was ready at this stage for the story’s structure to lead to a final, cataclysmic showdown with the Elder God, but that’s not really what Soul Reaver 2 is about. As I mentioned further up, the major showdowns take place in all the games to either side of Soul Reaver 2. For this game, we’re instead on a journey of discovery, to find out more about the world, tie the first two games together in a more satisfying fashion, and set up the story to come.

Now, I don’t know particularly much about what went on behind the scenes. What I do know is that the development team didn’t do all that they wanted to with this game, but whether it was always intended to be a cliffhanger, I just can’t say.

However, oddly enough, that worked in its favour, for me. Without a clear idea of where the game was taking me, it became less predictable.

Raziel’s journey in the first section of the game takes him as far as the swamp, where he uncovers more of the murals of the winged race in the Dark Forge. He also bumps into Vorador, the somewhat violent vampire who played a significant role in Blood Omen, slaughtering many of the Circle and eventually becoming the “last” vampire to be executed by Mobius and his army.

Vorador raises the notion of Raziel’s possible higher purpose, and gives him the scrap of information that will basically form the game’s main quest from this point onwards – that Janos Audron is the last of the winged race, the Ancients, and that he would have the information Raziel seeks. However, there’s one problem – Janos is already dead.

This is not too much of a barrier for Raziel, of course – he has relatively easy access to a time machine, after all. So it’s off back across Nosgoth to the Sarafan Stronghold, with a couple of stops on the way. The Elder God continues to be displeased by Raziel’s discoveries, and the way back into the stronghold is blocked, sending you off into another forge, this time for the Light element.

Once inside the stronghold, it’s time for the second conversation with Kain – this time, to change the course of history. It’s a small-scale yet significant moment, and once more draws on the series history to add weight to the event. Kain is fully aware of what history has in store for them both at this meeting. Raziel will finally kill him, ending the chase once and for all.

But there’s a paradox, one that was present during Blood Omen as well. In that game, Kain changed history by using the Soul Reaver to kill William the Just, who wields another Soul Reaver (while the Reaver isn’t required to win that particular boss battle, the story acts as though that’s what happened).

Now, standing before the tomb of William the Just, Raziel’s wraith blade and the physical Soul Reaver meet, and it affords that possibility of changing history just as before. Instead of killing Kain, Raziel strikes the tomb itself and releases the blade, before striding away from blade and Kain both.

I’m always wary of time travel stories; they have a habit of becoming plot hole monstrosities, with contradiction upon contradiction mounting up over the story. Worse yet, several of them like to end with a Reset Button, clearing out all the events of the tale and making the entire process feel a bit pointless. There’s one major game based around choices that I played recently which pulled this at the end, and it basically erased all the player’s agency.

I’m going to let Legacy of Kain get away with it, though. This series tends to use time travel significantly but not too much, often as a way of allowing the characters (and, thus, the player) to absorb as much of the rich history in the games as possible. There are also, to an extent, rules, and a lot of the consequences continue to carry through the story despite major alterations that occur. In Blood Omen, most of the story events presumably still happened, even with the Nemesis erased from history.

Speaking of tricks with time travel, Raziel drops in on Moebius again, and rather foolishly assumes he’s got the upper hand. He forces Moebius to activate the time-streaming device to send him back to when Janos was alive, but naturally Moebius does no such thing. He instead sends Raziel to a period of ruin, where the land is in turmoil and demons stalk the night.

I loved this part of the game. It increased the stakes through its atmosphere, switch-up of enemies, and the information Raziel uncovers in this time period. Moebius meets you again, as an alleged ghost on this occasion, lamenting the horrors Raziel unleashed by sparing Kain. Raziel’s not particularly convinced by anything Moebius tells him, which is a wise policy to live by.

There’s a brief meeting with Ariel at the Pillars. The former Guardian of Balance whose murder started off the corruption of the Pillars, her spirit remains bound there forever. In Blood Omen and Soul Reaver she would occasionally dispense advice, but in this game she does not trust Raziel, and they have a brief argument about Kain.

The main purpose of this conversation seems to be to cover some Blood Omen history for those not in the know, and also to reiterate the notion that Kain’s death won’t fix the world (despite what the Good ending of Blood Omen might tell you).

In any case, Raziel heads on through the underground chamber beneath the Pillars, has another argument with the Elder God where he suggests that it may indeed be thriving on the Pillars’ destruction, and then it’s off into the mountains north of the swamp.

You pass through the town of Uschtenheim (which you may also have visited if you played Blood Omen) and reach Janos’s Retreat, which unsurprisingly does not contain Janos in this era, given his demise centuries before. However, you do run into Kain.

Here, we get the most important discussion from this era. Kain discusses the notion of them, the forces behind the scenes manipulating everything. He points out that both he and Raziel are their enemies, and that Kain and Raziel’s attempts to change history will likely not change much. History attempts to reset its course despite any changes they make, and it will expel them if they become too troublesome. He suggests that this is what their enemies may be trying to force, before leaving.

As for Raziel, it’s mostly gameplay from here for this era. Firstly, you get the Air Reaver power from the Air Forge, conveniently located next to Janos’s Retreat, and back in the swamp you can then open a mysterious chamber that includes another time-streaming device. Luckily for Raziel, it delivers him to the right time period.

The third and final time period is a snowy version of the world. The mercenaries and demons are swapped out for the Sarafan themselves, and they prove a (slightly) harder enemy force. Combat doesn’t really vary all that much in this game, but the Sarafan tend to be more block-heavy. I mentioned that I preferred the combat in Soul Reaver 2 compared to Defiance, and that remains true. I don’t think the combat is amazing in either, really, but I think it’s a bit messier in Defiance. You tend to have more success from flailing there, while you do need to pay a certain amount of attention in SR2.

The goal of this time period is (initially) to meet Janos Audron, which means breaking into his Retreat and solving a relatively long series of puzzles carrying blood around a large icy chamber in order to create new pathways. It makes some sense, I promise you.

On meeting Janos, we discover that he is far from the monster described by Kain in Blood Omen, or the murals around the Sarafan Stronghold in this game. He discusses his role as the tenth guardian, and Raziel’s as a potential “messiah”. In order to fix things, the Reaver is needed, and Janos brings Raziel over to it.

Previously, Raziel encountered distortions whenever he came close to another version of the Reaver, but this time, he’s fine. It disturbs him, and he refuses to take the blade. Before they can discuss this further, they discover that the Sarafan have followed Raziel through all the puzzles you solved for them, and Janos teleports Raziel forcibly into the Fire Forge. You then have to solve all the puzzles there, while Janos presumably has a very long fight with the Sarafan.

By the time Raziel gets out of the Fire Forge, Janos has been (mostly) killed, and the Sarafan are just about ready to flee. As they tear the heart from Janos, Raziel recognises that the lead Sarafan is him, from before his resurrection as Kain’s vampiric lieutenant. The Retreat begins to collapse, and the Sarafan run off with Janos’s heart and the Reaver.

Raziel and Janos exchange a few words, which is quite impressive of Janos given his missing heart, and then Janos dies. Consumed by anger, Raziel decides to give chase, and take back the Reaver and the heart. In Blood Omen, the heart served as a healing or resurrection item for Kain. Here, Raziel plans to use it to resurrect Janos himself.

However, demonic forces have marshalled against him, and as he makes his way south, Raziel has to fight his way past demons and Sarafan both.

You also pass by the Elder God, in potentially my favourite conversation with him. He just says “You have failed me, Raziel”, and the stark threat shook me on my first playthrough. The Elder God was always pretty wordy up to this point, but now he’s done with Raziel (or so it seemed; he gets back to being wordy in Defiance). Raziel declares that he’s no longer bound by the Elder God, and perhaps never was, but the Elder gives no response.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but this visit to the Sarafan Stronghold was the final act of the game. Raziel finds the Reaver seemingly abandoned, only to be ambushed by Moebius, who uses his staff to disable Raziel’s wraith blade. It seems that Moebius has mostly come to gloat about out-manoeuvring Raziel up until this point, but his true ploy is to prompt Raziel to reach for the Soul Reaver. Once Raziel has taken it, Moebius leaves, and Raziel is forced to depart by a different route.

You can normally discard any weapons you pick up, but you cannot get rid of this version of the Soul Reaver, and neither are you able to call on the wraith blade. Instead, you need to work your way through the leading members of the Sarafan – namely, your fellow lieutenants from Kain’s empire.

It’s a curious sequence because you cannot die – from this point onwards, you can be inconvenienced or frustrated, but there’s no way to lose. The Reaver forces you to remain in the material realm, and any damage is instantly recovered. It doesn’t give you any fancier moves, unfortunately, but it does have a slightly unsettling animation and sound when you kill anyone. The magic in it feels a little sinister and unpleasant, as though there’s something wrong with it.

You’re just as invincible for the final boss battle, which is against your former self. It’s actually one of the easiest Sarafan boss fights, since there’s only one opponent this time around, and he’s easily countered.

With Inquisitor Raziel dead, one last cutscene plays. As Raziel relaxes, the Soul Reavers turn on him. He comes to the realisation that the wraith within the blade is actually him – and thus, his fate is to be consumed by and become one with the Reaver.

Before this can happen, though, Kain pops in once more. This is the coin on its edge – the two blades are together, and Kain abuses this to change history. He pulls the Soul Reaver from Raziel, defying his fate, and the world shakes as history attempts to deal with this change.

And this is where the confusing part happens. Kain says: “My god, the Hylden! We’ve walked right into their trap.” He then warns Raziel not to resurrect Janos, but Raziel passes into the spectral realm with no reply, his strength depleted. He comes to the understanding that despite Kain’s intervention, there’s no escaping his fate. It has merely been postponed.

Now, at the time, I had sort of caught on that maybe, just maybe, the game was going to end prematurely, but I still had the feeling that this was going to actually lead to a fourth and final time period, to close out the story. I had zero idea who the Hylden were (I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d heard either, I had to check the in-game script), but it seemed to me that this would be the push for Raziel to go on a final quest to stop whoever was the villain and win the day.

But none of that happened. This rather odd cliffhanger ended the game, and I tried to make sense of what I’d seen. Did this mean there’d be a Soul Reaver 3? Would Blood Omen 2 cover this? And perhaps most importantly, was I disappointed?

The answer to that last is yes. Soul Reaver 2 really built up a strong momentum, and I was pretty excited to explore more of Nosgoth and discover the secrets behind everything that was going on. This was also the point at which I stopped and realised just how linear everything had been. The spell was broken and I now, in part, saw the game for what it really was.

But there’s a strange little thing about unfinished stories with me. Because they’re unfinished, they remain alive. If they’re good stories, I try to work out where they’re going. With time to sit down and piece everything together, I come up with theories and go back and review things that happened in the past.

I used to think about Harry Potter a lot. Before the series came to a close, I must have reread books one to four about five or six times, maybe more, not to mention when books five and six came out. Some of my theories were spot-on, others not so much, but the characters and events were still active in my head so long as the series wasn’t over.

Once Deathly Hallows came out, though, that all came to an end. Sure, you can theorise about what might have happened after, but I knew all the important stuff for the main story.

The same was true for Legacy of Kain, and still is, to an extent, given that Defiance didn’t really wrap things up entirely. While I loved Soul Reaver, and Blood Omen too, despite some, er, issues towards the end (I kept dying), it was really Soul Reaver 2 that opened the game up into this living world where I wanted to think about the story and where it was all going.

Rather than a straight story about tracking down a villain and defeating him (yes, I know you track down Inquisitor Raziel, but he’s neither here nor there in terms of the game’s overall story), it’s a step back from the previous adventuring to give Raziel a chance to explore the world and absorb the overarching tale, setting up a variety of threads to lead into the sequel (and side game).

Because of that, despite its simple game design and limited combat, it remains one of my fondest gaming memories. The previous games are dark and grim, while this one managed to bring a certain level of mystery and beauty in as well. And it’s not just down to the writing; the direction, the art, the stage design, and the voice acting all contribute.

As for now, I’m still looking for something to fill the void Legacy of Kain left behind. There’s so many great games out these days, but nothing that can quite scratch that same itch…

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