Retrospective – Soul Reaver (1999)

Retrospective – Soul Reaver (1999)

I’m really into games preservation. It’s important. So, I was quite surprised to see Crystal Dynamics’ Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver had been temporarily pulled from the Steam store by its new owners, Square Enix. The Steam version of Soul Reaver is a tedious chore to get working; it’s not something I can recommend in its present state. There are fixes for the patient, but even when applied there’s no guarantee you won’t run into more problems. My hope is that Square Enix are working to make it playable again, which would be just wonderful.

Because Soul Reaver is something of a Gothic masterpiece.

“Raziel…you are worthy.”

Nosgoth is a benighted land; no one, not the malformed vampires who prowl it nor the disparate humans who hunt them, is free of its corruption. Sacrificed to the contemptible hubris of one individual, Nosgoth is ticking inexorably towards doom.

Ruling over this apocalypse is the individual in question – vampire master Kain. His dominance is near worthless, sustained only by his hatred and some other, darker purpose. When one of his lieutenants evolves before him – growing bat-like wings – he has them thrown into the Lake of the Dead for the transgression.

This is Raziel, who is spared from his fate by a mysterious entity deep within the underworld, and offered a reprieve: become the entity’s ‘soul reaver’, and a license to exact vengeance on Kain will be granted. Raziel, yet to perceive such a thing as choice, accepts, and returns to Nosgoth to embark on a bloody odyssey.

Crystal Dynamics’ Soul Reaver is a game I know well; its opening cinematic is scorched into memory. A brilliant introduction to the rich Gothic fantasy world Silicon Knights had established in Blood Omen a few years prior, the opening is notable even now for the strength of its writing, voice acting (Tony Jay is here!), and haunting, unforgettable soundtrack.

And that’s just the beginning of a dark, brooding story that takes place in a surprisingly expansive open world. Raziel climbs cavernous cathedrals, plunges into submerged abbeys and treks across frozen wastes, sounding every bit the Romanticist anti-hero whenever he chides his siblings for their grotesque devolution.

It’s so transparent he’s the oblivious plaything of two warring monsters whose antagonism spills out across time, but there’s just the right amount of indignant nobility in his manner that endears you to him all the same.

That nobility jars beautifully with his visage. He is a broken spectre; to float across pits he must hold the tip of his wrecked wings – a sad imitation of the flight evolution had gifted him. A brilliant creation, Raziel comfortably finds his place alongside Kain in the main narrative.

It’s not always easy to play. There’s far too much finicky platforming to be wholly enjoyable, and Crystal Dynamics never found a room they couldn’t defile with a box puzzle. But largely it’s a compelling third-person adventure, with enjoyable combat that can be enhanced by the discovery of glyphs and other power-ups. The ability to move between the physical and spectral realms is also super impressive, craftily woven into the world and gameplay.

Its flaws, such as they are, are specific to the era in which it was made. But the gap between now and then is always growing, and with it players’ tolerance for such flaws. I think there’ll always be an audience for the likes of Soul Reaver, but it’ll continue to narrow until it is the preserve of the very few.

That’s a shame. Soul Reaver was a masterwork of its day and arguably the finest entry in a grand and engrossing (if increasingly convoluted) series. Play this, then play the rest. Finicky platforming aside, I promise it’s worth your time – you won’t find a better vampiric rumination on freewill and destiny anywhere.

You can’t pick it up on Steam right now, but it’s still available on GoG and the PlayStation Store.

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