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Feature: Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver was the original Uncharted

The upside of landing on a Harry Potter film, as you swish and flick your way through the channels, is that you are consoled by a coven of British acting royalty. You are greeted by the majesty of Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon; of Alan Rickman, with his inky locks; Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, and the scuttling Timothy Spall. The list is long, and at the far end of it lurks Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. I’ve always considered the video game equivalent to this Hogwartzian jamming of talent to be the vampire odyssey Legacy of Kain. Nevermind the star-crusted casts of Grand Theft Auto, which lack that delectable sense – present in Kain as well as Potter – that the actors simply rolled up out of sheer thespian obligation, determined to give bite and blood to the drama.

Just listen to the voices! To the aristocratic sneer of Simon Templeman, who plays Kain. To the pained tones of Michael Bell, who voices Raziel, the series’ hero. There is Paul Lukather, a celebrated stage actor from New York, who lends a stately grace to Vorador. Keep an ear out for René Auberjonois, whose lipless snarl I remember fondly from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in which he played Odo. And could the Elder God be played by anyone other than Tony Jay, whose thick, chewy boom seems to rumble upwards from caverns deep. Not that one needs any consoling when playing a Legacy of Kain game, especially Soul Reaver, which today celebrates its 20th anniversary. Over the last week, I’ve been playing the game on the Vita, cramming Raziel and Kain into a coat pocket and carrying the entire tragic saga with me on the way to work.

The pair might consider their confinement an insult, but I have come to the conclusion that the whole Odyssean melodrama quite suits being served up in scraps. There’s nothing quite like being on a tube train, in the morning, and hearing Raziel ask about the restless ghouls, called Sluagh, who are stuck in limbo between worlds – ‘What scabrous wretches are these?’ He could have been staring through the screen at me and my fellow-commuters. Or, still groggy, before leaving my bed, hearing a malformed vampire, named Melchiah, remind me, ‘You awake to a world of fear. These times of change are so… unsettling.’ A sobering sentiment with which to begin the day. This free-wheeling flexibility was not an option for players in 1999, however; Soul Reaver released to the PlayStation and PC, and required long, preferably dark, periods of play – fixed in place and rich with mood.

Not one ounce of which has dwindled. Under the direction of Amy Hennig, the chorus of those great voices is joined by an array of talent. I played most of the game with headphones, the better to be swallowed by Kurt Harland’s score. It happens to be my favourite soundtrack of that generation – driving storms of synth, beaten into order by industrial drums. The eyes, too, are in for a feast. The game’s lead artist, Arnold Ayala, has painted an entire world in the colour palate of crushed moss; the sky is so low that Raziel might be in danger of hitting his head, and it spits dirty rain down at the earth, which swirls in an absinthe fog. Together with the writing, which was done by Hennig, along with Richard Lemarchand and Jim Curry, the atmosphere is so strong you can practically smell it. But I would recommend playing the game, instead.

When you do, one thing becomes clear: if there is any soul being reaved here, it is that of the other Eidos-owned blue blood, Lara Croft. There is a familiar mix of climbing – which is streamlined, thanks to Raziel’s claws and cloven feet – and puzzling, which still bears the weight of the block-pushing and lever-pulling that dragged Tomb Raider into a tiresome routine. But, arriving in the same year as Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, Soul Reaver made Lara feel lumpen; the speed and grace with which Raziel moved, coupled with his willingness to grab at ledges without you grappling with the controller for dear life, made the game a breeze. Aside from the rusty graphics, it’s only the slight wrangling necessary to wrest control of the camera that gives the game’s age away. In fact, around the half-way mark, I realised that part of the reason it still feels so fresh is the fault not of Crystal Dynamics but of another studio, in Japan.

These days, the mere mention of Dark Souls – by anyone, but especially by critics – has become like banging the dusty drum of academia, tenuously tracing any and all design that’s either hard or in some way clever back to Miyazaki. As such, I can only apologise for my stumbling realisation that, as Raziel awakens after five centuries of slumber, his return to his homeland of Nosgoth felt awfully familiar. The land had been damned by Kain, whose decision not to die – and thus preserve the world’s spiritual balance – cursed it to a slow slope into ruin. But it’s stuck. It never quite collapses; its decay just thickens without end, and it reminds me of Lordran, of that ever-cooling sun stuck low in the sky. And to accentuate all the withering, Raziel is able to slip into the spectral realm, in which the architecture grows gnarled and distorted, as if drawn up in a bad dream.

In most other ways, however, it is the anti-Dark Souls. The story is told with a wealth of cutscenes, all drowning in dialogue, and you can’t move for mythology – with great lumps of the stuff littering each of Raziel’s soliloquies. Then there’s the combat, too, whose strength lies in its simplicity; it takes its cues from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, with a lock-on circle-strafe for defence and a simple three-hit combo, carried out with claws or any weapons Raziel collects, for offence. The weeds that spring up as games age usually grow around the ornate bits of design, and its this strimming away of clutter that makes Soul Reaver age at such a glacial pace. What makes me pine for it, and for games of its ilk, is the curious Kain-shaped hole in the landscape of games now – that AA single-player romp that once nestled in the nook between top-flight blockbusters and obscure darlings of lowliest indie order.

It was for this reason that the recent cancellation of Visceral Games’ Star Wars project, which had Hennig at the helm, bore such a sting. It wasn’t just that we were being stripped of a Star Wars game, but that precisely the kind of unfashionably story-fuelled affair that we so craved was being denied to us. Most of all, for me at least, we were being deprived of an Amy Hennig game, whose direction is responsible for no small part of that tier of Triple-A that is glitzed with Hollywood ambition. When you think of popcorn blockbuster video games, the first three Uncharted games spring immediately to mind, but before they came clattering onto the scene there was another trilogy – comprised of Soul Reaver, Soul Reaver 2, and Legacy of Kain: Defiance – that set the table, and whet our appetite for story and style. The best of which, even now, 20 years on, is Soul Reaver.

Categories: Gaming News

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