There is a point in Soul Reaver where protagonist Raziel moves from the spectral realm into the physical one. He shifts from the land of the dead into a world of flesh and blood. Ironically this is the moment that Soul Reaver came alive to me. A Link to the Past introduced the idea of passing between two simultaneous worlds but it was not done anywhere nearly as spectacularly as in Soul Reaver. Rocks around you squirm into their new form, cracks in the wall become gaping caves, ghoulish mist becomes cool water and life materializes in front of you. It’s an amazing transition. There is no fade to black, no lazy palette swap, but a living, writhing move between two distinct vistas. Further into the game you go back and forth between the decaying world of Nosgoth and it’s twisted spirit realm and every time it looks phenomenal. When I saw that I knew that games couldn’t get any better (I used to get that feeling a lot).
Soul Reaver is 14 years old this year and I am still impressed by that shift. At the time I would jump into water just so that Raziel would lose his physical body and move into the spirit realm, then collect a few souls and use a portal to go back. Then I would do it again. It was seamless. There were never any breaks in travelling around either as the world was one continuous space instead of being broken up into areas, you only ever saw a loading screen once. Even ten years later the Fable series couldn’t match that feat. There were telltale joins in the odd s-shaped tunnels that gave the PSOne a bit of room to load up the next region but it still felt incredible.
So a great world then, but what about the story within it? On the surface it seems like a simple revenge story, handsome vampire lieutenant Raziel (complete with Peter Andre haircut circa 1996) is thrown into the Lake of the Dead by jealous leader Kain and revived 500 years later with a need to absorb souls instead of drink human blood (but haircut intact). He swiftly sets out to kill his former leader but soon discovers that the world is not the place he left it in and that perhaps there are bigger motives surrounding his revival. Amy Hennig of Uncharted fame created the story (as well as producing and directing the game) and it is far superior to any action game of it’s time and possibly since, her experience on RPGs really shining through. Sequels would massively increase the complexity of Raziels tale, occasionally to the point of absurdity (time travel anyone?) but the first played it’s twists and turns in a nicely timed manner…. Except the ending.
How disappointed that end left me. A new character 'deus ex machina's his way into the last cutscene and if it feels like a big set up for a sequel then that’s because it is. What makes this more frustrating is the final lacklustre encounter with Kain which is nowhere near the quality and scale of previous boss encounters. An additional boss was cut from the final game due to lack of time which may explain the spotty finale and it’s a shame that for what is an incredibly well paced title there is a pronounced rough spot, especially one at the climax.
However, just as Raziel absorbed the souls and abilities of greats around him, Crystal Dynamics absorbed the most amazing elements of gaming at the time. Titles like Zelda, Metroid, Tomb Raider and Blood Omen are not just poured into an empty vessel but folded into a great body of art direction and ambition. Soul Reaver is no imitator but an innovator, full of the inspiration and promise of great works of digital excellence and making a creature that is more than the sum of it’s parts. If ever there was a game that deserved an HD remake it’s this. I just hope it doesn’t get forgotten as a footnote in the history of the PSOne.