It's rare enough to find a truly memorable main character in a game, let alone two. Legacy of Kain: Defiance is instantly appealing to fans of this long-running action adventure series, since, for the first time, it lets you play as both the arrogant vampire, Kain, as well as the determined half-demon, Raziel, in their continued quest to confront each other and defy their respective fates. The strength of the Legacy of Kain series has always been these characters, though the Soul Reaver games starring Raziel also featured some rather striking innovations and inventive puzzles. The new Legacy of Kain: Defiance, now available for the PC weeks after the game debuted on the Xbox and PlayStation 2, follows in the footsteps of its predecessors, but it offers a new, faster-paced combat system, a typically smooth frame rate, and an overall presentation that clearly resembles Capcom's influential PS2 game Devil May Cry. Unfortunately, this new presentation isn't fully realized, leading to awkward camera angles and needlessly confusing gameplay, though Legacy of Kain fans will still want to struggle through just to see what happens when Kain and Raziel finally encounter each other once again.
The story of Legacy of Kain: Defiance is convoluted and seems intended primarily for those who've been keeping up with the series, but even if you have, you might find the events of this game difficult to follow. Basically, you'll alternately play as Kain and Raziel through many of the same levels, but at different times. Kain's journey begins when he raids the Sarafan stronghold to confront the manipulative Moebius, who seems to know how Kain's and Raziel's fates will intertwine and what is to become of the land of Nosgoth once their conflict comes to an end. Raziel's journey begins when he breaks free from the clutches of the octopuslike Elder God and presses on to meet his destiny.
Simon Templeman and Michael Bell, the expert voice actors who have provided these characters with their personalities ever since the first Legacy of Kain and Soul Reaver titles, again reprise their roles and deliver the same high-quality performances that fans would expect. Frequent in-engine cutscenes are used to convey the storyline, but it's all still rather confusing and eerily similar at first to the plot of Soul Reaver 2. If you've been following the series, expect to encounter the same cast of characters and to listen to the same type of philosophizing that you've heard before. On the other hand, if you've been following the series, you'll be pleased to know that things finally come to a head here, and the characters confront the answers and the enemies that they seek. And, if you're new to the series, Defiance offers some supplemental material that can bring you up to speed.
The PC port of Defiance is essentially identical to the console versions, though you can run it at higher resolutions. Of course, you'll need an eight-button gamepad (digital or analog are both fine) to get it to control reasonably well or else you're stuck with the clunky default keyboard controls. It seems exciting to be able to play as both Kain and Raziel, but, in the context of the game, the biggest difference between the two is their personalities, rather than how they play. They have very similar moves and abilities, which is rather disappointing, since there was clearly an opportunity here to make both characters unique in their own rights. Each character brandishes the powerful reaver blade--Kain, in its bloodthirsty corporeal form, and Raziel, in its soul-stealing spirit form--and each character can perform nearly identical moves and combos using his respective version of the sword. Both characters can also rapidly dodge from side to side, easily eluding most foes. For good measure, they can use telekinetic blasts either to break objects or to shove enemies. In Kain's case, he can grab hold of them and fling them around, which is good for some sadistic fun but is usually not as effective as the reaver's heavy slashes.
Both characters may feed on their victims to restore their health. Kain sucks their blood, either telekinetically or, for the first time ever, by chomping their necks like a good vampire should. Meanwhile, Raziel literally swallows their souls. When fighting groups of enemies, it's really not dangerous to stop and feed on one, since the others will tend to do nothing while you drink or eat your fill. Even if you do lose all your energy, you just start back at a recent checkpoint--Kain and Raziel are both immortal--so the combat in the game isn't challenging. It definitely gets tedious, though, due to the generally bland variety of enemies and the limited variety of attacks available to Kain and Raziel. They'll acquire a few special moves during the course of their adventures, but actually, these are nothing special, so you'll instead be relying on the same types of combos over and over. Eventually you'll realize you can just run right past most enemies, though often enough, you'll be forced to fight before you can proceed to the next area.
As in other games in the series, once you've smacked around the typical bad guy, he or she will be dazed so that you can finish the job. Feeding on them is one way to finish off most enemies you'll encounter, or you may run them through with the reaver, which charges it up. It's easy to fully charge the reaver, and when you have, it'll do more damage and let you pull off a special move--usually an area-effect attack of some sort. It's too bad that Kain and Raziel are limited to using the reaver. In previous games, they each had various brutal finishing moves depending on which weapon they were using, including just their claws. In Defiance, you'll have seen everything the combat has to offer very quickly. You can use a fierce attack to pop enemies into the air, then jump up and whale on them while they're still aloft, but this actually seems pretty goofy in a game that otherwise tries to take itself seriously. Capcom pioneered the over-the-top midair combo, and Capcom can keep it.
Both Kain and Raziel run equally fast--much faster, incidentally, than in previous Legacy of Kain games--and their jumps are virtually identical. By pressing and holding the jump button again while in midair, you can make either character drift down more slowly, which often comes into play when you need to catch a ledge that seems just out of reach. Both characters can climb and also dematerialize through barred doors, though the catch is that Raziel can't do so while in physical form.
As in the Soul Reaver games, Raziel can exist either in the material plane or in the spectral plane, which is a ghostly version of the real world, in which water has no buoyancy and weird monsters run amok. Raziel can shift from the material plane to the spectral plane at any time, but he may switch back only from certain points, a fact that comes into play in many of the game's puzzles. You'll switch to the spectral plane to get through certain gates or get past certain obstacles, and then you'll have to find a way to switch back so that you can do things like open doors and manipulate objects. When Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver introduced this phase-shifting mechanic back in 1999, it was inspired and innovative. In Legacy of Kain: Defiance, it doesn't seem nearly as fresh, and it mostly just forces you to do a lot of legwork. Raziel's sequences tend to take much longer than Kain's more action-oriented sequences, but oftentimes they're relatively less fun.
Thank goodness these characters run quickly, because they'll be doing an awful lot of running back and forth during this game. Defiance is split up into more than a dozen chapters, and some of the later ones are quite big, allowing you (and sometimes requiring you) to move across vast stretches of territory. The game uses a roving camera perspective, so unlike in recent games in the series, you don't always get an ideal vantage point. In Capcom's Devil May Cry, this roving camera technique was used to give the game a distinct sense of style and plenty of cinematic flair. That seems to have been the goal here, too, but the roving camera in Defiance is much more of a nuisance than anything. Awkward, sudden shifts of the camera will cause you to become disoriented, forcing you to compensate on the controls and possibly causing you to lose your sense of direction. The inability to move the camera to where you'd like it (you do have a limited, but largely useless, ability to pan the perspective) makes many of the jumping sequences needlessly annoying and also results in enemies routinely blindsiding you from off the screen. Foreground objects will occasionally obstruct your vision, as well. Many hours into the game, these things don't cease being problematic.
But the biggest issue isn't the camera perspective. It's that the lack of an automap or even a compass needle, coupled with the constantly shifting perspective, can be maddening. Add vague mission objectives and open-ended environments, and you have a recipe for frustration. Defiance, at its core, is a very linear game. But, even though you'll always have to perform specific tasks at specific places to proceed with the plot, it can be unnecessarily difficult, and it's not always clear what those tasks are or where, exactly, you're supposed to be going. A longtime fan of the Legacy of Kain games might get the impression when first playing Defiance that the noticeably faster movement speed of the characters must mean that some of the pointless wandering of the previous games will be at a minimum here. Sadly, that's not at all the case. It'll take you probably twice as long to finish Legacy of Kain: Defiance than it would take you to get through the average action adventure game these days, but, in the end, a number of these hours will seem like they were wasted.
Since the combat in the Legacy of Kain games has never been particularly good, the series has relied heavily on puzzle solving--and this game is no exception. However, most of the puzzles are rather uninspired block-pushing, lever-pressing affairs. Aside from those, most of the game consists of key hunts, only the keys here have fancy, gothic-sounding names, like the "rusted scales." As both Kain and Raziel, you'll imbue the reaver with various elemental properties, which allow you to access certain areas you couldn't previously reach and which cause the blade to emit different-looking sparkles. This, too, will be familiar territory to the fans of the series for whom this game is ideally suited. Moreover, though it sounds like a cool idea that you'll get to visit the same environments but at different points in time (and from both Kain's and Raziel's perspectives), in practice, you'll find that the highly repetitive scenery just gets old.
The game looks impressive at first glance, but it starts to come apart at the seams--literally, sometimes--the longer you play. On a midrange PC, you'll be treated to a perfectly smooth frame rate more often than not. And, on a high-end PC, you can get this game looking considerably sharper and better than the console versions, though some of the textures don't look as flattering in high-res. The character models for Kain and Raziel look quite good (though very similar to these characters' appearances in the Soul Reaver games), which is fortunate since their appearances won't change during the course of the game. Elaborate textures adorn the sometimes complex level architecture, thus making everything look wonderful when you're just passing through. However, most of the enemies you'll face and many of the animations in the game look rather corny, and the detailed-looking environments are mostly just window dressing, aside from some breakable pieces of furniture. Worse, some pretty glaring clipping issues and collision detection issues both in and out of combat mar the game's appearance and cheapen the overall feel. Nevertheless, the visuals in Legacy of Kain: Defiance stand out as one of the game's most obvious high points.
Apart from the excellent voice acting, Defiance doesn't sound like much. The synthesized soundtrack, which picks up during combat and drones quietly otherwise, loops frequently and, at worst, sounds cheesy. Many sound effects are recycled from previous Legacy of Kain games, the sounds of combat are very subdued, and ambient noise is minimal. Of further note, when Raziel is in the spectral plane, there's no music. However, there's this one looping ambient track where you hear a woman crying (in addition to other noises that are kind of spooky), but because you'll spend so much time in the spectral plane, this gets old fast.
Legacy of Kain: Defiance has an outstanding premise, but it's ultimately a disappointment. It certainly isn't a bad game, and fans of its main characters should play it just to see more of Kain's and Raziel's interactions with each other and the rest of the Legacy of Kain cast. Unfortunately, though, the gameplay itself just isn't particularly entertaining, thanks to the one-two punch of the constantly shifting camera angles and the lack of a map. Rather than presenting you with sophisticated puzzles or tough opponents, the challenge here primarily comes from having to memorize a lot of same-looking passageways to compensate for a camera perspective that impairs fluid gameplay. This is one of those rare games whose characters and story, to some extent, supersede the problems in the gameplay but not to such an extent that this game can be fully recommended.