Crystal Dynamics' long-awaited sequel to Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain is a far different animal from its predecessor. Instead of being a top-down RPG, Soul Reaver is a 3D adventure game similar to Eidos' Tomb Raider. And Kain? This time, he's the main antagonist.
The game begins hundreds of years after Blood Omen and works from the premise that when you, as Kain, were given the choice of sacrificing yourself to save the world of Nosgoth or ruling it, you chose the latter, plunging the world into darkness. Over the millennia, Kain and his vampiric lieutenants evolved new abilities, with Kain always developing them first and the others soon following. When Raziel, the "hero" of the new game, grew wings before his leader did, Kain saw it as blasphemy, tore them from Raziel's back, and cast him into a giant swirling watery grave. But the long-winded story doesn't end there.
After his features have been almost completely eaten away by the water, Raziel is saved by a being known as the Elder God, who sets him on a quest to free the world from the parasitic influence of the vampire clans and destroy Kain. Raziel finds himself transformed so that he no longer drinks blood, but devours souls (luckily, since he no longer has a jaw). Also, he can no longer die; instead, he is transported to the Spirit Realm - a shadowy distorted version of the Material World - after sustaining heavy damage. And surprisingly, his wings still work after a fashion, at least letting him glide over short distances. These are the tools you start the game with. You can also move and stack large stone blocks and switch over to the Spirit Realm whenever you like. You can only transport yourself back to the Material World at select locations and only once you've filled up on souls. This ability comes in handy, since the netherworld often bends platforms and structures out of shape so that you can climb them more easily and then flip back to the Material World and continue on. Why not just stay in the Spirit Realm? Because you can't open doors or move objects there. You can now begin to see the shape of many of the game's inventive 3D puzzles.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to your skills. Kain's other lieutenants have evolved in different ways throughout the last few hundred year, and each of them acts as a stage boss in the game. One has a spidery form, another has grown a tolerance for water, and so on. After destroying each one, you gain his special ability, which then opens up new areas in the environment for you to access. Beyond that, there are bonus areas (which you don't need to complete to beat Soul Reaver). In these areas, you can acquire elemental glyphs, which grant you new powers that work well against the game's standard stock of vampires.
Speaking of which, there are many different ways to exterminate the vampires of Soul Reaver. You can set them on fire, throw them into water, impale them with stakes, and toss them onto spikes. Destroying vampires regularly is necessary early on in the game because you'll eventually revert to the Spirit Realm if you don't eat enough souls. That is, until the Soul Reaver itself comes into play. The Soul Reaver is a blade that appears as a thin blue energy trail that curls around your right arm from the shoulder and extends a few feet down past your hand. Swallowing enough souls summons it to the Material World, where it sustains you, keeping you from having to constantly hunt down vampires to feed on. Once you gain the Soul Reaver, you'll shatter enemies with an explosive punch that mixes Psylocke's psi-dagger (from Marvel Comics' X-Men) with a Jedi lightsaber. While poking vampires with stakes can get a bit tired after awhile, this never gets old. As this extensive description may suggest, Soul Reaver is a deep game possessed of myriad impressive little touches. Crystal Dynamics seems to have spent all that extra development time wisely, and the game has obviously benefited from it. The graphics are among the best that have ever been on the PlayStation. The game has subtle lighting effects that color each scene just a little differently to the scale and overall jaw-dropping look of its polygonal 3D world. The Drowned Abbey stage is an excellent example of both elements. Standing mid-level in a half-flooded church, you'll look down at water pulsing gently above a tiled floor. When you gaze upward, you'll see the reflection of the water shimmering across an ornate gothic ceiling. (The downside to scenes like this? There's a little clipping and some infrequent slowdown.) Meanwhile, Raziel himself is modeled so well that you'll find yourself turning the camera around to get a good view of him posing with the Soul Reaver or pulling down his scarf to expose the gaping maw where his mouth used to be. The storyline is presented through a gorgeous introductory CG cinema, which is then followed by well-crafted events using the in-game engine and superb voice work. It's all wonderful high drama, with much less of the overstated breathy gothness found in Blood Omen. An excellent, albeit looping, soundtrack only adds to this and picks up whenever things get intense.
The camera controls follow the route of Spyro the Dragon and Gex 3: Deep Cover Gecko (more the former than the later), letting you pan the area you're viewing with a press of the R2 or L2 button. Holding both down lets you look around your environment, while R1 provides a "Z-targetting" style lock-on on enemies. The level of frustration resulting from dealing with the camera is about equal to that found in Rare's Banjo-Kazooie - which is to say, close to none. Also similar to Banjo-Kazooie is that Soul Reaver takes place in such a huge game world that it's sometimes hard to figure out where to go next. There are gates that teleport you from area to area, but the stations are represented by strange designs rather than simple text - that are impossible to remember.
While it feels as if Crystal Dynamics set out to make a game that was not as difficult as the Tomb Raider series but not as simple as Metal Gear Solid, Soul Reaver does come off a bit on the easy side. The platform-jumping sections aren't too tough, the puzzles not too complex, and the bosses fairly simple to beat. You can ignore the basic cadre of vampires once you have the Soul Reaver, and there are perhaps too many occasions where you're required to move blocks around. It is an extremely solid game, however, that's as much of an experience as it is an adventure, and its warts (the difficulty level and an ending that's abrupt to the point of making Silent Hill's finale seem complete) are few. After beating it, you'll want to go back and get all the glyphs (even though you'll find few instances to use the powers they provide), and you'll learn that having picked them all up doesn't alter the ending. You'll still just want to play it a little more.