Raziel, a brooding blue-skinned half-demon, half-vampire armed with a soul-sucking energy blade, is the memorable antihero of Soul Reaver 2 and its predecessor. He was first introduced in 1999's Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, which itself was a follow-up to the 1996 PlayStation game Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. All three games in the Legacy of Kain series were originally developed for video game consoles, but all three were subsequently ported to the PC. Like the previous installments in the series, Soul Reaver 2 is a third-person action-adventure that shows its roots as a console game, both for better and for worse. Those players familiar with the original Soul Reaver should have a good idea of what to expect from the sequel and its innovative blend of action and puzzle-solving.
On the other hand, those who aren't already acquainted with the series will have some catching up to do. Soul Reaver 2 assumes that you're familiar with the events of the previous game. If you aren't, then you might wonder what exactly is going on when Soul Reaver 2 begins--incidentally, at more or less exactly the point that the original Soul Reaver concluded. There's some exposition in the game's manual, but not a whole lot in the game itself.
Gameplay is basically similar to that of the first Soul Reaver. Raziel will travel across a number of vast-looking environments in search of answers to his many questions about his origins and about his enemies, but the game is actually almost completely linear. One of two key innovations behind both Soul Reaver and its sequel is that Raziel is immortal. When his physical body is destroyed, he shifts to a ghostly spiritual plane, where he can revive himself back to corporeal form. The geography of the spiritual plane is a twisted version of the material plane, so sometimes you'll have to switch between planes to reach areas otherwise inaccessible. Raziel has several other unique abilities. In the spiritual plane, he can phase through gates; in the material plane, he can climb walls and swim underwater indefinitely; and he can use his tattered wings to glide across chasms. To replenish his strength, Raziel swallows the souls of his slain enemies.
In the first Soul Reaver, Raziel had to earn most of his special abilities over the course of the game. Here, he starts with all of them, and he even gains some new ones later. He also starts with the soul reaver itself, a wraithlike symbiotic sword extending from Raziel's arm. In the first game, the reaver could be used only if Raziel were at full health. During most of the sequel, he can summon the blade at will. It's a powerful weapon, but the souls of foes killed by the reaver are automatically ingested by the blade, preventing Raziel from using them to sustain himself. Combat is frequent in Soul Reaver 2 and is relatively easy to control--there's an auto-face key that keeps Raziel focused on a single foe at a time. He can then use quick and strong attacks, blocks, and dodging moves to defeat his opponents. Some of the later opponents can be tough, but none of them are particularly smart or interesting to fight. Overall, combat is rather simpler than in the previous game, partly because the reaver is powerful, but also because you can kill your foes outright, either with the reaver or just bare-handed. In the first game, you needed to dispose of your vampiric foes using traditional antivampire techniques, like fire or impaling.
The second of Soul Reaver's innovations is also carried over to the sequel. That is, there are absolutely no loading screens to be found anywhere in the game--the entire game is completely seamless. Though Soul Reaver did this two years ago, it's still an impressive feat. Since you'll travel through a number of diverse locations--imposing strongholds, fetid swamps, ancient shrines, underground passageways, and more--being able to move from one area to the next without interruption helps bring the fiction of the game to life. Raziel's own immortality works in just the same way. You're probably very familiar with having to restart levels or load saved games in most other games you've ever played. In Soul Reaver 2, this trial-and-error approach is fully intact--the challenge is there--because Raziel can get forced back to the spiritual realm if he's defeated in battle. This novel approach proves that conventions of things such as "lives," "saves," and "continues" need not have to exist in gaming.
Along these same lines, you can't save your progress just anywhere in Soul Reaver 2. You can do so only at specific locations, just like in the original PlayStation 2 version. This may prove frustrating for players used to being able to play through their games in small segments. However, the ability to save anywhere and load a saved game at any time would have completely undermined the gameplay of Soul Reaver 2. You might see the lack of a save-anywhere feature as a compromise, but it's worth it for the sake of the game.
Besides the inability to save your progress at will, you should be aware of a few other issues in Soul Reaver 2. Though it's a relatively short game--it will probably take you 15 hours or less to finish--there's a lot of backtracking. Raziel isn't particularly quick on his feet, so having to run back and forth between areas can start to feel a bit tedious. Soul Reaver 2 has no boss battles in it, which is rather unfortunate in light of the original game's memorable clashes between Raziel and his deformed brothers. The good news for those who played the original game is that the sequel has no block puzzles in it either--the original game relied on at least one too many puzzles that required Raziel to move giant blocks into the proper position. The sequel's puzzles are better but aren't spectacular--they're mostly a series of very elaborate "key hunts," through which using a particular item in a particular location unlocks the next branch of the puzzle. Eventually, Raziel manages to imbue the reaver with certain elemental forces, and these allow the weapon to be used to bypass particular obstacles as well. Still, although the puzzles initially feel like a part of the environments you'll explore, eventually they start to seem contrived. You'll wonder if they weren't put in place just to delay Raziel for a little while. For what it's worth, the plot of the game eventually supports this hypothesis.
As for the plot, while it's easily one of the best aspects of Soul Reaver 2, it features a lot of build-up but little payoff. Seemingly for a long, long time, Raziel doesn't know whom to believe--he gets mixed messages from different characters all at crossed purposes. The original Soul Reaver had a very abrupt ending that suggested the designers had to wrap the game up in a hurry. Disappointingly, the sequel's ending is similarly abrupt and occurs right about when Raziel starts to figure out what exactly is going on. It's anticlimactic to say the least, and it leaves you hanging for the next game.
It's a testament to the overall quality of Soul Reaver 2 that the truncated story and repetitive action are a worthy trade-off for the game's exemplary qualities. Exploring Soul Reaver 2's environments is inherently enjoyable thanks partly to the game's outstanding graphics. The various settings, as well as Raziel himself, all look excellent. Some of the animation for enemy characters looks a bit rough, and a few of the textures are blurry, but otherwise, Soul Reaver 2 looks outstanding. Though the story ends suddenly, rest assured that there's plenty of it over the course of Soul Reaver 2. Numerous, lengthy, superbly animated cutscenes that use the game's 3D engine are interspersed throughout. Raziel, whose voice is provided by the extremely experienced voice actor Michael Bell, is a remarkable character--he's filled with pride, vengeance, and despair all at once, and his eyes betray all these things even though they're pure white. With his symbiotic blade, Raziel is very reminiscent of Michael Moorcock's popular antihero, Elric, featured in numerous fantasy novels. Raziel's exchanges with the game's other main characters are dramatic and very well done. The game's outstanding script was written by Amy Hennig, who also designed Soul Reaver 2 and its predecessors.
The unique play mechanics of Soul Reaver 2, as well as its impressive graphics and excellent story, make it easy to recommend to fans of action or adventure games. It's also easy to recommend to pretty much anybody looking for a change of pace from all the other PC games released this year. The fact is that the PC can really use more games like Soul Reaver 2. It's true that Soul Reaver 2 has a number of shortcomings--it's not particularly long, it has no real replay value, and it has a somewhat slow pace. Its story isn't as satisfying as it could have been, thanks to its sudden conclusion. But overall, Soul Reaver 2 is a great game. Its premise and its main character are so unusual that, more than anything, you'll likely feel comfort at the thought that another sequel is in store once you finally finish the game. At any rate, fans of the original Soul Reaver will find the sequel to be a similarly satisfying experience. And if you haven't played the original, then it'd be worth your while to hunt it down and play it as a primer for Soul Reaver 2.