By name alone, Legacy of Kain brings up a host of fond memories. Whether those recollections star the vampire Kain as he faces the Circle of Nine, or Raziel, who rose from death to seek vengeance, the series is often held in high esteem. So, the revelation that the first game to return to the universe after more than 10 years is an online-only, free-to-play competitive action game comes as, well, unexpected. Nosgoth steps far out of Kain’s shadow, using its lore as a backdrop for a fast-paced, class-focused vampire-on-human multiplayer gore fest that is mostly entertaining, even though the excitement gets dragged down by shoddy matchmaking obstacles and irritating bugs.
The chord it strikes is similar to 2007’s Shadowrun, not just in design but also in how it approaches its narrative. Canonically, it’s meant to bridge the 500-year gap during the opening scenes of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, but takes a perfunctory approach to its storytelling; realistically, Nosgoth is merely a spinoff. There are, however, casual reminders here and there that Legacy of Kain, plus Soul Reaver and its protagonist Raziel, are Nosgoth’s inspiration. Raziel’s ruined clan, represented by the disfigured sentinel class, is all that remains of his flying kin. And it isn’t difficult to spot the enormous statue of a pre-crispy Raziel who stands watch over the chaotic human-on-vampire battles in The Fane, a map comprised of white marble and accented by gold leaf and torches burning with blue flame. Beyond the theme and the few hints and winks, however, little else of the Legacy of Kain fiction is found in Nosgoth.
Issues with the story aside, it concerns me that Nosgoth would follow Shadowrun’s lead, especially considering that the path Shadowrun ventured down didn’t end with much success. Nosgoth even goes so far as to mimic some of Shadowrun’s own mimicry of the Counter-Strike formula, with matches consisting of two rounds, in which you start on the human or vampire team of four players each, and then get swapped to the other side once a necessary goal is met. But, thankfully, the similarities stop there, as Nosgoth primarily revolves around its team deathmatch modes, focusing on classes and team dynamics rather than using acquired cash to purchase weapons, gear, or special abilities between rounds. In team deathmatch, the winning side is determined after stacking up the total kills--with a maximum of 30 per session--acquired by each team during the ten-minute rounds.
Battles set in the eponymous dark-fantasy setting of Nosgoth are tense, energetic, and often wildly entertaining. Nosgoth leans heavily on the team element as an unconditional imperative. A single human, who spends the majority of a match nervously scanning rooftops and corners for movement, doesn’t stand much chance when paired up against a physically dominating vampire. But likewise, a vampire stumbling alone into a group of quick-witted humans will rapidly find himself, for once, at the bottom of the food chain.
The vampire hunters are armed with technology and cunning, facing down their bloodsucking rivals with arrows and blades, snaring them with spells, and damaging them with deadly traps. But technology isn’t enough; victory requires diversity. A team composed mostly of scouts, a sniping class, is powerless once the vampires get within mauling range. The scout’s abilities are supplemented by a hunter class, which uses a crossbow for mid-range battles, and handy bolas, in normal and poison varieties, to temporarily restrain an enemy. Just as useful is the alchemist, who uses her launcher to lob explosive projectiles onto the heads of vampires hiding on rooftops, while utilizing an array of volatile chemical concoctions, such as vials of combustible liquid that erupt in a wall of flame, or containers filled with sunlight, which temporarily blinds oncoming bad guys.
What vampires lack in the technology of their mortal foes, they make up for in strength and incredible athletic prowess, making them an absolute blast to play. Unlike the gravity challenged humans, vampires can climb buildings and walls, stalking their prey and planning strikes from unseen heights. The deft reaver is able to leap far into the air, pouncing on his prey and slashing with metal claws. But maybe you prefer strength over speed; the imposing tyrant, muscle-bound and armed with abilities that allow him to charge through and knock over humans, as well as leap high into the air and emit a shockwave when landing, is as close to a vampire Hulk as I’ve seen yet. The other two classes are the aforementioned sentinel, who can fly, snatch humans, and drop them from high in the air, and the deceiver, a strategic class, able to mask himself as a vampire hunter and strike from behind with a deadly blade.
No matter what class you choose, playing as a vampire is a joy. Bounding through the air as the reaver is something that never ceases to put a smile on my face. You get a giddy feeling of anticipation as you look around to see your allies, circled on walls and pillars, ready to strike your unsuspecting adversaries from above. Plus, it’s difficult to deny the savage thrill of dragging away the limp body of a defeated vampire hunter post battle to feast on his blood in order to regain lost health--except during rare moments of "stretchy limb syndrome," which makes pulling a bloodied corpse that ends up stretching along the ground like taffy look, well, a tad goofy.
But then there is that pesky balancing problem, which far too often drags the pleasure of the hunt to a grinding, groan-inducing halt. The issue is a two-parter, but let’s cut straight to the first point: the vampires are overpowered. Even as I hit more than 15 hours of play, I couldn’t recall a match that didn’t feel stacked against the human side, even if the advantage was only slight. During most of my games, all I could hope for when on the human team was to reach at least 15 kills. That way, if my opponents proved somewhat more incapable playing as humans, a victory could still be secured. Make no mistake, I witnessed capable human teams, but even the most skilled players seemed lost as to how to proceed when their opponents switched classes and charged forward with several tyrants. It’s not just a question of countering with the right classes and abilities; matching classes is important, but still, the vast majority of games I played as a human were losses, even as I became more confident in my vampire-hunting skills.
Nosgoth at its finest is still a promising multiplayer game, and I look forward to seeing how far it goes. It does need more: more classes, more maps, more game modes, more everything.
On the subject of skill, the likelihood of getting matched with or against players of similar aptitude is a crapshoot, which brings up the second part of the balancing issue: matchmaking is broken. You gain experience points that slowly increase your level over the course of play. That rank, however, doesn’t seem to matter once you leave new recruit mode, designed to ease novice players into Nosgoth, and get placed into standard team deathmatch games. It’s common to get matched against teams that are either well below your skill level or far beyond it. Fighting a team that struggles to get even 10 kills against your own makes for a rather boring 20 minutes, but when the tables are turned, it results in immense frustration. Matchmaking also seems to have issues with finding players. Sometimes, a game will start right away, but at other times, you are left waiting for a vacant spot to fill for upwards of several minutes.
At least Nosgoth’s maps, save for one that sports ugly, low-resolution mountains in the background, look fantastic enough to distract from any grievance for a short while. The five available maps are large, beautiful, and meticulously detailed, featuring a varied color palette that makes each one easily distinguishable from the others. It’s difficult not to look upon The Fane, a town deep within a vaulted cave, with some measure of awe. Other environs are scarred by battle, and the sound of muffled screams brings weight to fights, surrounded by buildings set alight. Nearby, fountains that were once ornate, cluttered with corpses, now run red with blood. Every map is also dotted with well-placed and quickly accessible shrines, where human players can fill up on health and ammunition--so long as they watch their backs.
Like many free-to-play games, Nosgoth includes different payment options. Bundles can be purchased that will unlock classes, character skins, and new abilities, and that offer a sum of gold, the latter of which is earned at the end of every match. Normally, any gold that is acquired can be used to unlock new class abilities for up to one week for a small amount, or permanently for a much larger chunk of change. Based on my experience, it takes about six to eight hours of play to earn enough gold to unlock a single ability forever, which means you will either need to dedicate a lot of time to get the loadouts you desire, or pony up the cash if time isn’t in your favor. Runes, currency that must be bought using real-world money, can also unlock any of the prior items in place of gold. Character skins, which serve as aesthetic upgrades, can only be traded for with runes.
Outside of Nosgoth’s team deathmatch, there isn’t much else in the way of content. There are three modes of play, but two of them, new recruit and team deathmatch, are basically the same in design. Flashpoint, the third multiplayer mode, is currently in beta testing, and does provide a different, if ultimately brief, distraction. The mode is a king of the hill variation, in which the human team attempts to capture six points on a map as the vampire side fights to keep the beacons out of the grimy hands of mortals. I found it difficult to want to keep playing Flashpoint, as it isn’t distinctive enough compared to team deathmatch to hold my attention long. There are also only five maps at launch, and though they are all nice to look at, it didn’t take much time before I yearned for a change in scenery.
Officially, Nosgoth is in open beta, but Square Enix explicitly states that this beta constitutes the game's launch. Nonetheless, it comes with the bugs and glitches associated with a game in progress. There are times when your vampire may refuse to completely vault over a ledge onto a rooftop, which is particularly bad during a hasty escape, when his pallid backend may become a pincushion. Worse, however, are the rare connection errors with the server, which vary in range from bolas and arrows flying through enemies, to warping from one wall back into the original without warning. But these are standard-issue problems for the most part; what stands out above all is the fickle party system. At times, accepting an invite doesn’t place you in a party according to your screen, though the host’s screen shows otherwise, and trying to join a match with a broken party never works. But at least that isn’t as bad as when the game decides to crash, which it does on occasion after you accept a game invite.
Nosgoth is surprisingly fun, given the glaring problems. Sure, matchmaking is a mess and glitches need to be ironed out, but Nosgoth at its finest is still a promising multiplayer game, and I look forward to seeing how far it goes. It does need more: more classes, more maps, more game modes, more everything. And for the most part, the developer has been upfront that updates are coming quickly, starting with a new map and a female vampire class, both to arrive in the following weeks, with a new human class to arrive soon after. No, Nosgoth is not the Legacy of Kain everyone wanted, and it isn’t exactly bold or fresh either, especially considering that it evokes bitter memories of a failed game from 2007. But with additional content, bug fixes, and needed matchmaking tweaks, Nosgoth could be something that stands strong on its own, worth returning to time and again.