Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (Dreamcast)

Developer: Crystal Dynamics/Nixxes Software BV
Publisher: Eidos

Dreamcast fans will often tell you that despite boasting a strong library, many of the console's titles were hastily made Playstation/N64 ports with little to no improvement made other than an increased resolution. Taking into considering how much effort and care was put into Soul Reaver for the Playstation, I was hoping the same level of detail would be put into Sega's swan song. Oddly enough, it seems I was half-right, some improvements have indeed been made though it only served to exacerbate areas which were left untouched.

Soul Reaver for the Playstation was a technical marvel, featuring large open areas, no load times and the ability to twist the world around us. However, a game that pushes the limits of an aging 32-bit seems inconsistent when running on a more powerful next-gen system. Yes, Soul Reaver on the Sega Dreamcast produces a visual spectacle that is leaps and bounds better than its Sony counterpart, but it doesn't push the hardware as much as it should have though perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.

As a follow-up to Silicon Knights' Blood Omen, players are introduced to Raziel a fan-favorite whose popularity rivals and may even trump that of the titular Kain himself. Centuries have passed since the original game and vampires have established themselves as Nosgoth’s dominant force. Over time, vampires enter a state of change and gain new abilities, however, Raziel made the mistake of surpassing his master, and was executed for it. Having his body dissolved for centuries, our anti-hero finds himself rescued by a mysterious entity who turns the long-dead vampire into a soul eating demon-like entity. With new unlife granted, he seeks revenge on his master and brothers.

While the premise may sound overly edgy, its dialog is told well enough that most won’t notice it. Many of Blood Omen’s actors make a return including Simon Templeman and Tony Jay who are now joined by Michael Bell, all of which do a superb job at bringing their roles to life. Indeed, the writing and characters are what most fondly remember this series for. It featured a use of florid language and ornate monologues which at best verged on Shakespearian and at worst were still ahead of the competition.

As with its predecessor, Soul Reaver draws influence from the Legend of Zelda series though now firmly set in a 3D world. Some may accuse Crystal Dynamics of copying Nintendo’s Hyrulean hero initial N64 outing, but the fact is both games were originally released less than a year apart, so it’s most likely both worked in parallel towards evolving that particular formula.

The spiritual realm provides a corrupted visage of our dimension reminiscent of German expressionism with columns and buildings becoming twisted and gaining a darker tint. While in this state, time stops, Raziel gradually recovers energy, and his vampiric foes disappear. This state features its own set of denizens in the form of wraiths and other smaller monsters who, much like Raziel, consume souls for nourishment. While in the spiritual realm players may not interact with any physical objects, they can climb, jump and platform as they would before, but may not open doors, press switches or pick up weapons. This dimension serves as more than just a slow health refill however, often times inaccessible locations are easier to reach when navigating through their twisted spectral-selves.

Combat is unique in that most enemies can’t be killed by normal means. A vampire’s flesh begins to close as soon as it is cleaved, this regeneration ensures players will have to adapt to different rules of engagement. If an enemy has received enough damage he will be temporarily stunned, it’s then that Raziel must deliver the finishing blow by impaling, inflame, cast light or douse his foes in water. The issue here is that weapons are not always readily available and any trip to the spiritual realm causes players the one they were carrying. Even unarmed, a killing strike may still be struck provided any suitable environmental dangers are nearby. Should a vampire become paralyzed, players may momentarily carry and throw it onto spikes, sunlight or water. Spectral and human enemies require no such tactics, the first may be consumed as you would any other soul and the latter dies in a few punches.

Souls act as life-recovery items. When an enemy in the physical world is defeated their soul is released for a scant few moments. This may then be consumed before dissipating into nothingness. Spectral enemies do not turn into souls but may be cfed upon as such all the same. Should players remove an impaling weapon from any vampiric foe before consuming their soul it will spring back to life as if nothing had happened.

Each major dungeon is inhabited by a different type of vampire and a boss. All of these share a common theme among them such as the ability to climb, swim or shoot projectiles. Upon defeating the location’s boss, Raziels adds these techniques to his repertoire though some may be exclusive to either the physical or spectral realms. The most notable of which being the titular soul reaver, a spectral blade and the most powerful in-game weapon though while in the physical realm, it can only be wielded when the player is at full health.

Acquired abilities provide proper reward and motivation to carry on with your quest, though sadly, all boss battles in Soul Reaver are unexciting. These work as a puzzle in of itself, so rather than engaging in battle with his brothers, Raziel must find a way to exploit their weakness. The concept is solid in theory, but these bouts feel unfulfilling.

The story in Soul Reaver is sparse for the most part though much more cohesive than its predecessor. Just like Blood Omen though, the best moments come in the form of lore-building monologues. These offer enough information to peak interest while leaving enough left unsaid to let imaginations run wild. Learning about what befell Nosgoth’s people, both human and vampiric alike was a joy to listen, even if their fates were often terrible. It’s just a shame Kain barely makes an appearance, appearing only twice to serve as a boss and trading a dozen or so lines with Raziel.

On a technical level, Soul Reaver was an achievement for the Playstation, sporting large open areas with complex geometry while never stopping to load. Even more impressive is how quickly and easily the world shifts and contorts when accessing to and from the spectral realm. 

All of these qualities are retained for the Dreamcast version though there have been several improvements. The resolution has been bumped by quite a bit and an anti-aliasing effect has been added onto it, making the overall presentation much sharper. The framerate has now been set to 60, an enhancement to be sure but not without its drawbacks. When traversing through larger areas or walking through several lighting effects it's not uncommon to experience slowdown. 

Now granted, slowdown was present in the Playstation version as well, but the change is more pronounced this time around and therefore, more noticeable. Worse still, it seems to occur more often than it did on its 32-bit counterpart. Kain and Raziel's character model have been touched up, and while Raziel looks nowhere near as good as his Soul Reaver 2 counterpart he does look closer to what one would expect from the Dreamcast. Kain on the other hand still shares too many traits with its PS1 roots, looking only slightly improved. Lighting effects and draw distances have also undergone enhancements, offering players a better view of post-apocalyptic Nosgoth.

Sadly, these enhancements aggravate areas left untouched. Wall textures and enemy/human character models being the worst offenders. Murals remain nigh-unreadable, wall, door and floor tiles will look pixelated and blurry contrasting with a better defined Raziel and improved lighting and enemy vampires terribly low-poly when compared to our anti-hero. Some veteran vampire foes even lost their trademark red eyes, though the manual still mentions this feature.

Controlling Raziel has also been made harder this time around namely due to an overly sensitive analog stick and fewer buttons on the Dreamcast controller. Getting the main character to run in a straight line is much harder this time around, making certain platform segments more difficult than they were on its Playstation counterpart. Camera controls are also now mapped to the D-pad, as a result, players can no longer adjust the camera while running and attacking.

All game design specific frustrations carry over to this version, namely the block puzzles. While most locations make good use of Raziel’s abilities, all dungeons seem to feature a common theme of having to drag giant stone blocks around. Sometimes they’re used as platforms, other times these serve as sliding puzzles or players must simply replicate a drawing by once again, dragging more blocks around. Regardless of the objective, these are a chore to move around and grind the pacing to halt. Worse still, some plot-required locations can have as many as five or six of these.

As new abilities are gained, players may revisit old areas or discover new optional ones in search of secrets. These come in the form of health upgrades, glyphs which enable you to cast magic, mana upgrades and even a fire upgrade to your soul reaver. Considering Soul Reaver features a relatively low difficulty setting none of them are particularly necessary but still serve their purpose of extending gameplay time.

Soul Reaver for the Dreamcast is something of an underachiever. Graphically it looks superior to its Playstation counterpart, but too many areas were left untouched making for a disjointed experience. Worse still, the framerate, while higher is not as stable as its predecessor and the Dreamcast controller strains to properly handle this game. Regardless, this is still a highly enjoyable experience; combining the best elements of Tomb Raider and Legend of Zelda while still crafting its own entirely separate identity. The game provides an engrossing, lore-rich world to explore while still being a technical achievement for the system. Perhaps just as important, the plane shifting and environmental hazard-centric combat is still unique 16 years after and though the latter is a bit clunky by today’s standards it still feels like a breath of fresh air today.

Anyone looking with a higher tolerance for slowdown and less precise controls may want to play this version due to its graphical improvement and overall higher framerate.

Trivia: Did you know Soul Reaver was originally going to be its own independent franchise? Originally called Shifter, publisher Eidos mandated that Crystal Dynamics develop a sequel to Blood Omen, thus, the Shifter project was reworked into what we now know today as Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

- Rich, well-acted dialog which verges on the Shakespearean
- Plane shifting and combat are still hold as highly unique to this day
- Slightly improved graphics and now runs at 60FPS

- Framerate drips more often and drastically than before
- Untouched graphical areas stick out like a sore thumb
- Too many sliding block puzzles
- Disappointing boss fights
- Dreamcast controller isn't ideal for this game

Final Grade: B+

Sadly, the hologram cover from the Playstation packaging is missing. The cover art has also been changed though I have no artistic preference over this image or the other.

The manual though short, is better than most. It provides carefully written backstory, my favorite part being a paragraph dedicated to Raziel's life as Kain's Lieutenant. Learning how the larger would create intrigues with smaller ones and bet on the possible outcomes makes for highly enticing lore. Personally, I'd love to see a game where you get to control our anti-hero during this period.

The instruction booklet also features screenshots and artwork though sadly, it's all in black and white. With that said, an enticing, expanded lore and a hologram cover make Soul Reaver's packaging stand out of the crowd. If only we'd see this level of originality in today's non-special edition releases.

Packaging Grade: B

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