“Kain is deified,” says protagonist, Raziel, over a blast of intimidating industrial music that’s liable to give even Trent Reznor gooseflesh. “The clans tell tales of him. Few know the truth: he was mortal once, as were we all. His contempt for humanity drove him to create me and my brethren. I am Raziel, first-born of his lieutenants.”
Just like that, in a squall of squealing synths and gothic beats and carried on that hypnotic voice, I was sold. This world, already, had enthralled me. Who was Kain? Why did he look so pissed? What had corrupted this imposing, beautiful, terrifying land of Nosgoth? Why is Kain casting me into the depths of a watery hell? Will I ever find out? What the hell is going on?
Before you figure any of that out, the brutal, edgy shock of that flawless intro draws you in. It was the first time I’d ever hear the word ‘deified’, it was my first exposure to a myriad of gothic tropes, and it – probably – pricked the thumbs of my first true gaming love. Appealing to whatever it was inside me in 1999 that would also make me a helpless goth well into the 00s, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver perfectly encapsulated the brooding vampire chic that spread like blood in water around the Millenium.
But where Blade, Interview with a Vampire, Buffy and everything else obsessed with exsanguination kept things fairly light and modern in comparison, Soul Reaver opted to study vampires properly. Developer Crystal Dynamics invested a significant portion of the game’s two-year development cycle into framing vampires – and their ruined descendants – in a more authentic light. As a result, Soul Reaver feels like a proper tribute to the gothic origins of vampire mythology.
Writer and director Amy Hennig – who would go on to write and develop the Jak and Daxter and Uncharted games – was eager to introduce players to some pretty lofty philosophical concepts (the belief that the cosmos is ruled by a malevolent “pretender” god, that humans are prisoners in a spiritual lie, and that mankind’s struggle is a fight for free will in the face of seemingly insurmountable fate) whilst pulling on narrative beats from Milton’s Paradise Lost.
A bit much for a PlayStation game in the 90s, no? But the result was extraordinary. The world-building alone in Nosgoth remains some of the best I’ve ever experienced in games as a medium, and a cast of trained stage actors brought gravitas and intent to their roles. Nosgoth was infested with creatures doomed to immortality, and you – Raziel – felt hunted and vulnerable at every turn.
After that booming intro, things quieten down for a while. You awaken in a ruined body stripped of its vampiric glory. You are a wraith, cursed to feed on souls instead of blood. You learn that it’s been centuries since Kain condemned you to die for the crime of surpassing him in evolution. Over time, vampires have become the apex predators of the world above. Humans are confined to walled cities and hunted for sport. The world is twisting, dying in agony at a glacial pace, and the vampire lords – your brothers – are more concerned with their internal politics than the fate of the world at large. It’s an analogy that hits pretty close to home even now, some 22 years later.
As your head clears and the intro music fades, you discover that you have become a fallen angel complete with ragged wings made of flayed skin, remnants of your cursed evolution. A dormant god, irritated that vampires and their free will have got in the way of all his divine machinations, has revived you, setting you on a path of vengeance: seek out your brothers, and kill them. Wreak havoc on the hypocrites that damned you. Spare no clemency.
Because this is a video game, this ‘redemption’ arc also sees you collect powers; handily enough, each of your rival lieutenants has also evolved in some way in your absence. As you absorb their souls, you gain their powers. Phasing through walls, swimming, climbing, and constriction each allow you to open up new areas, and explore further and further from the hub from which you emerge back into Nosgoth. A hub that was also the scene of your execution, for what it’s worth. The game, and series as a whole, loves its dramatic irony. You’re also in possession of the eponymous Soul Reaver – a blade of spectral energy bound to your right arm that only manifests when you’re at full health, and what you will use to reap the souls of the damned.
Because you have been revived as a wraith, your physical form decays in the material world (dressed up with all its decaying 19th-century industrial architecture) and the game will often force you to shift into the spectral realm instead. Here, doomed souls wail, and physics are contorted. As walls warp and trees bend in the vortex, you get to see new paths open up and otherwise impassable threats – like water and fire – dissipate. Soul Reaver was developed as a counterpoint to another Legacy of Kain game, Blood Omen 2: whilst the latter would focus more on combat, Soul Reaver prioritised puzzles.
And that’s why shifting from the dystopian industrialisation of the material world into the 1920s German Expressionist cinema-inspired spectral realm is where Soul Reaver really impresses. The game launched in 1999, and no matter where you are in Nosgoth, there were always two realms available for you to shift into. At any time. The game already felt massive in comparison to other 3D titles available at the time, and the fact it concurrently loaded two realms for you to unpick and phase between in real-time? It was obscene.
Better yet, the combat wasn’t even an afterthought in the end, and showed off what Crystal Dynamics could do with its aging Gex engine. Vampires – stubborn little bastards – couldn’t be killed by simply maiming them. No, you had to rough them up with your claws or whatever environmental objects were to hand, then either burn, drown or impale them before siphoning off their souls.
Frantically dodging a feral vampire’s claws as it hisses at you, then knocking it into the sunlight where it shrivels and dies remains as invigorating today as it did two decades ago. The action is simple, but draws on a rudimentary physics engine to complement the game effortlessly – and makes Raziel feel desperate, immortal and frail all at once. And because of its masterful pacing, all the bloodletting never takes away from that dense, literate dialogue that few games have managed to top since.
Whether you were gliding from the perch atop a ruined city and surveying the world beneath you or shifting from spectral realm to material to bypass some fiendish puzzle, Soul Reaver always managed to wow you. The deft way it merged its mechanics into its story, and its story into its world, remains a masterclass of game design that few open-world games today even come close to mirroring. Raziel – at once a sympathetic character and hateful for his self-righteousness – is the perfect counterpoint to Kain, a hero playing the role of a tyrant king. Everything in the game, whether it’s in the split worlds vying for your attention or the dual characters ushering the story forward, feels perfectly balanced.
Raziel’s tale of vengeance – a bastardised and brutalised retelling of Milton’s epic, imbued with centuries of vampire mythology – makes it onto many a game designers’ list of inspirations, and for good reason. In storytelling, world-building, technicality, and tone, it is nothing short of a masterpiece. And its legacy, no doubt, will continue to soar on ruined, tattered wings for generations.
Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is deified.