Drakengard 3 (PS3) review

"I kill my sisters.  I take their men."

“I kill my sisters. I take their men.”

NOTE: Instead of the usual captions for my images, I decided to include some Zero quotes with each picture.  They were too good not to share!

Drakengard 3 takes place in a conflicted world, a land ruled by five separate warlords who each despotically govern their territories.  After many wars between the nations, these men were finally brought down by the five mysterious Intoners, sisters with the power of magical song.  Because of their heroism, each sister is worshipped in the land they freed and becomes the new ruler.  Several years of silence have passed when the lead sister, One, makes a bid for peace and unity between the various countries. You play as Zero, the sixth and eldest sister of the family.  She wishes to kill her five sisters and take their powers for herself.  After a disastrous first attempt that nearly destroys both her and her dragon, Zero recovers and heads back down the dark path of sororicide– killing anyone who gets in her way.

Zero is a fun, humorous character whom I really enjoyed playing as during my 15-ish hours with the game.  At first, she seems reminiscent of Kainé from the developer’s previous game, Nier–loud-mouthed, vulgar, and not willing to put up with anyone’s shit.  After a bit of time with her, it becomes clear that she is similar but ultimately is her own character.  Underneath the rough exterior, there is someone who is trying to do the right thing–even if it means killing her sisters to do so.  Her writing is excellent from top-to-bottom, fleshing out her characterization perfectly.  Zero is also remarkably good at saying just what I was thinking as events occurred throughout the game; more than once, she said EXACTLY what I was saying to myself just moments before (such as our shared distaste for the game’s iffy platforming sections).  For these reasons, I found her an exceptionally memorable and sympathetic character.

Furthermore, Zero is a brilliantly designed female character.  She is mature, fully-developed, and has complete sexual agency.  Sexuality is a huge part of this game’s story, and Zero is no slouch when it comes to her desires, willing to have sex whenever she wants and with whomever she wants.  It’s clear that she is never forced into anything she doesn’t want to do; in fact, she is always displayed as the dominant one in her relationships.  It’s refreshing to see a woman character who steals men away and beds them simply because she wants to, instead of the other way around.  On a smaller note, Zero even mentions having her period!  This may seem like an extremely minor thing (I can just see some of you shaking your heads and saying “So what?”), but it grounds her sexuality and womanhood as something that is relevant to her character, instead of simply being an afterthought.  I think Zero is an immense step forward for women characters, showing that it is possible to write a character that feels like an actual human being instead of what is expected of a female character.  I truly hope that future games learn from Zero’s design.

"I'll tear him a new asshole!  And then a third!"

“I’ll tear him a new asshole! And then a third!”

The other characters are unique in their own ways.  Zero’s various sisters (also named after numbers: One through Five) each have their own strange personalities, such as Three’s tastes for experimenting on the dead and walking around with a giant pair of scissors.  There isn’t much given about each of them, but what there is hints at detailed backgrounds that I would have loved to learn more about (which maybe the DLC does?).  You also recruit various disciples to your party, stealing them from your deceased sisters.  Each is entirely different from the rest with their own quirks and sexual fetishes.  Among these, Dito is probably the most memorable: a man who loves causing pain to others.  Some of the later story beats involving him actually get pretty intense and fucked-up, going much farther than I would have expected the game to go.  The final character is your dragon, Mikhail.  He is very hit-or-miss in my opinion, with a pretty annoying voice and some flat emotional moments.  There are moments of greatness from him on occasion, but he is easily the weakest character of the game.

As far as the story goes, it takes a fairly predictable but engaging path to the endgame and culminates in a distressing end to the state of the world.  Instead of ending on that note, however, the game then opens up a new branch.  These branches are essentially alternate timelines, smaller “what-if” stories that imagine events playing out in different ways.  Each of these branches goes to some neat places, especially the final one which contains TONS of relevant backstory and the “true” ending of the game.  Seeing them all is definitely worth the time investment, as many unanswered questions are solved in these branches.  Sadly, there is a minor annoyance of being forced to collect every weapon in the game before progressing to the final branch (similar to Nier’s final ending).  This is a bit of a grind, but one that gladly doesn’t get in the way for too long.

The game culminates in a special gameplay sequence that I won’t spoil here.  This part of the game is one of its most beautiful and creative moments; sadly, it is also one of the most frustrating, difficult things I’ve seen in a video game to date.  It drops you in without explaining a thing and expects you to figure it out.  You are tasked with the need for impeccable skill with gameplay that isn’t even similar to what you’ve been doing for all the hours leading up to it.  To top it all off, the sequence is a shocking six minutes long, requiring not one fuck-up to beat.  I am not joking when I say that it took me OVER FOUR HOURS to finish this one part of the game.  That was hundreds of attempts of varying success before I blissfully managed to succeed.  The one saving grace of this whole section is that the story bits that come after it aren’t really necessary to understanding the story; the important parts are from the level just before this.  If you get curious but don’t want to endure the frustration, looking the scene up on Youtube is simple and likely preferable.  The fact that the events following this annoyance aren’t vital to the story makes this section much less harmful to the game as a whole.

Drakengard 3 is a game with a very strange tone, one that bounces back and forth between maturity and slapstick in a matter of seconds.  At times, the story is very focused on sex and violence as Zero murders her sisters and their troops before taking the new disciples to her bed.  Much of the incidental dialogue between Zero and her disciples is very open discussion about sex, including the various fetishes of your party members (such as one member who groans pleasurably whenever receiving a verbal lashing from Zero).  It’s common to go from a boss level where you stab one of Zero’s sisters to death in a shockingly violent manner to a scene where your disciples are complaining about sand being stuck in their cracks.  It’s a strange tonal balance, one that nearly gave me whiplash at times, and it can be hard to get used to at first.  Still, by the end of the game, I managed to find this inconsistent tone quite endearing.

"I welcome men to my side and then I bed them.  That's just how it works."

“I welcome men to my side and then I bed them. That’s just how it works.”

My enjoyment likely came from the fact that this game is surprisingly hilarious, making me laugh out loud for several seconds with some scenes.  The soldiers you murder are filled with various incidental dialogue that is both funny and oddly perfect in its subject matter and delivery.  Objectives like to display things like “Kill that fucking dragon,” breaking the fourth-wall with ease.  Zero is bleeped just one random time, something that shocked me into sudden giggles.  Probably my favorite example is one scene where Zero viciously scolds her disciples for their terrible abilities in the sack.  A lot of the humor tends to be juvenile (like an actual poop joke, sadly), but I still found it honest and sincere time and time again.  In fact, I might actually call this one of the funniest games I’ve ever played.

The majority of gameplay in Drakengard 3 has you fighting groups of enemies in a style of combat that most reminds me of Dynasty Warriors but with tighter control and more energy to the action.  You can mix light and heavy attacks together in predetermined combos, with heavy attacks dipping into a recharging stamina meter.  Zero has the ability to dodge or block attacks, something you’ll use frequently in later stages as enemies get more vicious.  On rare occasion, your dragon is available to be called in for a bombing run that deals heavy damage to all the enemies on screen.  Finally, when the going gets rough, you can activate Intoner mode–a meter that charges from either dealing or receiving damage–to become temporarily more powerful and invincible.

I found the action a bit simplistic at first, but this impression changed as I unlocked new weapons with longer combos and options.  New weapons feel really different from one another, each with unique heavy attacks and different attack speeds.  It all comes together into gameplay that is mindlessly enjoyable for the majority of the game.  I relished mowing down the waves of smaller enemies, foes that Zero can take out in just a few hits.  These guys are dumb and satisfying to tear through.  Eventually, bigger adversaries join the fray, forcing you to play more defensively and have a bit more perseverance.  Sadly, these beasts are often tedious to fight with their massive health pools that can have you hacking away for a couple minutes just to down one.  I rarely wanted to fight these bigger opponents, as they seemed like something the developers felt they had to include, albeit grudgingly.

The difficulty curve is rather severe too.  For the entirety of the first branch, I never came close to dying and was often bored with the simplicity of combat.  As soon as I made it to the second branch, however, the difficulty spiked heavily.  All of a sudden, I was forced to fight much larger groups of enemies that mixed some particularly nasty varieties together, such as the spirits that possess other guys and make them much stronger in order to bring me down.  They begin doing significantly more damage, making dodging much more important.  Sadly, the block ends up being mostly useless, due to its drain on your stamina.  In the later levels, your block gets shattered almost immediately, instead forcing you to dodge and jump around to avoid being hit.  This can lead to some pretty intense moments with low health and an enemy who can kill you in just one more hit.  It became quite frustrating at points, especially since it was so easy at first, but I managed to persevere with satisfaction in the end.

"Killing isn't work.  It's like taking a piss--it comes naturally."

“Killing isn’t work. It’s like taking a piss–it comes naturally.”

There were two big issues I had with the combat.  First, enemy types are reused constantly throughout the game.  Instead of encountering new foes, you will see a lot of reskinned but tougher versions of earlier monsters.  By the end of the game, I was exhausted with the lack of variety, especially the bigger enemies which get recycled much more heavily.  Second, the camera was exceedingly annoying to deal with.  It is VERY close to Zero, almost claustrophobically so. I got hit with countless attacks that I couldn’t see coming simply because of this camera angle.  An option to pull it back some would have been a nice choice.

On rare occasion, you get to control your dragon in combat.  These levels manifest in two different types.  The first is an open, free-roam type of mission that has you flying around manually and blowing stuff up.  I never really found any of these fun, as it was tedious having to constantly tap the X button to stay afloat and maneuvering to hit a target was often disorienting.  The other type of section, which is more enjoyable, most resembles something like Panzer Dragoon.  You fly automatically forward and shoot things as they appear on screen, complete with lock-on targeting for multiple enemies and bonuses for clearing a section perfectly..

Many of the boss fights are also fought on your dragon’s back.  Sadly, I didn’t really care for any of these.  You are often forced into a VERY small arena with not much room to maneuver, bumping into walls and the invisible barriers as you try to turn around for another pass.  Additionally, these fights are not very forthcoming about what exactly you need to do in order to damage the boss.  It takes a bit of experimentation, and maybe a life or two, to finally get it figured out.  On occasion, you do get to fight a boss on foot.  These aren’t really much different than fighting a bigger enemy in normal combat and were mostly disappointing to behold.

Every mission (or chests you can find in the missions) reward you with gold, experience, weapons, or weapon materials.  Experience levels you up and gives you a bit more health and stamina.  The gold is used to buy restorative items, new weapons, or weapon materials from the store.  Weapon materials, along with a bit of gold, are used to upgrade the weapons you obtain.  Every weapon goes up to Level 4 with this process, barring Zero’s main weapon which levels automatically during the story.  These upgrades are key as they significantly increase your damage potential and open new combo options with each new level.  Finally, you choose which weapons and disciples (who aren’t really that useful in combat, to be honest) you want to take into battle before jumping into the next mission.

"Stand still and fight me, shit-hog!"

“Stand still and fight me, shit-hog!”

There are also side missions you can undertake between main missions.  These open up slowly as you progress through the game and are always one of four types: collecting item drops from defeated enemies, collecting items from locked chests, hitting targets to collect gold in a time limit, and surviving several waves of combat back-to-back.  These missions repeat frequently and are extremely boring after just a few of each type.  Really, they are only good for grinding out gold for upgrades or for the rewards you get for completing each the first time.  Some of these side missions get EXTREMELY difficult to complete, with very strict time limits and requirements.  Completing them all is a challenge in and of itself, one that few people will probably manage to do.

Drakengard 3 isn’t the most beautiful game, but it has its moments here and there, particularly with the character designs.  Instead of trying for high-fidelity graphics, the designers instead use some slick storytelling tricks to keep things interesting, such as split-screen cutscenes that show multiple people talking to each other.  Easily my favorite level design is a late-game one that takes place entirely in sepia tone, complete with muted sound effects.  The music in Drakengard 3, which is absolutely fantastic, is very reminiscent of tracks from Nier.  While I didn’t feel the soundtrack packed as much emotional reverence (to be fair, few soundtracks could match Nier’s power), it is still perfectly suited to the events of the game and wonderfully memorable.

Technically, there are a few problems.  The first chapter gives some really bad initial impressions in regards to the framerate–I’m talking frames in the single digits.  It does improve significantly after that point, but it is shocking to see right up front.  For the remainder of the game, it stays mostly consistent, aside from some high intensity moments involving the dragon or Intoner mode.  The load times can be ridiculously long, even in the middle of levels; in particular, waiting for doors to open after a locked combat room is quite intense.  Finally, the audio mixing is a bit strange in places.  Voices tend to overlap at times, drowning out certain bits in favor of others.  In boss fights, the (excellent!) music is mixed very low, sadly making it nearly impossible to hear.  I don’t think any of these issues ruin the game, but they are worth mentioning for potential buyers.

In terms of the gameplay, I would say that Drakengard 3 is below average.  The combat can be fun to mindlessly mash through, but it lacks depth and variety that can last for the entirety of the game’s length.  Many of its additional gameplay mechanics, such as the dragon sections, are pretty poor as well.  If it weren’t for the story, or more particularly the characters, I don’t think Drakengard 3 would be worth playing.  I find it impressive just how much Zero improved my impressions of this game.  She is easily one of the most important female characters ever put into a video game, and I truly adored spending the fifteen-ish hours getting to know her.  Add in the quirky, but shockingly mature and detailed, story and you get a game that is absolutely worth slogging through a bit of mediocre gameplay to see.  I highly recommend this game to anyone who wants to see something truly unique.

 

Legacy of Kain: Defiance (PC) review

The heroes (?) of the story.

The heroes (?) of the story.

Legacy of Kain: Defiance completely ignores the events of Blood Omen 2 and instead picks up just after Soul Reaver 2 via a time paradox.  Raziel has been sent back to the Spectral Realm after being absorbed by the Soul Reaver, while Kain searches for Moebius in the Physical Realm  to track down his former minion.  The two, each on their own, work to learn the truth about the prophecy that seems to regard them and the true history of where they came from.  Only by finding and aiding one another can Kain and Raziel finally fix the time paradoxes and return Nosgoth to its rightful state.

Things can be a bit confusing when first starting Defiance.  It’s not entirely clear where the game is picking up or how Kain and Raziel became separated (and as it never acknowledges the events of Blood Omen 2, I have no clue if they even consider it canon).  After an hour or two, though, it starts to make sense for those who have been with the story from the beginning.  The story treads water for a good while, focusing on those same events–Kain’s refusal to die for the Pillars, Raziel’s casting into the abyss, etc.– that have been talked about since the first Soul Reaver.  I found this a little tiresome at a point, even understanding how important these events are to the world of this series.

The plot, burdened by the inevitable confusion brought on by time travel, can seem a bit confusing at times.  It’s not always entirely clear why Kain or Raziel is doing what he is doing; hell, even they don’t seem have any idea, due to everyone they talk to being so damn cryptic.  Eventually, however, their intentions become clear and events start to move inexorably towards the conclusion.  Surprisingly, Defiance also manages to answer some long-standing questions I had about the series, such as the origins of the vampires and the true nature of the prophecies that have driven Kain through several games.  It didn’t answer all of my questions, but it certainly did more to explain itself than past games in the series.

The Pillars of Nosgoth, which keep the world in balance.

The Pillars of Nosgoth, which keep the world in balance.

I felt that the story, inconsistent as it has been throughout the Reaver games, manages to cohesively wrap things up in the end.  Even better, I think the way it wraps things up is quite smart and feels right in the context of the universe.  I obviously can’t explain why I feel this is the case without divulging massive spoilers about the game, but I really do believe that the way the events play out couldn’t have happened any other way.  The ending even manages to leave things in a satisfying place, with a bittersweet tinge of renewed hope.  It’s clear that there is more about Nosgoth and Kain to tell (which doesn’t get told, obviously, as this is the final game in the series to date), but I was perfectly fine with where things left off; as far as unfinished franchises go, this is easily one of the best resolutions a fan could hope for.

I also feel it is worth mentioning that both the sharp writing and excellent voice acting return.  I really can’t give enough credit to the writing, which brings a weight and gravitas to every cutscene.  The writers have truly crafted their own world with Nosgoth, one that I wish they had more time to explore.  All the key members return to reprise their roles and perform a remarkable job, giving intense and believable performances.  Listening to Kain and Raziel converse with one another is a true joy, one that is sadly brief and infrequent in Defiance; each scene with the two of them left me begging for more.  I would argue that this game features the series’ best work in terms of writing and voice acting; it was a constant treat to experience and had me riveted with every word.

In Defiance, you spend a good deal of time simply traversing the world.  The linear, level-based style from Blood Omen 2 has returned, switching back and forth between Kain and Raziel for each level.  These levels are quite straightforward, with only a few extra areas to poke into for stray collectibles which boost your stats or unlock concept art.  I also found that many of them were quite boring, filled with long, empty corridors of no consequence.  Even worse is that you visit several temples during the game (to unlock new powers for your Soul Reaver), each of which is nearly identical in design, with both Kain and Raziel.  I was extremely tired of the level design by the end of the game, especially after visiting many of the areas multiple times with each character.

This hilarious mechanic also returns from Blood Omen 2.

This hilarious mechanic also returns from Blood Omen 2.

Occasionally, you are tasked with some light platforming, such as navigating across some water by hopping from pillar to pillar.  For the most part, this platforming is simple and quick; certain sections, however, are absolutely frustrating.  In more than one level, you are asked to jump up some ledges via extremely small pillars, pillars that are hard to simply land on.  Your character also has a good bit of momentum on his movement, meaning that a simple nudge can cause you to slide off and start over again.  Certain jumps that require you to grab ledges to pull yourself up are a bit finicky.  I had my character refuse to grab a ledge more than once simply because I wasn’t at quite the right angle.  Thankfully, the platforming is rather uncommon throughout the game; prepare to pull your hair out when it pops up, though.

To make matters even worse, the camera in Defiance is absolutely atrocious.  Since you don’t actually control the camera directly due the game’s fixed camera angles (think God of War), you never know exactly what it will do.  It can point in entirely the wrong direction when you’re trying to navigate some platforms or get clipped into a corner as you’re trying to fight some enemies.  It also has a tendency to hide doors and pathways, making you fumble around looking for the way out of a room.  The worst example of the poor camera that I experienced was when the camera didn’t follow me into another room, instead staying locked to its previous fixed angle.  I had to navigate my invisible character until I found the door back into the previous room in order to get the camera to reset.  I’ve seen worse cameras in games but not by much.

Also noteworthy are the few sequences that are timed, such as activating a series of platforms to traverse.  Each of these is so ridiculously precise that any mistake whatsoever will have you doing them again.  You are given just enough time to do what you are asked and can’t waste a second of it.  These can be pretty damn frustrating, especially if something like the camera or touchy platforming also gets in the way.

Fluidity has finally come to the series' combat.

Fluidity has finally come to the series’ combat.

Combat has again changed to a slightly different system.  A lot of the clunkiness has finally been alleviated as Deception has adopted a style not entirely unlike the God of War series.  It is far from being as fluid as those games, but it is leaps and bounds above any of the other Legacy of Kain games.  You are no longer forced to lock-on to a foe before being able to attack him.  It’s easy to simply point in the direction of an enemy and attack, switching targets with ease.  Dealing with more than one foe is no longer the hassle that it once was.  There’s not really much too it, and it becomes unbearably repetitive by the end of the game, but I found it occasionally enjoyable.

Most of this enjoyment was derived from the telekinesis power that both protagonists have.  You can tap a button to fire a TK blast and knock an enemy flying, or you can hold that button and lift him up before throwing him in any direction (not unlike Psi-Ops, actually).  There are various hazards scattered around (fire, spikes, water) that enemies can be tossed into, but the tactic I enjoyed employing was actually throwing enemies into myself.  By doing so, they bounce off directly in front of you, leaving them open for a juggle combo.  In fact, Defiance has several opportunities for juggling enemies in the air thanks to a dedicated launcher button.  While the combat certainly isn’t as tight and fun as something like Devil May Cry, I couldn’t help but laugh as I juggled an enemy endlessly in the air as their health plummeted to zero.

As you progress through the game, you also unlock various elements for both Kain and Raziel’s Reavers.  These elements manifest in combat through a special attack, dictated by a meter that fills by attacking enemies.  Holding the attack button down with a full meter unleashes the attack attuned to the meter.  Nearly all of these either damage all nearby enemies or impair them in some way.  I didn’t really find these attacks all that effective, with even the weakest enemies able to sustain a couple of them without falling.  I actually preferred to leave my meter fully charged, as this kept the Reaver temporarily imbued with the corresponding element to buff my attacks.

Telekinesis gave me so many Psi-Ops flashbacks.

Telekinesis gave me so many Psi-Ops flashbacks.

Offensively, you don’t really ever have much trouble handling the enemies; your defense is where things start to falter.  There is no block button in the game, but this also applies to your enemies.  Your only option of avoiding damage is to use the dodge function to get out of the way.  Sadly, this dodge is extremely inconsistent, rarely seeming to work at all.  I couldn’t count the number of times I tried to avoid an enemy’s attack and didn’t move at all or still managed to get hit.  This dodge was so poor that I found myself ignoring it entirely, just taking the hits and soldiering onward.  For the most part, it worked out well, but a few of the longer fights got quite dicey as I took hit after hit with little chance of avoiding them.

I also hated how often you are forced into combat–get used to watching a barrier appear over the area’s doors so that you can’t leave until all enemies are defeated.  Some levels use this over and over and over again until I just wanted to shut the damn game off.  The combat doesn’t have enough depth or enjoyment to it to warrant being forced into so many encounters, especially against the frustrating and hard-to-kill late-game enemies.  It eventually became an exercise in patience, the tedium wearing me down until I couldn’t stand it anymore.  At this point, being done with the game, I’d be happy to never touch it again, even with its occasional bout of fun.

Puzzles in Defiance are as simple as ever, rarely stressing your puzzle-solving skills to overcome.  In fact, calling them puzzles seems a bit generous, as they often just have you doing the only available options to progress.  Many of these “puzzles” have to do with manipulating parts of the environment, such as braziers or orbs, to open doors and progress forward.  Your Reaver powers each do something unique that helps you to solve puzzles, such as freezing a waterfall to climb up a wall with the Water Reaver.  While I think using these powers in their unique ways has the potential to be an enjoyable mechanic, the puzzles never demanded enough from my attention to make them feel worth solving.  I never felt smart for solving a puzzle; instead, I just felt hindered on the way to my next story beat.

There’s also quite a bit of backtracking in the various levels as you find a key or emblem you needed for a door earlier on.  Considering how dull the environments tend to be the first time, I really don’t think it was smart for the developers to focus so much backtracking; it either feels like a waste of time or an annoyance as you try to find the correct path back through the similar-looking hallways.

You light, and extinguish, a LOT of braziers in Defiance.

You light, and extinguish, a LOT of braziers in Defiance.

As someone who has just played through this entire series (well, nearly–the original Blood Omen is still on my list), I found it strange that Defiance actually changed some of the established rules from previous games.  Dying in the Physical Realm as Raziel no longer teleports you back to the Spiritual Realm, instead just giving you a game over.  Climbing walls as a spirit, previously impossible due to Raziel’s inability to interact with anything physical, is now not a problem (although you still can’t open doors, for some reason?).  You can even switch to the Physical Realm with full health.  While these are all small changes that don’t really affect anything about the game, I thought they were really weird changes to make nonetheless; why bother at this point?

I again played the PC version and was happy to finally find a stable game.  I only had one crash to desktop in my ten hours with the game, and no other problems materialized whatsoever.  I also think the game looks quite nice for its age and was happy to finally see the inclusion of subtitles as an option.  Once again, I had to use a third-party program to get my controller to work in the manner I wanted.  Trying to use the game’s built-in drivers made my triggers unusable and didn’t let me change the sensitivity of the movement, making it impossible to play without Joy2Key.  Even with this third-party program, I still felt the control was quite twitchy in the movement.  Not knowing how the original played, this may have just been my deadzone settings at work.  Finally, I thought that the sound mix seemed strangely off at times, as if channels were simply missing.  It’s also possible that this was a problem with my rig, but I have no way of knowing for sure.  On the whole, I feel I can recommend this port for anyone interested in giving it a try..

Legacy of Kain: Defiance is the game I’ve felt the most conflicted about in the entire series.  While I love the story’s conclusion and the characters who inhabit it, the gameplay nearly reaches Soul Reaver 1-levels of frustration and annoyance.  As much as the combat has improved, it still becomes unbearable by the end of the game.  Puzzles introduce some neat mechanics that are squandered and poorly used.  I really think the story in this series, particularly the way it ends here,  is something everyone should experience, but I have a hard time suggesting anyone play through the rocky ups-and-downs of the various games.  On the whole, I think Defiance is the strongest game in the series overall, but it still has several weaknesses that any potential player needs to watch out for.

Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2 (PC) review

Kain, the game's antihero. I greatly prefer this character model to the one in the Soul Reaver games.

Kain, the game’s antihero. I greatly prefer this character model to the one in the Soul Reaver games.

Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen places players back into the role of Kain, the vampire bent on conquering the world.  In what seems to be some sort of separate timeline, Kain has not yet attained control of the realm of Nosgoth.  His forces battle the Sarafan, a fanatical group dedicated to wiping out the vampire race forever, led by the mysterious Sarafan Lord.  Somehow, this being manages to best Kain in combat, stealing away the Soul Reaver and nearly killing him.  It takes 200 years for Kain to finally recover, nursed to health by a new vampire resistance.  The Sarafan has taken over in Kain’s absence and nearly wiped out the vampire race.  Kain vows to reclaim his lost powers, kill the Sarafan Lord and obtain his rightful place as ruler of Nosgoth.

For anyone who played Soul Reaver 2, this game’s events may seem out-of-place.  This game seems to take place in an alternate timeline, one that has little-to-no bearing on the rest of the series.  Having finished it, I’m under the assumption that if the events are completely superfluous, but I won’t actually know until I’ve played the next (and final) game in the series.  From my impressions, it feels like this game is completely non-essential in terms of the series’ story.  There is a bit of information about the precursor races of Nosgoth which may be interesting to learn, but the overarching story of the franchise doesn’t really go anywhere.

This isn’t the only problem.  It is immediately clear that Blood Omen 2 was not written by the same team as the previous two games.  Much of the speech lacks the eloquence and poetry that I loved in Soul Reaver 2.  The absence of Raziel is also sorely missed, as the other major players in the plot are dull and uninspired.  Even Kain seems worse off; for much of the game, he lets others walk all over him instead of taking charge as fits his character.  Multiple times, you reach a gate you can’t pass, guarded by a human, who won’t let him pass until he retrieves a passcode.  Instead of breaking the gate down and tearing out the asshole’s throat, Kain simply does as he is told.  It felt entirely out-of-character and made me lose all interest in the other events of the story pretty quickly.

Equal parts badass and hysterical.

Equal parts badass and hysterical.

Blood Omen 2 shares many of the same gameplay elements as Soul Reaver 2, but the game has become even more linear than its predecessor.  Instead of an open-world, you progress through straightforward levels with very little to explore in each.  Checkpoints are scattered throughout each level; dying returns you to the last one you found.  Unfortunately, these checkpoints are quite far apart, especially in the last few levels.  More than once, I died and had to redo about twenty-thirty minutes of progress.  More frequent checkpoints would have been greatly appreciated.

Kain is a vampire, so his strength comes from the blood of his fallen enemies.  He can drain blood from any dead body in a ridiculous stream that flies directly from the prone form to his mouth.  This was never not hilarious to witness.  Drinking blood restores Kain’s health and also fills his Lore meter.  By capping out this meter, you increase the size of your potential health bar and become stronger.  This meter can also be filled by finding special lore boxes scattered around the world.  It behooves you to look out for these boxes and to drain every dead body you come upon, whether you killed it or not.

Every so often, you are tasked with solving a puzzle to open the way forward.  These puzzles are some the simplest puzzles I’ve ever seen in an adventure game, most of them completely mindless.  You can push boxes around (extremely clunkily, mind you) to access new areas or weigh down boxes.  Oftentimes, you are tasked with routing Glyph energy through pipes to power doors or switches.  As you unlock various vampiric powers (super jumps, mind control, telekinesis), they are also worked into the puzzles in various ways.  Until the very last level, which has one or two tricky puzzles, I had no trouble figuring them out immediately.  I’d almost call them hindrances instead of puzzles, just making me run around and do busy work until the way forward was open.

There's also a light stealth element, anywhere there is mist on the ground.

There’s also a light stealth element, anywhere there is mist on the ground.

Combat in Blood Omen 2 is probably the sharpest it’s ever been in the series;  You lock-on to an enemy, block their attacks, and respond with your own.  There are various weapons you can pick up, which do a small (almost worthless, since they break) increase in damage.  As the game progresses, you unlock new combat powers which charge as you block enemy attacks.  Unleashing one of these attacks does a great deal of damage, with the final power (Immolation) outright killing any enemy you use it on.  The combat has a decent rhythm, trading blows back and forth until one of you falls over.  Blocking can also be fun, as there is a “skillful” blocking option (turned on in the options) that forces you time every block perfectly.  I enjoyed keeping this rhythm going, blocking a long string of attacks before retailiating.

Just because the combat is sharp, however, doesn’t mean it is perfect.  The problem with the combat comes from how hard it is to fight enemies without your combat powers.  Later enemies block nearly everything you throw at them; getting a hit in is nearly impossible.  It makes more sense to tediously block their attacks until ready to unleash a power move and use that instead.  Repeat this pattern ad infinitum for the entirety of the game.  As much as I enjoyed the active blocking, I was ready to switch the option back by the end of the game’s twelve hours.  There are a ridiculous amount of enemies and each takes so much time to fight that it eventually becomes an exercise in patience.

Boss fights have returned and resemble the puzzle style of Soul Reaver 2.  None of these fights are just a straightforward tussle with your foe; you are asked to use your powers in creative ways to overcome a particular challenge.  I enjoyed puzzling these fights out, although some of them can feel very trial-and-error until you alight on the right combination.  The one bad thing about these fights is that dying resets you all the way to the beginning, which can be a big pain in some of the later, longer encounters.  Still, I loved seeing these puzzle boss fights return and hope they remain in the final game.

Some early combat with a Sarafan soldier.

Some early combat with a Sarafan soldier.

Many of the problems I’ve been having with this series’ PC ports continued in Blood Omen 2.  This time, my controller did actually work by default.  My options for customization were limited, set up in a way that I didn’t like and couldn’t really change within the game.  I was forced to again use a third-party software in order to get the controls how I wanted them.  This is a small annoyance but one to keep in mind.  I also wanted to note that this game locked up on me no fewer than five times in my twelve hours of play, forcing me to end the process to escape the lock.  Considering how far apart the checkpoints can be, this has the potential to be disastrous.  I recommend saving often and being prepared to redo some content.

Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2 was a sad game to play through.  I actually was quite fond of this game back around its release.  It has been one of my better-remembered nostalgic games for many years, but replaying it has highlighted its many rough edges.  As much as I wanted to love it again, I just couldn’t get over the simplistic puzzles and laborious combat.  It didn’t help that the story, which was supposed to continue the cliffhanger of Soul Reaver 2, also seemed to go absolutely nowhere.  This is a hard game to recommend to anyone but those who need to play every game in the Soul Reaver series; everyone else is safe to avoid this dated, clunky mess.

Transistor (PS4) review

The playable character, Red.

The playable character, Red.

Transistor takes place in the city of Cloudbank, a futuristic utopia that is ever-changing due to the whims of its people.  Each person has a say in everything from future public works to the color of the sky–and of course, popular opinion rules the day.  For most residents, this is the perfect life, one where the city takes care of all their needs and everything is decided for them.  For others, it is an eternal hell devoid of individuality.  This group believes the old world must come to an end before all traces of originality die out.

You play as Red, a famous singer who dazzles the city with her compositions.  She is one of those contented citizens of Cloudbank, going about her life happily with her unnamed lover.  That all changes one night when she is attacked in her dressing room after a show by a mysterious group called the Camerata.  In the chaos that follows, she manages to escape–but not without consequence: Red’s lover is killed with a strange sword and her voice has been stolen away.  In return, however, she has claimed control of the Transistor, a blade which is now imbued with the voice and soul of her lover.  With it, she can find the Camerata and obtain the answers she seeks.

Transistor dumps you into its world with just a small amount of information,  expecting you to mostly figure things out for yourself from that point forward.  Other than a basic idea of what you’re trying to do, there is very little context for anything around you.  You will be bombarded with terms like the Process, Traces, and the Country with next-to-no idea what the hell they even mean.  Characters seem to do things almost without motivation.  The game really doesn’t want to just outright tell you anything about the world; instead, it forces you to pay attention to everything you find in order to figure it all out.

I found this a fascinating storytelling technique.  As refreshing as it is to play a game that doesn’t heap a bunch of backstory into your face from minute one, Transistor was a bit overwhelming for me at first.  I struggled to relate to anything and was constantly confused.  Still, there was something there that intrigued me.  I pushed forward and forced my brain to make the connections between characters, to infer what certain terms meant, to grasp the subtext of a conversation.  This struggle could have been frustrating, but I found it endlessly endearing.  It made me feel crazy smart when I managed to put everything together.  By the end of my second playthrough, I felt like I understood the world entirely; better yet, I felt like I had earned this understanding.

That’s not to say I didn’t have a few issues with Transistor’s story.  Red is a pretty bland and uninteresting character, mostly due to the fact that you never get a good sense of who she really is.  Obviously, she never talks during the game since she’s lost her voice.  Other than a small bio, all you get from her is the slightly snarky things she types into the game’s various terminals.  Even these can be hard to read as her tone seems wildly inconsistent, ranging from sarcastic to timid.

The Turn system at work.

The Turn system at work.

The bigger problem is the game’s ending.  For an otherwise sharply written game, it feels unbelievably cliched and foolish.  It left me slightly pissed off that there wasn’t more to it, an unsightly blemish in an otherwise creative narrative.  This ending reinforced my notion that Transistor is captivated with the world it builds, perfectly willing to let the plot be simple and a bit clunky.  In the end, I found myself agreeing: the world is infinitely more interesting than the plot.

In Transistor, you get to explore the city of Cloudbank as you attempt to accomplish various objectives.  The game is fairly linear, leading you by the hand down smallish areas one-by-one until the game’s conclusion.  Once or twice, I felt that the way forward was hard to discern, partially due to the game’s art style where layers often overlap one another and can obscure certain paths.  There are a few things to find scattered about, mostly objects to inspect (with some VO from your sword pal) or terminals that give a bit of flavor to the world.  For the most part, it’s extremely straightforward.

The meat of the game is the combat.  Red often must fight the Process, a robotic force that has been corrupted by the Camerata, in order to progress forward.  You can do this in real-time if you like, but nearly every ability you acquire has some kind of delay between pressing the button and actually coming out.  You are also quite vulnerable, much squishier than the enemies; a straight brawl will rarely end in your favor, especially at first.  Instead, it is preferable to use the Turn system, a skill that pauses the action and allows you to plan out your moves in a strategic manner.  You can move around and queue up a few abilities before unpausing the action and performing it all at once.  Most of your fights will, and should, be fought in this way.

Any time outside of Turn will have you avoiding enemy attacks before you can get into position for another volley of attacks.  These foes are aggressive and dangerous when you aren’t in Turn, as many of them are faster and stronger than you are.  At times, playing keepaway with a particularly rough enemy can be frustrating, desperately waiting out the clock to use Turn again.  Certain battle arenas lack good cover which adds to the frustration.  Thankfully, this difficulty does slowly even out as the game progresses, since you become tougher and have additional combat options.

Pausing time doesn’t make every encounter a breeze.  The Turn meter is limited, meaning you can only do so much with it at once, and it has a slight cooldown before becoming useable again.  Also, enemies aren’t entirely defenseless.  Some can cloak, making them impossible to attack until they reappear.  Others can dodge an attack or teleport away when in danger.  It’s possible to accidentally knock enemies out of the way of further attacks, if you aren’t careful.  Successful encounters rely on your ability to strategically balance this information and attack as effectively as possible.  Poor planning will make your fights a lot more difficult in the long run.

The completed Function screen.  Note the Memory meter on the left, gauging how many Functions you can use.

The completed Function screen. Note the Memory meter on the left, gauging how many Functions you can use.

After a fight is finished, you earn a bit of XP, eventually gaining a new level.  Leveling up gives you a few choices.  Nearly every level will earn you a new Function, the abilities that make up your attack options.  Every so often, you will additionally earn secondary bonuses, such as new passive slots for your abilities or extra memory so you can use even more Functions.  It’s a very light leveling system, but it provides you with options that can make the combat potentially easier.  Enemies level up too as you progress through the game, gaining new abilities to better fight you.

You also eventually unlock Limiters, which make the game harder in exchange for an experience bonus.  Some of these are extremely mean-spirited, such as one that temporarily hinders your ability to alter your build, and increase the challenge substantially.  I turned on all ten for the required trophy and took nearly an hour and a half to make it through the five fights it asks you to complete.  Afterwards, when I turned them off, I found myself laughing at how much easier the normal game felt.  It’s a substantial difference, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. These Limiters are absolutely optional (unless you are an achievement hunter) but can be a good way to increase the difficulty if you want additional challenge

Once you have some new Functions, you can find an Access Point and play around with your build.  There are four active skill slots, each of which come with two upgrade slots, and four passive slots.  Every Function has different effects when put into any of these slots.  Your first ability, Crash, is a debilitating, stunning strike when placed into an active slot but changes to an armor-increasing buff when placed in a passive slot.  Every Function costs a set amount of memory, which you have to balance with your total amount (which increases as you level).  There is an astounding amount of depth in combining these various abilities with one another; it’s likely that your preferred builds will be very different from the ones I used in my playthroughs.

Similar to the way the story works, Transistor dumps you into this Function system without explaining much.  It’s a lot to take in at first, numbers and stats packed onto the screen in a way that doesn’t make much sense.  It encourages you to read the effects and play around with different combinations to figure things out on your own.  Again, this can be a bit annoying at first, but I actually found it to be rather smart.  I felt much more badass coming up with a devastating combo because I knew I puzzled it out on my own.

There’s another good reason to play around with your build.  Every Function represents an individual, part of their Trace (essentially their soul, in the game’s parlance).  All the main players in the story, including Red, are represented by a Function, with the rest being minor characters whose inclusion makes sense later on.  By using their Function in all of the three slot types (active, upgrade, and passive), you fill out a bio that gives you a bit of (mostly non-essential, but interesting) information about them.  Similarly, all of the Limiters represent one of the game’s enemies and using them gives you a bit of info about what exactly their nature is.  All of this information only requires one successful battle with the requisite ability in place to unlock, but it can take some time to do so with all sixteen of the Functions and all ten of the Limiters.  Still, these bios can be very interesting, especially if you are fully engaged in the world.

Your little getaway, where the challenge rooms are found.

Your little getaway, where the challenge rooms are found.

If you want to take a break from the story, you can hope into one of Transistor’s challenge rooms to test your combat skills.  There are five types of tests to choose from, with further instances of each opening up as you both complete them and progress through the game.  My favorite were easily the Planning tests, which force you to kill all the given enemies with a pre-determined skill set and one single use of Turn.  These challenges felt the most creative and made my mind work the hardest.  Sadly, this type is also the one with the fewest number of challenges and doesn’t get as crazy as I would have liked.  I could see the potential for some devious puzzles, possibly in some DLC?

My least favorite were the Performance tests, which task you with fighting several waves of enemies by steadily giving you more Functions and memory to work with.  The worst part about these tests is that which Functions you are given is entirely random; a string of bad luck can leave you with some less than optimal choices, forcing a restart.  These tests are also the longest, the final one being fifteen waves of combat back-to-back.  Failing in the final wave means doing all of them over again.  I enjoyed these challenges every so often, as they were a nice break from the story.  Doing them all back-to-back, however, is not recommended; it might take you quite some time to do so.

Once you complete the game, you are given the option to initiate Recursion, which is just a fancy way of saying New Game Plus.  It drops you back at the beginning but with your level and unlocked Functions carrying over.  The enemies likewise scale up in difficulty, gaining new abilities and strategies to test your skills.  If you wish to hit max level or unlock all the challenges, you will have to experience most of this second playthrough.  If you finish the game again, you can Recurse even further.  I personally chose to stop at this point, so I don’t actually know if the enemies continue to grow in power.

I enjoyed the mix of real-time and strategic combat in Transistor.  It inspired me to experiment with my builds and really learn the ins-and-outs of both the Turn system and the enemies behaviors.  There were a few problems I had, though.  Some enemies felt inconsistent, dodging some attacks on cue and failing to do so on others.  I could never discern what variables were at work.  There is also a bit of information about the game’s systems that is a bit too cryptic.  For example, I don’t think it ever notes that your highest memory function is overloaded first when you fall in combat.  This is one area where I felt that the game should have been a little more forthcoming.  Finally, there is no way to access the Function menu outside of an Access Point.  For the most part, this didn’t bother me.  During certain challenges that give you preset abilities, however, I would have liked to actually inspect what I had equipped.  These are all rather small, nitpicky complaints, but they were frustrating to deal with as I learned to play the game.

Transistor is an absolutely gorgeous game, dripping with atmosphere at every turn.  I fell in love with every part of it, everything from the style of the architecture to the chosen color palettes in various areas.  Every character is sharply drawn and perfectly unique; especially Red, who has become one of my favorite character designs to date.  Each level looks quite different from the last, a visual treat to snack on while fighting the Process.  Even the designs of the enemies is fascinating, representing various facets of their true nature.  I loved how everything was so dedicated to the computer theme, like the fact that your abilities are called Functions or how the enemies increase in version number as they grow stronger in power.  It is all so breathtakingly presented that I was utterly enthralled by every visual detail.

I love everything about how Transistor looks.

I love everything about how Transistor looks.

Even more squee-worthy were all the little details that are packed into the game.  There is tons of filler text on examinable objects that just say things like how many people have viewed a painting or the average number of occupants in a rooftop bath.  It doesn’t have much point, but it makes the world feel like a real place.  I found it amusing that all the enemies have cheeky little names like Jerk or Creep, as if Red was annoyed with them and named each herself.  There’s a needless flourish button–pressing it makes Red leap gracefully through the air–which has no function other than to look badass.  I can name tons of these great little touches: the adorable character idle animations, the sparks on the ground from where Red drags the sword, or even the way she will hug the sword during certain cutscenes.  It all gives the world a liveliness that I feel is rarely matched.

I can’t review Transistor without mentioning the soundtrack.  Holy shit, this soundtrack.  It is easily the best game soundtrack I’ve heard in years.  Each track is beautifully composed and perfectly suited for the situation or scene.  Impressively, the soundtrack’s varied tunes still manage a unified tone, with its ever-present tinges of electronic strings and beats.  I often found myself hanging around for a minute just to listen to the current track, a large grin on my face.  It’s the type of soundtrack that makes me want to rush out and buy it immediately.  I highly recommend at least listening a few of the tracks if you don’t play the game–although forgoing either would be criminal, in my opinion.

Sadly, the voice work isn’t quite as on the mark.  A lot of the VO, even some of the lines from the excellent Logan Cunningham (who voices your sword), feels flat and devoid of emotion.  I had a hard time believing anyone actually felt the things they were saying, due to the often uninspired delivery.  The worst offender is the game’s main villain, who kept reminding me of the halting tones commonly spoken by Jeff Goldblum–a funny comparison but one that made it hard to take him seriously.  Since most of the story is through text and subtext, I was able to deal with it.  It would have been nice to have a few more voiced characters, but it all manages to work well enough.

Transistor builds a world that I just wanted to fall completely head-over-heels into.  Everything about the city of Cloudbank was enthralling and fascinating, compelling me to dig deeper to learn its secrets.  I was sad when the game was over so soon, if only because I wanted to keep spending time inside its aesthetically-pleasing walls.  Even something as simple as the noise terminals make when they boot up (which is GREAT) or the adorable little grunts and moans Red makes in place of speech gave me a tingly feeling of joy.

This unabashed pleasure for the world was something I never felt with Bastion.  While Transistor is nowhere near as tight or pure in its storytelling as Bastion, I appreciated that it went for something ambitious instead of retreading old ground.  Personally, I adored the change in style and enjoyed myself immensely.  The narrative is certainly weaker, but I still had a great deal of fun figuring out the puzzling world of Cloudbank.  I know that not everyone will agree with me, but I hope that those naysayers will at least appreciate the strength of what was done here.  Bastion is a hell of an act to follow, but I think that Supergiant Games nailed it with Transistor.

Miasmata review

The journal, a crucial tool in your quest for a cure.

The journal, a crucial tool in your quest for a cure.

The story of Miasmata is quite thin.  You play as Robert Hughes, a scientist who has found himself stranded on the island of Eden.  As he wakes up, he finds that he has been stricken with a devastating plague, a plague that he will die from if he doesn’t find a cure.  Lucky for him, the island he finds himself on was at one point home to a research team trying to find such a cure.  The player must explore the island and find the necessary elements to synthesize a cure before escaping and returning home.  At the same time, he or she must avoid the mysterious creature that constantly stalks around, looking for another meal.

What little story there actually is all comes from journals of the original scientists found in the various huts and tents around the island.  Many of these talk about the plague and their attempts to find a cure. Later, one of the scientists hallucinates and falls into the typical “I’m going insane and found blood on my hands” craziness that I’ve come to expect from games of this type.  I started out trying to care about the backstory, but I soon found myself not giving a damn.  This information is completely non-essential and can be safely ignored in favor of the meat of the game.

There are two unique gameplay elements at work in Miasmata: cartography and botany.  Unlike your typical game which fills in a map as you explore, this game expects you to make most of the map yourself.  You get a very small amount of given information from the few maps you find around the island, filling in small sections for you, but the rest is up to you through triangulation.  To find yourself on the map, you must have unimpaired eyeline to two “known” landmarks (meaning already present on your map); by noting both of these with your map open, you are able to trace the intersection of those sightlines and find out exactly where you are  This also expands the map by a very small amount.  Furthermore, you can also make “unknown” landmarks “known” by doing the same process in order to give yourself more landmarks to consult if you get lost..

It’s important to note that you have to do this CONSTANTLY.  Your location is not marked on the map, unless you reference it with landmarks.  If you don’t keep your reference landmarks up to date, you may find yourself lost with no idea where you are and no way to check.  The island is absolutely massive and losing the path and your way is more a guarantee than a possibility.  It’s a terrifying and thrilling prospect, one that demands you have a good sense of direction (with the help of your compass) and dedication to mapping your path.  Never before have I felt a video game location was so real, forcing me to explore and learn actual geography and scouting techniques in order to survive.  I actually enjoyed wandering around and finding new locations; it felt like I was discovering a whole new world all on my own.

A glimpse at the map, with lines for "unknown" landmarks.

A glimpse at the map, with lines for “unknown” landmarks.

The other unique gameplay element in Miasmata is the botany.  Scattered throughout the island are various plants with a multitude of effects.  You take these plants to a laboratory, several of which are located around the island, and examine them to learn their synthesizable effects.  Some can be distilled into medicine, a necessity when your plague symptoms flare up and make you feverish.  Others can make a variety of tonics or boosters to temporarily or permanently increase your stats.  Six plants are particularly important, as they are the ones you need to synthesize your cure.

You can figure these combinations out on your own, by gathering random plants and putting them together to see what happens.  It’s easier, however, to find various notes that give you hints as to what needs to combine for various effects.  Finding the notes tied to the various cure elements is your first goal, as it can take hours upon hours to stumble upon them yourself.  These notes also hint at locations for necessary plants, testing your mapping and exploring skills in order to find them.  I loved the thrill I felt when I finally tracked down that one plant I needed for something–and felt a slight chill when I remembered I would have to carry it all the way back.

The plague affecting your character makes exploration difficult, essentially acting as your health bar; a few tumbles and he is soon at risk of death.  Expect to fall down hills quite often, especially as you are getting used to the game’s realistic momentum.  If you start running, you move extremely fast. Stopping can take a few seconds, especially when at top speeds.  When hills are involved, this process can take even longer.  I can’t count the number of times I teetered over an edge and found myself rolling for several seconds, the darkness seeping into the corners of my vision as the plague worsened.  This momentum system was a bit frustrating at times, when I couldn’t get my character to stop and lost both health and progress, but I eventually came to appreciate the challenge it brought.

For the size of its development team, Miasmata has its pretty moments.

Miasmata has its pretty moments.

Miasmata can be quite a difficult game, especially if you aren’t careful.  You can only save at beds and light sources, most of which are found within outposts.  Also, you only have one save slot (per each of the three files, at least); saving in a bad spot can potentially ruin your game.  It is direly important that you keep medicine on hand at all times, because you never know when the next chance to synthesize some will come up.  I had one point in the game when I was afraid I was going to have to start over, as I was feverish and quite far from any outposts.  I had to reload several times, eventually finding the best path to make it just in time.  It was intense and invigorating, but I probably would have been heartbroken if it hadn’t worked out.  I advise extreme caution when exploring new areas.

The monster stalking you seems quite intimidating at first.  You can go over an hour (like I did) without ever encountering it, maybe not even knowing it exists if you haven’t done your research.  No matter what, it will eventually appear..  You can’t really run away, as it’s much faster than you are, and it doesn’t stop chasing you until you reach a light source.  It appears and disappears at random, making it hard to predict.  As I encountered it multiple times, the terror became non-existent.  If anything, the monster just became an annoyance, getting in my way while I was trying to get somewhere.  Since he pursues you so quickly, you are better off just waiting for him to kill you and loading another save, hoping he won’t be in your path the next time.  I understand what the developer was going for with this mechanic, but it ends up being a waste of the player’s time.

For the size of its development team, Miasmata is an impressively atmospheric game.  The sounds of the island set the tone perfectly: light rainfall, the chirps of birds and other animals, and the startling growl of the monster.  While it is a bit flat in design, the vast scope of the island is astounding.  There are some rather good lighting effects in place, including a dark nighttime that is easily the darkest I have ever seen in a game by default.  I was truly frightened to step outside at night, both for fear of the creature and getting entirely lost. I highly recommend avoiding any exploration at night for all but the boldest of players.

Miasmata is an impressive game, especially considering it came from just two people: a pair of brothers who worked on it together.  Is it rough around the edges?  Yes, absolutely.  It is, however, a very unique vision that could only have come about from such a small developer.  The mapping and botany mechanics are uniquely fascinating gems that you would likely never find in a AAA-game.  The game’s island may not be as visually impressive as Skyrim, but I found it much more fun to explore and discover its many intricacies.  Unlike any game before it, I wanted to poke around and find everything on my own.  It is a wholly-unique experience, one that I suggest to anyone who thinks it might be up their alley.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 (PC) review

Raziel, the main character.

Raziel, the main character.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 picks up immediately after the events of the original game.  Raziel, the player character, has chased his old master Kain through a time portal and finds himself in the distant past of Nosgoth, in a time before Kain’s actions doomed the land in the original Blood Omen.  As Raziel continues his quest to enact his vengeance on Kain, he learns more about his heritage and the many intricate details that make up Nosgoth.  Through his actions, Raziel hopes to learn the real truth of all the world’s mysteries.

In fact, Raziel’s main goals often take a backseat in Soul Reaver 2.  While the plot does keep moving forward and remains relevant until the very end, most of the voiceover and (long!) cutscenes focus on telling the story of Nosgoth.  Several cutscenes feature Raziel’s internal voice monologuing over a new area, describing what he sees and what it means in the context of the world.  It’s all done extremely well and helps to sell the world as a real place, but I often felt that the writers preferred to explore their creation instead of actually continuing the narrative.  This is a noble goal, but it is often at the cost of the main plot, which can be quite interesting on its own.

Once again, the main strength of the story is in its writing.  Few games pack in so many sharply written lines, dripping with subtext and emotion from the excellent voice cast.  Nosgoth is also a fleshed-out place, with a vast history that makes me excited to learn more about it in the future games of the series.  Unfortunately, Soul Reaver 2 stumbles in one of the same ways the first did: in its resolution.  Things are again left unanswered by the the conclusion and another cliffhanger bookends the final moments, albeit one that is slightly less egregious than before.  I found this frustrating, especially in a game that managed to handle everything so well up until the final hour or so.

Moebius is another major player in the game's story.

Moebius is another major player in the game’s story.

Gameplay in Soul Reaver 2 feels both similar to and different from the gameplay in the original game.  The same mix of platforming, combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving exists, but the amount of each has shuffled around.  Exploration has become much less important, for example.  The world is much larger in size but is now extremely linear in scope.  You are gated heavily from exploring by various doors which require special powers to open.  Several of the main areas even permanently close after you finish them, preventing you from returning.  Health upgrades and bonus powers are gone too, meaning there is absolutely no reason to explore the world..  On one hand, I really appreciate that I didn’t have to go and find a bunch of stupid crap; on the other hand, however, it made the entire game feel a bit constrained and short.

Like its predecessor, it can be a bit hard to figure out where to go in Soul Reaver 2.  While the original game featured absurd pitch-black areas and labyrinthine level design, most of the confusion in this game comes from figuring out what exactly it wants from you.  I had a few moments where I couldn’t even begin to make progress because I had no idea what I was capable of doing as the player.  For awhile, I had to push at the boundaries of the game and realize just what it would let me do.

Soul Reaver 2 also makes the assumption that you have played the original.  Aside from showing the final events of the Soul Reaver 1, it doesn’t give you any information.  This also applies to some important things like controls, how the puzzles work, and where you are expected to go.  For those who haven’t played the original, it may be a bit hard to find your way at first.  It’s also worth noting that it is VITALLY  important to pay attention to Raziel’s incidental dialogue at all times, as he often tells you where to head next.  This is often the only hint you get as to where to go.  Missing this information can have you lost for several minutes as you find the one place you can progress.  As the player, you must keep an ear out for this dialogue or be ready to consult a guide.

One of the game's four forges, imbuing the Reaver with elemental energy.

One of the game’s four forges, imbuing the Reaver with elemental energy.

Platforming and puzzle-solving have both seen major improvements.  The controls feel much tighter, and none of the absurdly-precise platforming sections return from the previous game; any of the platforming I was required to do (which is much less, in total) was no longer a massive headache.   In terms of the puzzles, there is very little of the block-pushing that dominated the original game.  Instead, the puzzles mix things up nicely, often introducing new elements to tinker with as you imbue your Soul Reaver with four elements, one from each of the game’s main dungeons.  I never got stuck for long but still managed to feel smart after I solved a puzzle, a nice and friendly balance I enjoyed.

Finally, the combat has managed to become even more simple, something I wouldn’t have thought possible.  While Soul Reaver 1 had you spearing enemies or throwing them into various hazards to finish them off, no such thing is required in Soul Reaver 2.  You simply lock onto an enemy, block their attacks, and hammer on the attack buttons until they die.  It’s also noteworthy to say that the way your main weapon, the Soul Reaver, works has changed: whereas before you could only use it at full health, it is now available whenever you like.  It has become vicious entity all its own, though, draining your health if you use it too often.  Even with this restriction, you can keep it on the majority of the time and lay waste to the game’s enemies.

Fighting is absurdly easy, at least until the very end of the game.  Frustrating block-heavy enemies begin to appear, which is made worse by the inability to perform any kind of guard break; I eventually resorted to running circles around enemies in order to down them.  For the most part, the fighting is completely pointless.  I safely ran past the vast majority of enemies, stopping to fight the ones who created barriers or the ones who got in the way of my puzzle-solving.  Even the final boss (who is the only boss, by the way) is a complete joke, posing absolutely no challenge for reasons I won’t reveal here.  It made me feel like the developers didn’t really want to have combat in their game but included it because it felt necessary.

The world is much bigger but also more linear.

The world is much bigger but also more linear.

Saving in Soul Reaver 2 has become much what you would expect from a game in its era: you find a save point and make a save.  It’s important to note, however, that these save points are quite infrequent.  I went over an hour without saving on multiple occasions simply because I didn’t encounter another save point.  Many of the dungeon areas don’t include a save point, meaning you have to clear the entire thing or leave the dungeon before saving again. This can prove to be disastrous if you experience a game crash or a power outage.

Like with the original, I had a few issues with the PC port of Soul Reaver 2.  I couldn’t use my gamepad without the use of a third-party keymapping program, due to the game’s inability to bind the movement or to use my controller’s triggers.  I also had some problems with audio quality: sometimes, it sounded as if everything had dropped to an extremely low bitrate before fixing itself.  Finally, the game crashed during the final cutscene, meaning I had to trek through a half-hour of the boring endgame in order to see how it all ended.  For the most part, it’s stable enough to play through, but I would be wary of any potential issues.  Save often and be prepared to maybe use a keyboard.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 is a strange game.  In equal parts, it feels like the developers better realized their ideas for the original game and took several steps back from those original designs.  While Soul Reaver 2 is more ambitious in several ways, it actually shrank in scope from its PS1 counterpart.  I think it’s a much sharper game, still quite playable for a modern player, but I do miss some of that ambition from Soul Reaver 1, no matter how rough that game was.  I enjoyed spending my eight hours with it, but I wish I had gotten to spend more, learning more about Nosgoth.  My hopes are that the final game in this saga (as I’ve already played Blood Omen 2, which technically comes next) manages to bring it all together into a perfect conclusion.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (PC) review

Raziel, after his transformation.

Raziel, after his transformation.

NOTE: I would like to note that I did not play this game when it was originally released.  As such, I decided to review this game as it stands today, for someone who doesn’t have any nostalgia for it.  I ask fans of the original to remove their rose-tinted glasses and think about the game from my point-of-view.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver places you into the role of Raziel, a former vampire who is forsaken by his master Kain at the beginning of the game.  He is cast into the Lake of the Dead and left to torment for all eternity.  Raziel is saved, however, by a mysterious wraith and given a chance for vengeance.  The former-vampire is now a new being, a soul sucking demon with changed powers.  Raziel returns to a world that has decayed in the hundreds of years since his demise and fights through his several brothers in order to reach Kain and claim his vengeance.

The writing of Soul Reaver is easily its strongest aspect.  Both Raziel and Kain are excellently voiced and speak in poetical, almost-Shakespearean dialogue that is always enjoyable to listen to.  When the two of them are together, the writing flows and the two bounce off each other superbly. Sadly, this doesn’t happen often enough, only twice in the entire game.  None of the other characters are as fun to listen to and instead just spout inane, evil dialogue before being killed by Raziel.

Kain in all his smugness.

Kain in all his smugness.

The rest of the game suffers from poor storytelling done mostly through boring, stale voiceover.  Occasionally, you’ll get a voiceover from either your wraith friend or Raziel explaining a piece of the world.  There is rarely any context to this information, instead feeling dumped in your lap.  You are learning about the world, surely, but in a manner that makes it hard to actually retain any of the information being given.  Worst of all is that the end of the game, just when the story starts to come together in a more cohesive way, is capped off with a massive cliffhanger, one of the worst I’ve ever seen in a game.

Finding your way forward is also a challenge, as you are never clearly told where to go.  You will get a general idea from the wraith who is helping you, but it is given in the context of the world.  How am I supposed to know what the Fortress is if there are no signs indications informing me thusly?  It necessitates wandering around aimlessly until you find the one path available to you with your current ability set.  When I did find myself in one of the main areas, I became even more lost.  Oftentimes, the way to progress was so hidden or abstract that I couldn’t find a way out for several minutes.  It’s poor level design at its worst, practically necessitating the usage of a guide to make it through–unless you like being frustrated for hours.

Gameplay in Soul Reaver has you navigating a large world through a variety of platforming, puzzles, and combat.  You can go pretty much anywhere, your progress only being barred by various abilities you need to pass certain obstacles, Metroidvania-style.  Scattered around the world are various gates that allow you to teleport freely between them once discovered.  It’s also important to note that this is how you resume a saved game, as loading your progress always puts you back at the very beginning of the game, with your solved puzzles and defeated bosses remaining intact.  You can quickly move forward to the game’s first gate and warp back to where you were upon resuming.  It’s a strange choice, but it works rather well–as long as you make sure to find a gate before quitting the game.

Pushing a block, something you do a LOT of.

Pushing a block, something you do a LOT of.

There is quite a lot of platforming throughout Soul Reaver.  As you may expect from Playstation 1 era gameplay, this platforming is extremely touchy and unbearably frustrating at times.  Several of these sections are ridiculous, requiring a set of uncannily precise jumps in order to proceed.  The game’s keyboard controls (gamepad support isn’t available natively for the X360 controller) are imprecise and never seemed to do what I wanted during these segments, overstepping just enough to plummet me back to the bottom of a particularly hard section.  To make matters even worse, the camera is absolutely atrocious.  It gets stuck on corners regularly and has a tendency of auto-adjusting at just the wrong moment to mess up one of your jumps.  By the end of the game, I absolutely HATED the game’s platforming and never wanted to do it again.

Puzzles are also a common occurrence in Soul Reaver, particularly block puzzles.  I hope you enjoy pushing blocks around for several minutes at a time, because many of this game’s block puzzles get quite intense and complicated.  There is a veritable cornucopia of these puzzles in the game, sometimes in quick succession.  At the very least, the controls for pushing the blocks are excellently implemented, allowing you to move the blocks in any direction once grabbed (somewhat of a rarity in the genre, actually) and the ability to flip blocks over to fit them into place.  These puzzles were diverse and well-designed, but I grew tired of the sheer number of them eventually.

The other type of puzzle is figuring out how to progress through certain obstacles.  You obtain new powers from the infrequent boss encounters, as you absorb the soul of one of Raziel’s brothers.  These give you abilities such as being able to pass through gates or swim through previously-deadly water.  The boss fights themselves are quite creative in what you are asked to do to succeed, more like puzzles than actual fights.  I especially liked one that has me kite the boss back through the level to a furnace before torching him to death instead of actively fighting him in combat.  However, these fights are all extremely easy, once figured out, and somewhat anticlimactic.  The final boss fight (a repeat of a fight you’ve already done, in fact) is an absolute joke and feels very lazy in design.

An enemy thrown into sunlight, one of the few ways you can truly kill them.

An enemy thrown into sunlight, one of the few ways you can truly kill them.

The final part of gameplay in Soul Reaver is combat.  Raziel is always equipped with his claws, able to do short combos to assault his foes.  Most of these enemies, however, won’t die normally.  You have to use the grapple button to pick them up and throw them into water, fire, or spikes to finish them off.  It’s also possible to obtain weapons that can execute spearing finishes and eventually your Soul Reaver blade.  On some base level, I enjoyed the simplicity of the combat, as long as there wasn’t more than a single enemy.  Combat never becomes difficult–mashing the attack button works for every enemy in the game.  Enemies serve more as annoyances, getting in the way of your puzzle-solving or traversal.

In an interesting mechanic, Raziel can switch between the physical and the spiritual worlds, often to solve puzzles and progress forward.  This mechanic is dictated by Raziel’s spirit energy (or health, essentially), which he builds by eating the souls of his fallen foes  Raziel’s abilities are different in both worlds: for example, he can’t move blocks in as a spirit and he can’t phase through gates physically.  I also thought it was neat how the developers handle death with this mechanic, as dying in the physical world simply sends you back to the spiritual world.  Gathering a bit of energy and finding a portal lets you shift right back to try again, with only a small amount of lost time.  It makes death a lot less frustrating.

I came to Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver because of the overwhelming nostalgia that fans of the series seem to have.  For years, I have heard that this series has one of the best stories in gaming and knew that I would have to check it out eventually.  When I finally did, I just didn’t feel this reverence in my time with the game.  Maybe the story picks up in the sequel, but I didn’t really care much about the events of Soul Reaver–aside from the fascinating relationship between Kain and Raziel.  Considering the quality of the gameplay (by modern standards), I feel like I wasted my time by playing through this game.  I suffered confusing level design, unbearable platforming, and far too many block puzzles to count in order to finally know what this game was–and it wasn’t worth it.