These are the days of our afterlives.
Back in the late 1960's, America experienced hippies, LSD, free love, bumper stickers, The Brady Bunch, psychedelic rock, men on the moon, and the world's first vampire soap opera. Yep, you heard me.
In 1966, ABC premiered Dark Shadows, a daily soap opera whose main characters were Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the reclusive Lady of Collinwood Manor, Vicki Winters, the maid, and the vampire Barnabas. The moderately popular series ran for five years and a staggering 1,225 episodes.
Thirty years later, hippies aren't very hip, love is expensive, I can't find any LSD, no one's sure if we really went to the moon, and The Brady Bunch simply refuses to die. However, we do have a brand new vampire soap opera in Soul Reaver 2, which is really the third in a series of blood-sucking tales that began with Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. Since the beginning, the well conceived (if somewhat overly dramatic) story has had more depth, plot twists, and moral conundrums than a whole year of General Hospital.
For those of you who didn't experience the earlier installments, allow me to summarize. In the first game you play Kain, a knight slain by treachery, and returned to the world as a vampire with a thirst for blood and revenge. But revenge is no easy task, as a dark plot unfolds threatening the whole land. Moral ambiguity reigns as Kain, through his evil vampiric killing, might save the earth.
Thousands of years later in Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, we find another tale of revenge. Raziel, a winged vampire slain by Kain, is revived from oblivion as a unique being, a sort of spirit vampire, sucking souls and drifting between physical and spiritual realities. Raziel's targets of vengeance are his traitorous vampire brothers and Kain himself. However, this game and its story both ended rather abruptly when the developers were cut off and forced to release the game unfinished.
Finally, (or actually not finally, as more Legacy of Kain games are in the works) Soul Reaver 2 picks up the story of Raziel as he hunts Kain. But he discovers that not everything is as it appears, that unseen forces are trying to use him as a pawn to kill Kain, and that the "noble" humans fighting off the vampire plague are guilty of equal atrocities.
The complex story actually goes much deeper than this, but we've got a game to review here.
Soul Reaver 2 plays just like the first Soul Reaver, a third-person action adventure game. You run around, and explore, and fight, and solve basic puzzles. Think of Raziel as sort of a bluish Lara Croft, only without breasts... or internal organs... or lower jaw.
And although gruesome, Raziel looks good. This is the first Soul Reaver game designed exclusively on a next-gen system (the Dreamcast version of Soul Reaver was just a PS1 port). Objects and backgrounds are sharp and smooth, and the water effects and reflections are particularly well done. However, there are some slight errors with collision detection and shadows are primitive, putting it just a slight notch below the graphics of games like Devil May Cry.
On the other hand, Soul Reaver 2 has one up on Devil May Cry, Code Veronica X, and a host of other games: no loading times. Once you start playing, there's never another loading time again anywhere in the entire game. The game loads the areas ahead of you while you run through the corridors to get there, anticipating where you are going. This is great, and perhaps an attempt to make up for the first Blood Omen game, which suffered from loading times that made the eternal life of a vampire feel even longer.
The sound in Soul Reaver 2 is also absolutely top notch - haunting music, nice effects, and disturbing low tones will give your woofer a workout. Plus, the Kain series continues to have what almost no other video game seems able to achieve: good voice acting. The dialogue may be a little pretentious and overblown, but it's said with such great style.
However, the gameplay is strictly done-it-before, mirroring the original Soul Reaver almost exactly, with really no new vampire abilities or innovations. The puzzles have improved only slightly; gone are the endless hours of manipulating large stone cubes (another Lara inspiration). While there are a few objects to drag about, most of the puzzles are about finding keys, reflecting beams of light, and putting your Soul Reaver sword into slots while it is imbued with the right "element."
Raziel continues to offer us a solid gaming experience, even if it's not truly inspired. What keeps me coming back is the story. Like a soap opera, if you know all the characters and have made your way through all the games, you'll find yourself addicted. You just have to know what happens next, even though the plot gets sillier the longer they extend it out. And also like a soap, it's a little hard to start right in the middle and know what's going on. The Legacy of Kain series is one of those rare games where it's actually worth paying attention to the story. Too bad you have to go back to the PS1 to get caught up.