— “Suffering to the conquered. Ironic that now I was the one suffering.
Not anything as pedestrian as physical pain, rather the cruel jab of impotent
anger. The hunger for revenge. I did not care if I was in Heaven or Hell. All
I wanted was to kill my assassins.”
Sometimes you get what you wish for.
Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain is the latest offering from Crystal Dynamics, where you, as Kain, return from the grave as an undead, blood-sucking vampire in order to avenge your own death. Sound a little gruesome? It is. It is also a terrific game: intelligent, thoughtful, brutal, and just a bit evil.
‘Vae victis’ is Kain’s war cry,
Latin for ‘suffering to the conquered’ or perhaps ‘woe unto the defeated’. In
real history, the quote is attributed to an ancient Celt leader. Having routed
the armies of Rome during a long southern march, the Celt army held camp outside
the walls of Rome itself, prepared to lay siege. Rome offered to pay them with
gold, if only the attackers would let the city be and return to their homelands
(yes this is going somewhere). A sum was agreed upon, and the measuring began,
but Roman officials accused the Celts of cheating by weighing the gold with unfair
weights. The Celt leader Brennus laughed. ‘Vae victis’, he declared and cast his
sword upon the scales, adding its additional weight and forcing the Romans to
cough up even more gold. Suffering to the conquered indeed.
This theme of balance (and of imbalance) runs deep in Legacy of Kain. It is a surprisingly amoral game where you must kill both the guilty and the innocent. In fact, guilt vs. innocence and good vs. evil play very little part in this game. You kill to feed, to defend yourself, to survive, to grow stronger. Blood is blood. You kill without judgment.
As the only truly balanced scale, everyone is obviously against you. The common villagers fear you and fight you because you are a vampire who preys upon them for sustenance. The powerful hate you because of the power you posses and the threat you represent. The land has been corrupted. Greed, violence and injustice abound. The bloody path you cut across the land may actually cauterize a few wounds, extract a few cancers. The dark world may emerge better for your misdeeds. Do the ends justify the means? If these are placed on the scales, do they balance out?
Enough philosophical ramblings. Onto the game!
Legacy of Kain is one of an increasing number of games that are difficult to categorize into a genre. It is part action, part adventure and part RPG without truly being any one of these. In format, it most resembles the game Legend of Oasis for the Saturn. You move Kain around from a mostly top-down perspective and fight by swinging his sword (or one of several weapons he can acquire). You must explore a very large world, and put together the story, some very simple clues, and a couple of very basic puzzles. The adventure part of this game is certainly the weakest. Finally, while you don’t go up ‘levels’ like a standard RPG, Kain does get much stronger over time as you gather new objects, weapons, armour, spells, and abilities.
Kain begins the game with an iron sword, but can move later to a mace, useful for bashing open objects or stunning victims so you can easily drain them of their precious blood. With a pair of axes, Kain can whirl around like a dervish, slicing everything in his path. There are 13 different Spells for Kain to learn, both offensive and defensive. With different armour, and a couple dozen objects to pick up, there is quite a lot of variety.
Kain’s vampiric abilities are great fun, once you acquire them. You can turn into a wolf, who can leap and attack with his massive claws, but cannot use spells or items. Yes, of course you can turn into a bat. You use this ability to cross great distances on the large world map. You can also eventually disguise yourself as a peasant or nobleman and assume a vaporous form.
The graphics (did I mention there were graphics?) are quite good. Everything is 2D sprites, but they are well detailed and smoothly animated. Sometimes the objects don’t line up very well, when Kain pushes items around for example. But the backgrounds are diverse and the fighting and bloodsucking look great.
Because the PSX is designed more for 3D graphics, it lacks a bit of processing power when trying to animate all these detailed sprites. There is a very noticeable slowdown when many moving objects are on the screen. While this does allow you to fight multiple enemies and avoid traps more easily, it detracts from the continuity and realism of the game.
The sound. Ahhh, the sound. The sound effects are perfect. Every swinging, clanging sword, the cries of your victims, the sound of flowing blood: its all there. Kain does shout ‘vae victis’ just a little too often. The background music is both mood setting and unobtrusive with whistling wind, the occasional low moan of the cello, and sometimes the distant tolling of a bell.
This is the best part: Someone FINALLY listened to me! This is a CD based game, and guess what? You don’t have to read any text! The voice actors are fantastic, and there is quite a bit of dialogue. Once you gain the ability to disguise yourself (so nobody knows you’re a vampire) you can talk to everyone in each village. There are also several oracles, seers, and villains who talk to you. The best part is the narration of Kain himself who adds his delightful, if somewhat cruel, two cents worth every now and then.
The voice actors also shine in the FMV (Full Motion Video). There is a full 25 minutes worth of video in this game, all of it pre-rendered computer graphics, and all of it VERY well done. It is creative and visually stunning. The script and the plot are both complex and thoughtful. The people who worked on it should be applauded for their efforts. The storyline and dialogue are well written, entertaining and intelligent. This is a giant step forward from the standard slap-together video game plot, written as an afterthought, or the badly translated Japanese imports we’ve been forced to endure in the past.
Despite all this high praise, Legacy of Kain still has a couple of flaws. I mentioned the graphic slowdown previously. On top of that, the game is too linear. While this makes the game more action-oriented, the engrossing story calls out for a less linear, more RPG-like style. The biggest flaw, however, is more technical: the LONG load times. Nearly everything you do in Legacy of Kain requires you to wait. Entering a building or cave, flying somewhere, you name it. Just changing Kain’s weapon (a frequently used option) requires you to wait through TWO ‘Loading’ screens! This is terribly frustrating.
With slick graphics, plenty of depth, an intriguing plot, and perhaps even a deeper moral question or two, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain is one of the few games for which I would actually wait through the horrible loading times. It is not for the squeamish, or the easily offended Christian-type, but if you have a cruel streak (even hidden somewhere down deep) this game is a winner.