It ain't easy being dead—or having no jaw or stomach. But is sure is fun. Just ask Raziel. He was a nobody vampire until Kain (his jealous master and star of Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain) chucked him like a rotten apple into a watery abyss at the beginning of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. That toss left Raziel a mangled corpse with no lower cuspids or lower intestine, but it launched a career as a homely video-game star that promises to grow with the September release of Soul Reaver 2 for the PS2. After a few hours of hands-on with Reaver 2, it's clear our soul-sucking antihero is here to stay, rotting flesh and all, in a game that is setting new standards for beautiful scenery.
The third title in the Legacy of Kain series will have more of what most intrigued gamers in the previous title: a foreboding atmosphere and intricate level design that hints at the deep, dark history of Nosgoth. The levels are already some of the most wonderfully designed and textured yet on the PS2, with architectural influences ranging from Gothic to Aztec. If Raziel had a jaw, it would drop repeatedly as he scampered about.
In the eerie swamp level—unlike anything seen in the previous game—huge trees loom over buzzing fireflies, glowing lanterns, and impaled corpses. Intricate ornamentation adorns every surface of a towering Gothic cathedral on another level. You can almost feel the rough stone on the walls and floors of other environments. SR2's developer, Crystal Dynamics, is using a programming trick called "streaming" to enable this standard of detail. With it, only the immediate surroundings—not the whole level—are loaded into the PS2's limited memory, leaving more memory available for textures and eliminating load times.
Gameplay will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has played Soul Reaver, as well as being simple for newcomers. The excellent auto-face command will still enable you to switch instantly from exploring to fighting, and you'll have plenty of new moves with which to cleave, hack, spike, or bash your enemies. Luckily, you'll retain the Soul Reaver sword, plus all your abilities from the first game: climbing, swimming, projectile shooting, and so on.
To keep the game challenging, however, a Reaver meter will let you swing the all-powerful saber only so many times before you lose health and are banished to the Spectral Realm. By beating boss vampires, on the other hand, you'll acquire a whole slew of powerful new Reavers—which you'll need to beat the ramped-up puzzles (no more box pushing). Specific Reavers—Dark Reaver, Light Reaver, Air Reaver, and so on—will break down specific obstacles, but you can only have one Reaver at a time and most puzzles will require several.
Perhaps best of all for fans of the series, Soul Reaver 2 will reveal more story line than the previous game. You'll learn more about Raziel's relationship with Kain and the Elder God, the mysterious force that revived Raziel after he was killed. You'll also meet Moebius the Time Streamer (who appeared in Blood Omen), whose portals will allow you to travel to different times in Nosgoth's past—before and after Kain condemned the world to ruin. Time travel will work similarly to the ingenious shifting between Spectral and Material Realms and it will have as dramatic an effect on the surroundings: A once-bustling town will be ruined and infested with vampires when you travel several hundred years into the future, but those pesky guards won't be there, either. Hmm... the possibilities.
It's clear that fans of the original Soul Reaver should find only more to like when they revisit Nosgoth this fall, while newcomers should ready their souls for consumption.
So if Soul Reaver 2 is the third game in the Legacy of Kain series, and Blood Omen 2 the fourth, why are they both labeled number two? Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain started it all in 1996 as a topdown vampire RPG for the PlayStation. Kain fights guards and ravages villagers, and at the end of the game, chooses to let the world of Nosgoth decay rather than save it. The second game, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (1999), was a 3D action/adventure, more spin-off than sequel. Kain appears, but the main character is Raziel, Kain's former underling. At the end of Soul Reaver, Raziel and Kain face off, but Kain escapes through a time portal and Raziel follows. That's where Soul Reaver 2 will begin. Meanwhile, Blood Omen 2 is being worked on by a separate production team, and will be the sequel to the first Blood Omen, focusing again on Kain rather than on upstart Raziel. "Because these games take so long to make—three or four years—we decided to use more than one team so we can make more of them," says Crystal Dynamics' Andrew Bennett, executive producer for both upcoming games. "The easiest way to describe it is to say it's like the Star Trek universe. You have one production crew doing Deep Space Nine, another doing Voyager, and another doing Next Generation. All three have Klingons, but the Klingons look slightly different in each series because each show has its own costume designer who wants to show what they can do."