- Nov 1998
- By Brady Fiechter, Amy Hennig, and Gamers' Republic
"The night is his comfort. The souls of the dead are his peace. He welcomes darkness and the death that it brings. He delights in the face of all that is evil. Vast does he stand in his wicked glory, and he sees how evil goodness is. He is vampire, Nosferatu, prince of darkness. He is Raziel."
The story of Soul Reaver does not lurk silently in the background like so many adventure games, an excuse to give form and basic meaning to the gameplay and visuals. There is much we don't know about Raziel, and as the story unfolds through voice-overs we learn profound revelations about his existence and the vampires around him. But, from the very beginning, we do know that he is rightfully angry with his fate. He maliciously strikes down his brethren with as he cocks his head toward the heavens, devouring their released souls. The spirits of his fallen are his nourishment, feeding his evolutionary process. In victory against the 10 clan leaders, special abilities are bestowed upon Raziel as he assimilates his victim's essence, every confrontation leading to a greater being: with the power of the fallen clan leader now transferred to Raziel, walls can be deftly scaled, phase shifts can be made to pass through barriers like a ghost, water can be tolerated for swimming.
A vampire, existing as a supernatural being, possesses fantastical powers that render him impervious to typical combat strategies. The mechanical, haphazard mentality will not grant Raziel the succulent souls he hungers for; only a careful and deliberate approach will lead to the demise of the vampires. "Instead of just getting in there and slashing at the enemies and attempting to take their hitpoints down, because these enemies exist in the vampire state, when undamaged, they are particularly formidable," explains Amy Hennig, producer/director of Soul Reaver. "You have to be cagey enough to get them into a damaged state in which they are vulnerable, so that you can go in for an impale, burn them, or throw them. You have to think about what tools you need - 'do I have fire, impaling elements, something to control them with?' If the answer is 'no,' you are in an vulnerable state, and you must locate what you need."
Dispersed throughout the levels, objects such as urns and boulders can be used to stun the vampires, and one- and two-handed weapons must be found in order to forever put the them to rest. While some weapons are burning tools, most objects embellishing the environments can be dislodged from their foundations and used for impaling: lightning rods from a village home, iron posts from a grave-yard fence, steel fixtures on a window pane - the variety in what can be found is only limited to a designer's creativity.
Raziel starts out with only his claws to do battle, but once he first confronts Kain, he destroys the Soul Reaver sword (the weapon Kain used to butcher his victims in the original game), and must claim it as his own in the spirit world. Once Raziel claims the sword, he can baptize it, as with other weapons, in streams of light, water, fire, spirit, imbuing it with added strengths. As he continues deeper into his dark world, Raziel will only mature, both physically and mentally, learning magic spells and better utilizing weapons.
In what is a grandly innovative idea, every area Raziel explores can be travelled through in two separate planes of existence - the spectral and the material. These disparate realities teeter between the mystic and the mortal, and they can be passed into and out of by an awesome, real-time morphing command. When in the spectral realm, the entire environment shifts to open up new doors, contort buildings and rocks for previously nonattainable passage, even remove objects entirely. If not captured after the kill, a vampire's soul can escape into the spectral plane, and Raziel is forced to chase it or risk it manifesting back in the material plane stronger, sometimes in a completely altered form.
Providing a unique new set of obstacles for the player, the existence of the two completely separate worlds is a provocative concept. The path of survival, the means to the richest reward, is not always so obvious: the player must carefully ponder each situation faced. "The whole goal from our gameplay point of view is to have the player active all the time, but thinking all the time, too. The cool thing about people's favorite games - games like Zelda and Metroid - clearly your adrenaline is engaged, but your brain is engaged, too," says Amy. "So, having area-based puzzles, room-based puzzles, having to think through everything and not just charging through, say, a bowl in a china shop, adds a greater element to the game. Because the enemies are vampires, you have to think about how you take them on. Because there is the material and spectral, you have to think about where you should be at any one time, what the consequences are of losing health and dropping into the spectral world. It'll be a very hard game to play if you aren't thinking."
Soul Reaver is a game so dark and foreboding that light wilts in its presence. The artists have seized the story and made a world that is beautifully haunting in its shadowy dread and misty ambience. Decorated with exquisite gothic artwork, every corner of the cavernous walls drip into a pool of visual decadence. The grandiose architecture is influenced by actual Roman and Greek structures: looming arches rest on towering pillars, huge concrete pistons extend into decaying brick towers. There is a sense of authenticity, a sense of realism to the environments that is unlike anything that has been achieved before. These sights really must seen.
Not surprising, the designers are achieving a level of detail even they thought impossible. "We amazed ourselves at how believable it all became," says Amy. "The people here are artists... They don't just extrude blocks. We said from the beginning, if we're going to do a game like this, we're going to do it with a level of architectural reality and convincingness that hasn't been done before. I think we are succeeding." They are more than succeeding. It's as if they've given themselves the license to imagine anything: the only ceiling to their gloomy vision is the hardware. But around every foggy turn, the team seems to be circumventing limitation: textures are painted as art, displaying actual murals and meticulous designs in the walls and floors; and as we become entrenched in the surroundings, our suspension of disbelief remains flowing - not once, throughout the entire journey will the CD visibly load.
With Soul Reaver's disturbing vampire theme, there is certainly a wellspring of darkness for the team to cultivate as the game continues through its design process. They are already realizing the theme with extreme poignancy. In a religious undercity, zealot cult members will actually rush to torched vampires and split themselves open to pour blood over the vampires' charred remains, resurrecting them. Scenes like this are why Amy says, with an air of confidence in her voice, that "fans of the first game will not be disappointed." Nor will those gamers who appreciate the fine art of making an unforgettable video game.