- February 1999
- By John Davison, Michael Sexton, and Electronic Gaming Monthly
Ironically, one of the major changes between the original game and Soul Reaver is the adoption of somewhat more Tomb Raider-esque gameplay and presentation style. The new game uses a vastly enhanced revision of the Gex 3D engine and offers some of the most impressive visuals on the PlayStation so far. Imagine a cross between Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid, and throw in some more supernatural imagery and you'll have a rough idea of the visual direction the game is taking. Moody lighting and beautiful texture maps are the order of the day here...just scan through some of the screenshots in this feature and you'll see what we mean.To get a more detailed look at the first big game of 1999, we visited Crystal Dynamics' studios in Mento Park, Calif., to speak with the team. Headed up by Amy Hennig, the lead designer on the previous game, the team is nearing completion on the project in time for its release early in the year.
Loading the latest version of the game on a test station, it's immediately obvious that it has come a long way in recent months. Numerous preview screenshots have been released since May, but the project is finally coming together.Hennig picks up the story from the beginning. "The FMV at the beginning takes place centuries after the events of the first game and you see that Kain has taken over like some kind of god. When the game starts though, even more time has passed and Raziel emerges in his mutated form. Now Kain's empire has pretty much crumbled and all of the vampires have degenerated into more monstrous forms.
"Raziel falls from being cast out by Kain and when he hits the bottom of the pit he just thinks that, like, five minutes have passed or something. The basic idea is pretty much like Spawn when he's cast into hell...a number of years pass in what seems to be a short space of time. He thinks he's just tumbled through the vortex and woken up, so when he re-emerges in the real world he sees places he thinks he only recently saw in all their glory now reduced to rubble. Part of the exposition of the story is Raziel discovering what has happened in the intervening centuries. We've tried to make some parts like that scene in Logan's Run...you know when they find all of the old capital buildings and they realize what's happened?"Early portions of the game have been around for some considerable time. EGM's sister magazine, Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine, even ran a demo of the first section a few months ago (where a location from the first game was clearly visible...a large skull that acts as a doorway). But one of the big questions that many people want answered concerns whether the new game is in fact an RPG, or whether it's been simplified to accommodate the 3D engine.
From sitting down with the team, and from playing a series of versions of the game, it's clear things are very different this time. Gameplay is obviously geared around the opportunities provided by a 3D environment. There's plenty of action, and in fact one of the most important elements of the game is Raziel's ability to kill creatures and then absorb their souls. This is a fundamental building block of the entire game, and it ensures there's always lots of fisticuffs amidst the more cerebral areas.Because of Raziel's undead status, he effectively exists within two different planes of reality: the "spectral" world and the "material" world. In order to keep himself in the material plane, he has to ingest souls to sustain his energy. Failure to do so shifts him back into the spectral plane which is a dark and twisted version of the real world, infested with the dead. Shifting between the two dimensions is yet another gameplay mechanic though, and becomes increasingly important as Raziel's quest continues. Early in the game he shifts planes only when he is weak, or when he finds a portal. However, as he defeats more adversaries and absorbs their abilities through their souls, he eventually reaches a point where he can hop between realities at will. This has a number of benefits. First, and most apparent as far as gameplay is concerned, the architecture mutates between the two planes and very often presents him with opportunities to reach areas in the spectral world he can't reach in the material world. Second, time has no meaning in the spectral plane...so Raziel can perceive the world in "freeze frame" by shifting planes. Machinery appears to stop, objects stop moving—Raziel can even throw things and switch planes so they appear to hang in midair. Finally, there are completely different characters in the two different planes—and very often Raziel will have to perform differently in order to defeat certain adversaries.
Hennig provides us with an example. "One of the bosses actually starts off dead," she says, "so he resides in the spectral plane. The story tells you that the humans rose against him, killed him and then wiped out everyone in the town. As a result, spectral is completely infested with vampires. The boss himself is impaled with lots of spears and stakes in the material world so he's dead—but in spectral he's incredibly powerful. Raziel actually has to force him back into the material world by pulling all of the stakes out of him."Each boss Raziel must face poses a different set of problems, but by defeating them Raziel becomes more and more powerful. Hennig explains, "To use just one example, Raziel can climb walls in a lot of sections of the game, but like a lot else, this is an ability he can only acquire by ingesting a soul—in this case, that of one of the bosses. The different boss characters are the mutations of the vampire clan leaders seen in the intro of the game, and each one has taken on certain characteristics. By ingesting the souls, Raziel eventually learns to climb, swim and even phase through barriers."
Although his abilities change, Raziel stays the same physically throughout. "Character morphing is something that we'll probably do in the next incarnation of the engine," Hennig says, "but at the moment it's just too much for the PlayStation to handle." EGM has already reported in the past that the design documents for Kain 3 are under way deep within the creative bowels of Crystal, but this would indicate that it won't be a PlayStation project.Obviously, as you'd expect at some point, Raziel must face Kain, and he in fact does so twice. The first encounter provides an explanation for the name of the game. "The first time Raziel meets Kain he earns the Soul Reaver," explains Hennig, "which in its basic form is a sword that is his constant weapon in the spectral plane. In the material world, we tried to make the sword work like it does in Zelda where you can use it when you have full health. The health meter is always draining throughout the game (much like the blood meter in the original game), because Raziel is exerting energy simply to sustain his physical form. However, once he draws the Soul Reaver it sustains him, so then the only way it drains is if he takes damage from an enemy." Hennig shows us an early
version of the sword within the game environment, and it's a nasty-looking thing that adds yet another dynamic to the gameplay. But will it over-simplify combat too early in the game?
"The default Soul Reaver is simply a really tough weapon... if you attack the bad guys with it, it makes a big impact on them so you can dispatch them quickly.However, it's not just that simple, as later in the game you find a number of forges that allow you to imbue or baptize the sword with different abilities. These forges each tie in with the different elements that you also acquire as spells in the game. Once the sword is baptized in an element, Raziel can re-imbue the Reaver simply by passing the blade through something of the same element. For example, once imbued with sunlight, simply passing the blade through a ray of sunlight allows you to turn it into the Sun Reaver. The elements for the sword and the spells are the same, but the effects are different. The sword is either hand-to-hand or projectile-based, so it's always focused on individual characters. The spells are environment-based though and only affect enemies if they are standing in the area that you have cast the spell. Obviously different characters are susceptible to different characteristics of the sword. For example, vampires are going to take a lot more damage from the Sound Reaver than humans are because they have far more sensitive hearing. Water-based creatures won't take damage from the Water Reaver, etc., etc."
Thankfully, the game isn't just all about confrontation though. The vast majority of the gameplay is puzzle-based, often requiring some serious spatial reasoning skills. The best way to illustrate this is to simply give an example, so Hennig takes us through a typical puzzle. "One of the more complex puzzles deals with a derelict lighthouse. If you look in through the transluscent windows you can see that there's like a wick, or a gas jet in there. You need to get that lit to solve the first part of the puzzle. The whole area is geared around a broader objective though...as you explore the surroundings you see through the iconography on the walls that there is a connection between the lighthouse and another room. Basically what you'll need to do is introduce light into the room by making the lighthouse work properly and shine in through a hole in the wall."Hennig then takes Raziel to another key room in the puzzle. "You've got this big wheel in a large chamber which is just sitting there when you walk in," she begins. "When you flick a switch though, the wheel starts cranking up and you see lots of gas jets around the chamber and in the corridors lighting up. As it continues to crank, more of the gas jets light...but then eventually the wheel slows down and they all go out. Obviously at this point the player should realize there's a connection between the two and you'll have to stop the wheel cranking down somehow. Our hope then is the player will be tempted to explore and figure out that you can jam the wheel by moving a block in the way—so the lights should stay on. Now, if you run back outside of the room, you realize the lighthouse light is on...but it's not facing the right way—so you need to move to the next section of the puzzle which is where you work out how to rotate the lighthouse light to shine into the room."
Moving down through some very realistic-looking environments, Raziel is faced with another complex piece of architecture. "If you move to the bottom of the lighthouse, "Hennig continues, "you realize the whole thing is driven by water. There are a series of pistons and pipes following the route through all of the machinery. There are bellows and pistons and obviously some kind of water trough... drain holes in the floor and stuff and as you explore further you realize how the whole thing is supposed to work. You need to get the water through the pipes, and as you look around you see there are push blocks lying around with pipework cut through them. If you look at all the blocks and how the holes through them fit, you can then push them and rotate them so they connect." So...not only is it an RPG hybrid with Tomb Raider-esque leanings—it's also a 3D version of Pipedream (remember that?).As we go to press, Soul Reaver is still a few months from completion, but a number of things are assured. You'll hear a lot about this game in '99. It has the collective might of both Eidos and Sony—who's pushing it as a showcase for the PS—behind it, and the cool characters have assured a multitude of merchandise. Keep an eye out for the toy line, possibly by summer, and other developments, too.
Goth's Will Love This... The Story of Raziel
A full millennium has passed since the end of the first game (Blood Omen) and Lord Kain has set his capital in the ruins of the Pillars of Nosgoth (for those of you not "in the know," this was a key location in the original game). After recruiting six lieutenants from the Underworld, of which Raziel was one, he set about destroying all of the major human kingdoms so that he could re-arrange the world to be more suitable for vampires. You know the deal, all terribly Goth...black paint, Sisters of Mercy and Siouxie and the Banshees music on every radio station, jewelry with skulls, black hair dye and lipstick. Using human slaves he set about the construction of huge furnaces to belch out smoke that would block out the dangerous effects of the sun so that the vampires could hang out all day and all night. Then, as he kills everyone off, he steals their souls and turns them into vampires. As time passed, Kain and the lieutenants began to evolve into "Dark Gods." Kain—being a big show-off—would always evolve first, with the others following a decade or so later. Unfortunately for Raziel though, he turned up at a lieutenants' meeting sporting a rather fashionable set of new wings. Understandably Kain, being the egomaniac that he has become, is somewhat pissed and rips them off. Not satisfied just with that, he also sentences Raziel to being cast into the "bottomless vortex"—a big swirling watery vortex, which, as its name implies, apparently has no bottom. Those of you who are either Goths, interested in vampires, or someone who's seen the Lost Boys will know that vamps have a bit of a problem with water. As Raziel tumbles into the vortex, the water burns away at his body like acid and strips away his spookily androgynous looks to reveal a horrible demon creature...without a bottom jaw. Eventually Raziel actually hits the bottom of the vortex, exploding the myth that it was in fact bottomless. Once there he encounters The Elder who tells him of "creation, death, souls and hunger" and how he used to feed on the souls of Nosgoth before Kain claimed them for himself. The Elder offers Raziel the opportunity to return to the material world as long as he is prepared to collect souls for him. So now Raziel has a big, ugly, soul-sucking hole where his throat used to be.