Retrospective – Soul Reaver 2 (2001)
“But suppose your throw a coin enough times – suppose one day it lands on its edge.”
The opening to Soul Reaver is seared into my memory. No matter how many times I watch the introductory cutscene, the booming synth pulls me right back into the Gothic tableau of the Legacy of Kain universe, as if I were discovering it anew. With slick narrative efficiency, it sets in motion a tale of vengeance that spills out across time, daring its protagonists to challenge the apparent indomitability of fate.
And dare they do.
Yeah, I adore Soul Reaver.
So. Soul Reaver 2, then. A challenging game to write about, frankly.
It doesn’t start well. Compared to the haunting dramatics of its predecessor, Soul Reaver 2’s opening is stilted, drab, and uninspiring. And that’s just the long-winded cutscene. A barren stretch of stone halls await your first forays into the world, cavernous in design but somehow missing any sense of grandeur.
It gets a bit better the farther you travel. You’re now in Nosgoth’s past, centuries before it was reduced to a wasteland. It was pretty then; the sky glistened over a verdant land where life could flourish. But war was underway, led by the time streamer Moebius, who sought to eradicate the vampires – the rightful heirs to the pillars of Nosgoth. These pillars are tied inextricably to the health of the land, and it’s this genocidal crusade that triggers their long but inevitable decay.
It is to this time and place that Raziel has pursued his nemesis, Kain, hoping to exact the vengeance he failed to accomplish in his present. Goaded by Moebius and his sinister benefactor, the so-called ‘Elder God’, Raziel, armed with the reaver, hews a path to Kain.
But obviously nothing is ever quite what it seems; history can only bend so far, and fate proves a more formidable opponent than any of the monstrosities that stand between Raziel and the truth of his existence.
It’s a good story, tackling complex themes that uses time to enrich the gameplay as much as the world beholden to it. You’ll navigate the same environments in multiple periods, which allows the game to very literally depict the consequences of actions taken by its protagonists. Sure, it’s all a bit convoluted, lacking the core simplicity of Soul Reaver (Kain betrayed and damned you: kill him; complexity occurs around it), but the writing is several notches above its peers. Both then and now.
The telling is a bit stiff, though. Cutscenes are mostly just characters standing around pontificating, with little of interest happening beyond their theatrical dialogue. Soul Reaver 2 is a narratively interesting game, but it struggles to find the drama in the way its characters interact – it relies wholly on dialogue to tell its tale. And there’s only so much dialogue can do when you’ve got cutscenes that run on for long stretches of time (sadly not elucidating the time travel theme…).
But it’s when you get to the game bit that Soul Reaver 2 really starts to suffer.
It is a game clearly more interested in the knotty problems of time and fate than it is in providing a wholly compelling gameplay experience.
The combat has barely evolved from the first Soul Reaver, still suffering from awkward camera angles. The fights have also lost a certain bloodiness to them; where murder in Soul Reaver felt vicious, here it’s soft, almost intangible – even when Raziel is cleaving heads from opponents’ shoulders or wrenching hearts from chests.
The reaver itself is emphasised much more than in the previous game, and there’s a variety of upgrades for it: air, fire, that sort of thing. Yet it still does the combat no favours. They’re mostly just there to open up new areas of the map, like previously inaccessible ledges or locked gates.
And when the game should be ramping up the tension, it is instead introducing obtuse puzzles. Some of them are fun and inventive – using chalices of blood to form walkways springs to mind – but their placement feels wrong. It messes up the pacing.
The design is so inelegant, which is ironic given the game’s thematic pretensions. It’s just not all that fun to play, and if you don’t find the story involving then there’s not much to hold your interest through what amounts to about 8 – 9 hours of gameplay.
It makes me question the original Soul Reaver; as good as that game was, I wonder how much of it relied on my love of its story and dark, rich world. It wasn’t that much fun to actually play either, what with its interminable block puzzles and clumsy platforming. But you could sort of forgive all that then – they were flaws specific to its time.
I don’t think that can be said here. Soul Reaver 2, despite ditching the blocks, has mostly refused to evolve. It is, like Nosgoth itself, trapped by its flaws, seemingly incapable of escaping them.
You have to wonder if it even wants to.
You can pick up Soul Reaver 2 on Steam or GoG. I was finally able to get the game working on Steam courtesy of this excellent patch right here.