Review: Soul Reaver 2

Official web page; Crystal Dynamics (creators); Eidos (publishers)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Very good
Convoluted, or maybe just muddled
Writing and dialogue
Enjoyably overblown, but possibly too much of it
Too plainly linear, and not enough save points
Quite easy

I find, as I did for Silent Hill 2, that I will be analyzing Soul Reaver 2 mostly in terms of its predecessor. (Have to add a new category to my review page: compare-and-contrast reviews.) Therefore, I will not be talking about what's good and what's bad. I will be talking about what's improved and what's, er, deproved -- between two very excellent games.

(Unfortunately I never wrote a review of Soul Reaver -- much as I enjoyed it. So if you're coming into the Kain series late, you'll have to pick up your landmarks as they come. Sorry about that. I'll try to be clear about my context.)

First, let me note that SR2 is from the same people that made SR. Same writers, same producers, same programmers. So I'm comparing a game with its true prequel here. This was not true of the original Kain game, Blood Omen, whose concept and storyline came from different writers.

However, SR2 does draw a great deal of inspiration from BO. Many of the areas in SR2 are strikingly similar to regions of BO. I don't mean topographically similar, but rather in tone, atmosphere, and detail. The decaying swamp inhabited by the vampire Vorador, in BO, is re-created here, complete with mud, ancient trees, crumbling stone ruins, and lanterns of bone and fools'-fire. The Serafan fortress is right out of BO's intro movie. The design team has clearly taken pains to build the sense of being in the same place, with the benefits of five years' new technology.

And it's beautiful, but I have mixed feelings. On one side of the face, SR2 takes place very close to the era of BO. It won't be too much of a spoiler to say that this story involves time travel, since BO did, and SR ended with Raziel jumping into a temporal portal. A few different time periods are involved; but they're all within a couple of centuries of the events portrayed in BO. So it does make sense for Nosgoth to look like that.

But on the other side, SR2 does not look much like SR. And I really liked SR. In that era, thousands (tens of thousands?) of years later, Nosgoth was a ancient, polluted, barren wasteland, dotted with immense wrecks of architecture slowly crumbling into rubble. And it worked great. It was really the sense of the world that hooked me. It was greys and browns, mist and stone, overwhelming sterility -- with the most occasional touch of color, light, movement. It was much the coolest thing I'd seen in years. Heh.

SR2, in contrast, uses a much more intense palette. You find many more sparks of bright color -- particularly in magical effects, but also in plants, buildings, terrain. Mist, even. The overall feel of each area has a different tint to it. This is, as I said, very reminiscent of BO; but I just didn't like it as much. It felt... a bit cartoonish.

I think I am making too much of this color issue; I think my true complaint is deeper. To describe it, I will have to get deeper into spoilers for both SR and SR2, although I will try to restrict myself to the structure of the game rather than the storyline.

In SR, the game was fundamentally a sequence of big boss fights. I don't mean that these fights were the most important parts of SR -- they weren't. But they were the chapter breaks, you might say; the turning points of the story. You spent your time and brainpower exploring, trying to work through some remote corner of Nosgoth, and at the end of each journey was a creature that you fought. Killing the creature gave you some new ability -- climbing, swimming, and so on -- which let you enter the next chapter.

But more important: each of these creatures inhabited a locale. And these places had the weight of Nosgoth's history behind them. Cathedral, stone city, necropolis, Kain's stronghold -- the game gave only hints of what these places were, what they had been, but the hints were enough. You felt that you were exploring a real place. The rooms and corridors had had a purpose, once; the mechanisms and gates had been built for a reason.

True, they were conveniently arranged to form puzzles. But that's the vital suspension of disbelief in adventure games. The player must be able to put aside the artificiality of the puzzles, and believe in the world in its own right. SR hit that target. The builders of the Drowned Abbey did not set out to create a huge stone-and-water puzzle. The puzzle results from the combination of the original architecture, the ruin and flooding it has suffered, and Raziel's unique abilities. I was willing to accept that as a "coincidence".

Now, SR did also have some very explicit puzzle-areas -- the shrines where you could win elemental rune-spells. Here, my disbelief fell rather heavily. Those areas serve no conceivable purpose; there's really no way to explain them, except as deliberately constructed challenges.

But those runes were entirely optional. They were side-quests; the rune-spells were convenient for ending fights, but you could win the game without them. And unless you were really fanatical about exploring every cranny, the side-quests did not take up a majority of your SR-playing time. They were an enjoyable bonus, but they were not what the game was about.

Now consider SR2. The game is fundamentally a sequence of shrines, where you gain new elemental energies for the Reaver. These shrines, like the rune-shrines in SR, are excellent puzzles -- but (also like the rune-shrines) they're pretty much unintegrated into the world of Nosgoth. They have no more soul than a combination lock. Some ancient civilization decided to build giant puzzles for you -- the narration practically says as much. And this is most of what SR2 is about! Only two of the major game areas have any historical relevance: the Serafan fortress, where you begin the game, and the Retreat tower near the end. And that doesn't add up to a large fraction of the game.

(Note that I said "major game areas". You encounter a few other places which are interesting -- notably the Pillars -- but these do not become focuses of your playing time. They are landmarks, backgrounds for cut-scenes; you pass through on your way to somewhere else.)

(In fact, even the Retreat feels a bit lacking in depth. I like the concept behind its architecture (pardon my vagueness, I'm avoiding spoilers) but it's somehow too self-contained. I never got the sense, as I did in the Human City in SR, that I was exploring one part of a much larger city. Not enough sealed doors; that's the problem. Sealed doors can do wonders for your sense of background continuity. SR2 does get this right in certain areas; just not the ones where the player spends his time.)

SR had a whole lot in it. SR2 feels small in comparison. I've read comments from the designers explaining how they were concentrating on creating a layered world, in this game. And that works. Not only do you gain new elemental abilities, you travel through time. So you cross through some of the game areas three or four times, each time seeing a new aspect.

However. Something has been lost. SR2 is very much a travelogue on rails. You are always told exactly where to go. There are no side trails. Backtracking is uninteresting, until you're told to backtrack, and then it's mandatory. Interesting areas are always sealed behind you when you leave. And there is no side material at all.

Side quests... I've already mentioned the optional rune-shrines in SR, but that game had a rich depth of side-story exploration. There were large puzzle-areas, such as the shrines. There were smaller, single-room puzzles -- hidden doors, climbable walls -- that hid health bonuses and spell enhancements. There was the Human City, an entire area of Nosgoth, fascinating in its implications (the last human community on a dying, vampire-ruled planet!) with several exploration challenges, large and small; and that not part of the storyline, but open to exploration at your whim.

The construction of SR, you see, was sort of a star-shape. Spokes became accessible one at a time, as you completed more of the game, but they stayed accessible. And all these side challenges and secrets could be found by going back -- back into areas you'd already explored, but hadn't understood completely. Once you learned to swim, you could go back and look for places to swim. Once you learned to climb, you could look for places to climb. And so on.

Yes, re-exploring areas in a game can be awfully dull. But that was okay in SR; because it was optional. The rewards were there if you wanted them, and they made the main storyline a bit easier to play through, but you suffered no serious penalty for missing them. And they gave the game world a richness; a sense that you always had more to find, not just straight ahead, but on every side.

In SR2, too, you spend a lot of time backtracking. But -- as I said -- it's mandatory. You go out to point B; you're dragged back to point A. The nifty changes in terrain aren't bonus fun for you to dig up; they're laid out for you, in sequence, and by god you're going to plow through them like the authors intended. (Yes, the cavern which you navigate at three different water levels is cool, okay? I was impressed. I kept waiting for the rest of the game to be that cool.)

And, really, going from A to B to A to B to C to B to A just isn't all that much fun. Even if A and B change subtly each time. Because, you know, in SR you went through A, B, C, D, E, and F, and all of them changed subtly throughout the course of the game. (Because of your increasing abilities, ey?)

SR2 really doesn't give you any motivation at all to stop and look around. (Except for pure graphical prettiness; which is good, of course, but doesn't hold up the third time through an area.) You never, for example, have any real reason to go spectral and check a location out. This was a small but never-failing pleasure of playing SR. It was pretty (in a creepy way) and sometimes rewarding. Well, in SR2, if you need to switch to the spectral realm, you'll see a glyph telling you to do it. If that's not present, the spectral realm is probably a waste of time.

Most game areas are either destinations (one entrance) or corridors (one entrance at each end, linear between). If you pass a locked door or cliff that you'll gain access to later -- and there are only a couple -- the narration will tell you with painful directness. You explore in the small scale, but overall you have no sense of freedom; the world has no sense of expanse.

The narration and dialogue in SR2 felt... small... as well. SR had a pretty simple underlying plot (betrayal, revenge, hate, kill, kill, holy crap!, kill someone else, keep on killin') but the narration kept spinning out tantalizing hints -- only hints -- of Nosgoth's story, a much grander (if sketchier) affair. SR2 begins to delve into the deeper mysteries of that story. And that's good; that's what I wanted.

Only, well, the problem is, nearly everybody is lying to you. There's a lot of dialogue -- long stretch after stretch of it -- but it's all vaguenesses, manipulations, deceits, and the ever-popular "I know all, but you'll have to figure it out for yourself". Raziel knows perfectly well that he's being bullshitted from all sides -- this makes for some of the better lines in the script -- but the result is that about three-quarters of the dialogue implodes into a blur of nothing getting said.

(The remaining quarter is good; it reveals much really interesting stuff, and implies a lot more, including one genuine "Oh my god!" moment relating back to the events of BO. But it's still a pretty scant collection for three years' wait. And even skimpier when you consider just how many minutes of dialogue you have to listen to.)

Look, I'm willing to believe that the designers plotted out each character's motivation, mapped their manipulations, twisted it all through the psychotic time-travel storyline, and have the resulting intricacy all ready to spring on us in the (presumed) sequel. But that doesn't make SR2 satisfying on its own.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more SR2 feels like the dreaded Middle Volume of the Trilogy. (Not a good trilogy, but the archetypical formulaic one.) The characters are already set up, the world is already sketched in, but the big fight isn't until Volume Three. So everyone has to spend a book running from point A to point B, trying to hit their marks. While the villains mug for the camera. And not enough happens to make it worthwhile.

Hm. What else do I have to mention... ah yes, the fighting.

In SR, most of the fights were pretty darn easy. You could kill almost anything without risk of physical death -- and, of course, if you did get your ass whupped, you just spent a few minutes snacking in the spectral realm and then tried again. You could skip over the fights if you were in a hurry, too. The monsters provided some pleasant (or frustrating) pacing when you were exploring, but once you knew an area, you could largely ignore them.

SR2 makes the fight system more interesting, but also more intrusive. You meet a much wider range of enemies: from weak animals up to seriously buff demon-monsters. By the end of the game, you often have to work hard to avoid being forced spectral -- and many monsters can manifest in the spectral realm as well, so you can even be completely dispersed, which was only the remotest risk in SR.

(As in SR, a spectral dispersal doesn't end the game. You get pitched back to the last checkpoint you hit, and those are pretty common around the game world, so it's not a severe penalty.)

But the fighting in SR2 is much more blatantly a pacing device. Several mechanisms force you to finish fights before you can progress in the game. Some monsters carry keys. Others fire bolts that knock you off the walls you want to climb. Some gates must be opened by holding down a lever for several seconds, and being hurt interrupts the process. Some creatures block magical artifacts or doors. And, frequently, the game resorts to throwing up gates or magical barriers until you kill off a roomful of enemies.

Now SR did some of this too. But not as much. And it was only when you were exploring new areas, never when you backtracked. (In fact, the teleporter network in SR made backtracking as easy and painless as it could get.)

SR2, in contrast, often uses mandatory fights when you're returning to an earlier location. Oh, great, I have to fight here again, only now it's demons that are pissed at me instead of humans. There's no reward for such a fight. You don't get another smidgeon of new territory to explore, because you're going backwards. Your reward, in fact, is another three fights in a row, and (somewhere in the distance) another cut-scene.

It's perfectly obvious that this is done purely to slow the game down. Well, that's what fighting in computer games is always about -- nearly -- but I just wasn't entertained enough. The fights in SR, easy as they were, managed to be viscerally satisfying somehow -- the tactical balance between beating a vampire up and finishing him off worked, somehow, and hitting that fatal-move button was always worthwhile. (Shplork! Sizzle!) In SR2, all your enemies can be killed by simple force. While Raziel does have some fatal-move animations, they're not something you do; you just mash the button until the bad guy falls over. The interactivity of the kill isn't there. Call me gruesome, but I missed it.

(And I missed the boss fights too. When I said that fighting is nearly always about pacing, the exception was SR. The major battles in that games were puzzles -- not bludgeon-fests. Button-mashing was guaranteed to fail. You had to understand the environment and the nature of your enemies. I was looking forward to more of that kind of puzzle in SR2, and I was disappointed.)

While I'm on the subject of pacing: not enough save points. Arrgh. I said that there are plenty of checkpoints around SR2 -- the beacons that you return to if you suffer spectral death. But there aren't nearly enough places to save your game. You can get locked into a shrine and wind up playing for two hours or more, without any opportunity to save. What happens if there's a power failure, or your little brother demands his divine right to race Darth Maul with an inflated head?

Certainly SR had peculiarities in its save system: you could save anywhere, but restoring always put you back at the beginning. But you couldn't lose too much progress that way, because of the teleporter network, and the fact that puzzle areas never locked you in. You could always get back to where you'd saved in a few minutes. (Okay, except for a few spots -- the Drowned Abbey was hell -- but those were rare.)

I can understand the designers of SR2 wanting to ditch that system. It was unintuitive, and you can't build some kinds of puzzles if the player has that secret escape hatch. (And I've already complained about ditching the teleporters, so even though it's a related issue, I'll refrain here. :-) But if you're going to switch to a save-point system, for heavens' sake, why not put in enough of them? BO had save-points outside every single shrine, city, and cave!

Well. I could throw in other random complaints about SR2. (Too much use of magic; not enough physical action in puzzles. I like digging my claws into stuff. It makes for a more visceral world than throwing around colored light.) But, of course, there are plenty of improvements as well. (SR2 does not have seventeen thousand movable blocks. And that thing with the shadows, wow, that was great.)

I am compelled to mention the bugs, also. I encountered one serious bug, which is common enough that Eidos has listed it on their web site. (When you enter the dark-forge in the swamp, stay away from the birds on the railing. Scaring them seems to trigger the bug, but you don't find out until you trying to leave the shrine.) A friend also reports getting the fire-forge into a broken state, and he too had to restore and replay an entire area. A game-stopping bug in a console game release is pretty nasty karma; I hope it doesn't cost the developers too heavily. (I assume the bugs will be fixed in the upcoming PC release.)

Anyway, my comparison is this: Soul Reaver 2 is a weak follow-on to Soul Reaver, overall. It does add interesting material to the storyline of Kain and Raziel, and the plot gets dizzying. But as a game it seems to squander many of the strengths of its predecessor -- particularly SR's sense of a true subcreation, a living world, larger than the game that it contains.

Put it this way: SR inspired fan fiction. You can find this stuff. I may add to it myself; I've got a file full of notes on this natural philosopher investigating the ecology of... ahem.

SR2 is a good game. Really. (I have filled this essay with negative comparisons, but that's because I want to concentrate on what's best in the Kain series; I want to see more of that.) I enjoyed playing SR2; it was not a waste of money; I played it for three days straight and I gasped and I said "wow".

But it will not, of itself, inspire people to write fan fiction.

See you in Blood Omen 2.

My chart of the History of the Soul Reaver (contains spoilers for all the Kain games)

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