I'll swallow your soul!

In 1999, amongst the releases of massive games such as Super Smash Bros. for the N64 and Final Fantasy VIII for the PS1, little known developer Crystal Dynamics (Pandemonium, Tomb Raider Legend) crept out of the darkness with the atmospheric, gothic Soul Reaver, which was going to pretty much change the way we thought about action adventure gaming.

When Life Gives You Lemons…

Players step into the shoes (or, hooves maybe) of Raziel, who, after a successful career as a vampire lieutenant ended badly, has been resurrected to his take revenge and chow down on some souls. The game takes place in the extremely gothic-esque, seemingly central European region of Nosgoth, where head vampire (and main antagonist) Kain’s rule has crumbled in the wake of events of the opening cut-scene. During said cinematic, we learn that Raziel was once a respected big name in the vampire community, before superseding Kain by growing wings before him (the cheek!). For this heinous crime Raziel is punished to spend an eternity burning in agony in the ‘Lake of the Dead’ etc. etc. You know, your standard vampire sentence. It’s at the bottom of this lake that Raziel is introduced to the very impressively named ‘Elder God’ who resurrects him to enact revenge on Kain, fill him up with souls, and return the balance to Nosgoth! All pretty mutually beneficial, right?

soul reaver lake

The ‘Lake of the Dead’ as you can imagine wasn’t the most hospitable of water parks…

Beyond Two Souls…

Players begin the game in the Spectral realm (pretty understandable, after an eternity of dying agonisingly and all that) which is where a lot of its action takes place. This world is populated by weaker ghouls who are pretty much cannon fodder for Raziel and his meaty claws. In this world you learn one of the game’s central premises, soul collecting. Basically by holding a certain button players were allowed to ingest (not sure what the correct verb is here) the souls of their defeated enemies and thus replenish their health. Of course this wasn’t an entirely new concept, it borrowed from the previously released Blood Omen, which saw Kain take centre stage.

It’s when they first enter the physical plane that things get really interesting however. When crossing from between the spectral and material realms, the game’s actual level design shifts around you; pillars straighten out where they were once distorted, platforms edge out of previously insurmountable walls. This is just one example of how Soul Reaver changed the platforming genre; shifting between the planes required another level of consideration, rather than just timing jumps and glides properly. Furthermore you could only cross back into the material realm at select portals, forcing players to think even more carefully about how to navigate the environment.

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better!

The game required increasingly more thought to navigate around as it went on, as upgrades were drip fed to the players after each boss fight. These, of course, weren’t simply a matter of button mashing and quick time events; they were, in quite a lot of aspects, carefully planned out puzzles in their own right. Take the first confrontation with Melciah for example; players have to lure him into a series of traps before eventually cutting him in half with a giant gate! Now by today’s standards that’s hardly ground-breaking, but I think it’s pretty representative of the thought and innovation that went into a lot of PS1 titles.

All powers are mutually exclusive; Raziel can swim in the physical realm for example, but water doesn’t exist in ghost-land.

After taking the lumbering slug-type beast down, players are granted the power to phase through gates when in the spectral realm, further enhancing the puzzle based platformer style gameplay. And with each boss fight comes another power. All powers are mutually exclusive, in that they only work in one of the two realms; Raziel can swim in the physical realm for example, but water doesn’t exist in ghost-land. All of this means that players are faced with further options on how to tackle each new environment they stumble upon. Not that this was a game where multiple paths were available, these powers basically increased the challenge of making it from A-B, but never in a way that felt ultimately frustrating.

The Claws Are Out

Combat in Soul Reaver was a simple, but rapid affair, combining Raziel’s agile dodging ability and brutal melee. At the game’s outset, players are forced to take on the ghosts/werewolves/all other mythical creatures the game can shoe-horn in with only Raziel’s claws. Whilst they work pretty well, they didn’t demonstrate the reach or power of later pick-up and drop weapons like halberds and pikes that the game gave you access to. As a cool touch, these weapons were immediately dropped when you morphed back into spirit form, a nice bit of realism with all that mythology, no? Players could also use the environment to take down dazed enemies, throwing them onto wall-mounted spikes, or into pools of sunlight or water – your standard things to have in a vampire kingdom.

All of this changes however after your first confrontation with primary antagonist, Kain. At the end of the fight Raziel is struck down with the titular ‘Soul Reaver,’ a powerful sword wielded by Kain that, like a lot of other things in the game, feasts on the life-force of those around it. Player’s only have access to the Reaver in the physical realm when they have full health, and as this is blatantly the easiest way to go about wreaking your wraith-y havoc, it has the effect of slowing combat down a little, forcing you to be a little more measured in your approach.

“I’m A Souuulll Man”

Soul Reaver on PS1 was, in my opinion, one of the best games the console ever had to offer. It combined a mixture of frustrating yet achievable platforms and puzzles with fast, responsive and varied combat. Not to mention the boss battles, which did a great job of blending the two. The story wasn’t all that bad either, even if everyone did talk a bit like an amateur dramatics society tackling Hamlet.

It’s not for all these reasons that I really love it however, it’s because it harkens back to an era of gaming where originality and that god-awful cliché of ‘thinking outside the box’ were actually rewarded. Soul Reaver wasn’t a safe bet by a well-established company, it was new and daring, and it proved that taking a chance in the gaming industry could really pay off. We’ve got to finish by asking ourselves whether taking a similar chance in today’s market would be as feasible?

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