Is there life after death? Well, according to fiction and pop-culture, there most certainly is. For as long as we've known, tales of the undead have permeated through our society in the forms of Nosferatu, Dracula, and Tom Cruise. It's gotten to the point where society readily accepts the notion of the undead, which leaves writers now pondering how to go beyond this passe notion, in hopes of re-igniting public interest and dollars. So, in their latest creation, Legacy Of Kain: Soul Reaver, Crystal Dynamics seems to have caught the scent of a new trail, which they believe will lead them to a new promised land of riches. The idea of the game is not only that there is life after death, but that there's also a life after life after death. That's right folks, after our protagonist, Raziel (who is already a member of the undead), gets offed by his master, Kain (star of the original game), he finds a continued existence as a decrepit, soul-vacuuming, zombie-pawn who then serves under an even higher power called the Elder.
That is an over-simplification of what is actually a very complicated backdrop story to an action adventure that is played out in a third person perspective. Yet, the story elements are probably the most noteworthy aspects of Soul Reaver. This is due not only to its complexity, but also to the way it integrates itself into the gameplay mechanics. In order to exact his revenge on his former enemies, Raziel must traverse between the Spectral Plane (where souls go after death, I suppose) and the physical world. The two worlds visually mirror each other as alternate realities do, but with minute differences and dimensionalized physics, making some entrances accessible in one reality, yet not in the other. It's up to the player to figure out which reality is more appropriate for tackling each given scenario. And this forms the very backbone of the exploration and puzzle-solving portions of the game.
Alongside all of the traversing is an equal, if not overdosed, amount of combat. But again, the story is integrated well into the fighting and rises it above the mindless, Final Fight sort. Since opponents are mostly of the undead variety, simply bludgeoning them into bloody pulps does not suffice (since the undead can quickly regenerate -- but you already knew that, didn't you?). But unlike a long list of other vampire hunters (who sound a lot like a famous canned goods company -- well, sort of), Raziel actually has to impale his opponents with a foreign object or something sharp protruding out of the walls (Midnight Express style!). Otherwise, bathing the persistent buggers in sunlight, water, or fire also does the trick! Then, the final coup de grace is the inhaling their souls, which reinvigorates Raziel. Even more impressive is that all of the above-mentioned capabilities are enabled by a control system that is the first on the PlayStation to rival either Mario 64's or The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time's on the Nintendo 64. Between the responsive analog stick (with the Dual-Shock pad), proficient camera controls, and efficient enemy-lock-on targeting, Raziel was a sheer joy to manipulate.
All the intricacies of the game between the two planes and destroying the undead once and for all may seem like a little too much to remember at times, but in actuality, as I played the game, it was all introduced to me rather seamlessly and simple enough to grasp. Rather than being a hurdle, all the intricacies actually engaged me further because it felt like a persistent world with its own set of physics and boundaries. Soul Reaver is so effective in its presentation that I never found myself questioning its logic and instead accepting theirs, trying to interact and master the world presented.
I'm also happy to report that all the intricacies do not go wasted on a visually bland world either. The graphics, whether full-motion video or real-time rendered polygons, are top notch. Level-design, textures, animations (despite taking some hits in the frame rates here and there), and special effects are technically and stylistically impressive (especially on the over-the-hill PlayStation), as is the sound; conveying a constant sense of destructive dread and corrupted erosion with touches of magical enchantments. Music, sound effects, and voice-acting are all up to the task, rounding out the overall presentation.
Yet, even with all the positives that Soul Reaver has racked up thus far in this review, it still falls just short of true greatness: missing by a hair. The problem is that despite all of the unique qualities of the game, it all becomes very transparent after prolonged play. And what's left is a game revolving solely around the dungeon/puzzle romps like the ones found in The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. Without quiet moments of reflection, down-time to relax, or any meaningful relationships that go beyond the passive cut-scenes within the actual game, it all starts to feel as unrelenting as the final quarter of a bone-crunching Steven Segal movie. It's not the constant doom and gloom that bugged me, but rather the feeling of being overworked and under-appreciated by the Elder. Activating warp portals to ease commute around the excruciatingly huge areas and acquiring new abilities like the Soul Reaver sword and the ability go through walls feel more like a 3% percent raise than a much-deserved promotion. Even a Soul Reaver needs to take a vacation from the constant grind; otherwise, he'd just be working himself to death (if that's still possible).