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Retrospective: Legacy of Kain

Videogame fantasy is rarely any good as a story. So much of it concerns either oversimplified tropes or a rewrite of a Tolkien novel without the same sense for rhythm and tone. What sets Legacy of Kain apart, then, is that the tone’s written darkly. Amy Hening’s writing flows wonderfully and plays well in cutscenes. There’s no obsession with the clichés; Legacy of Kain stands out against them. There are no princesses to be saved or really any commonalities with more popular fantasy videogames, just good storytelling. And while that’s not a central need for all videogames – when handled well – it makes an exceptional difference.

Blood Omen – Calvin Kemph

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The isometric entry point for the series, Blood Omen is most essential as a foundation, a building block on which the rest of the series expounds upon. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it, separated from the later entries, is the isometric perspective and a focus on role-playing. It also set the right tone for a brand of mystic, dark fantasy that’s way into wear-wolves, vampires, and dark magic.

Soul Reaver – Stew Chyou

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We’re introduced to Raziel as the new protagonist of the Legacy of Kain series, with our beloved Kain made as the antagonist. Soul Reaver was, and still is, a game that pushed the vampire mythos to the next level. Aside from the usual Nozgoth lore, the land’s barren post-Apocalyptia introduced the concept of evolution amongst vampires, namely amongst Raziel’s immortal “brothers”. Each of these bosses have evolved in various ways in response to the change in their individual environments – becoming more than just bloodsuckers, but gods of sorts. If I hadn’t first played this game with a few Jewish dorm mates, I wouldn’t have known that the game also draws some influence from Judaic myths.

The gameplay was monumental. Aside from Raziel’s ability to steal his brothers’ abilities, cleave his enemies with the Reaver, and sate its bloodlust by devouring souls, Raziel also had the ability to traverse between the material and spectral planes. Other than changing his surroundings, Raziel’s reality traversing capabilities made puzzle solving ever so engaging and memorable.

The bread winner was definitely Soul Reaver‘s story, fueled by vengeance, plot twists, some of the greatest lines ever written in a video game, excellent voice work (The Elder God voiced by the late Tony Jay) and the growing realization that everything our ghoulish vampire is going through is connected to the grand scheme of Nozgoth’s fate. Even more so, players couldn’t help but develop sympathy towards Raziel – his desperate need for revenge and truth blinding him to the point of becoming the common chess piece in everyone’s big plans.

Soul Reaver 2 – Calvin Kemph

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Part of what made the later Legacy of Kain entries feel so significant is the emphasis on the sword/wraith blade. It’s the driving force behind the narrative and perhaps the most common means for tying together their gameplay. In Soul Reaver 2, the blade’s role was expanded on, as Raziel could now imbue the sword with magical properties. Apart from being a tried-and-true plot device and a good means for combat, Raziel’s Wraith Blade is also essential for a good amount of the puzzle-solving required in Soul Reaver 2.

Blood Omen 2 – James Dewitt

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After the introduction of Soul Reaver and its sequel, it seemed Crystal Dynamics was perfectly content to let Raziel be the star of the series and relegate Kain to an adversarial role. There was just one problem: Kain was too much of a fan-favorite, and too awesome of a character to let go to waste. So in 2002 Kain returned for another round of bloodshed in Blood Omen 2.

The game takes place in an alternate timeline between the events of Blood Omen and Soul Reaver in which Kain no longer has an iron rule over Nosgoth. His vampiric army has been laid to waste by the Sarafan, a group of vampire hunters, and Kain finds himself aligned with an underground resistance made up of vampires. Getting back the Soul Reaver sword is Kain’s top priority, and he doesn’t care how many corpses pile up over the journey.

Anyone tired of romantic, sparkly vampires will instantly love Blood Omen 2‘s no-bull protagonist. Kain is a vicious, murderous vampire who possesses unholy powers and isn’t afraid to use them all in the name of selfishness. Like any card-carrying vampire, he has the assortment of classic powers: the ability to turn into mist, leap great distances, and charm NPCs into doing his bidding. In addition he can fly into berserker rages, move objects with his mind and set enemies on fire while he’s at it. And of course Kain can drain his enemies of their blood by the pint, naturally.

There’s also an element of stealth to the game when players feel a little less confrontational. Unlike other stealth games where a simple neck-snap will suffice, Kain likes his stealth kills gory and brutal. Sneaking up on a Sarafan guard can result in Kain punching through their back and his hand exploding through their chest, holding their still-beating heart in his palm.

The joy of playing Blood Omen 2 is how it makes the player feel like a badass monster, and the return of everyone’s favorite nobleman-turned-vampire Kain doesn’t hurt either. One of the drawbacks of the game is since it takes place in an alternate timeline, it didn’t technically happen, and the overall plot of the Legacy of Kain series became more focused on how time was getting mucked up rather than the simple joy of watching Kain out for revenge and wanton bloodshed.

Defiance – Calvin Kemph

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Maintaining authorial control must be one of the most difficult things when it comes to videogames. In many ways, it’s often unnecessary. In most games, quality storytelling is regularly set aside for the play mechanics, while plotlines borrowed from other mediums fill in the blanks. Throughout the Legacy of Kain series, however, there’s an ethereal quality about the writing, a keen wisdom of ancestral knowledge, a forward-thinking momentum that to this day remains so rare in our industry.

There’s no need to excuse Crystal Dynamics for telling a story in a videogame with Legacy of Kain: Defiance, but in order to enjoy it fully, perhaps you’ll have to excuse the game for interrupting the story on occasion.

Merging a bond between the Soul Reaver and Blood Omen entries, Defiance features both Raziel and Kain as playable characters and shifting narrators. Following shortly after the events of Soul Reaver 2, Raziel is trapped within the supernatural realm of the Elder God, the result of a time paradox, while Kain seeks out Moebious, the Timestreamer, in his search for Raziel.

One of the most memorable moments finds Kain standing before murals recounting the artistic portrayals which tie off a number of loose ends in series canon. It makes for an interesting means of engaging with the fiction of the virtually crafted world while adding gravity to much of the chronological context.

Defiance remains a story worth experiencing, but not necessarily a game worth playing; the playable portions are almost redundant. It’s not that they’re entirely without merit, however antiquated, but they’re significantly shown up by the superlative fantasy storytelling. If there’s one thing we might take away from Defiance – and the series as a whole – it’s that meaningful narrative is attainable in videogames; you just have to write well.

What are some of your best Legacy of Kain memories? Let us know in the comments section below.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

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