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Behind the Classics – Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

Behind the Classics: Legacy of Kain - Soul Reaver

Ah, Soul Reaver. I remember it well! This gruesome little gem made quite the splash when it landed on PSone in 1999. As the wounded, ostracised vampire Raziel, your goal was to avenge yourself against the corrupt vampire lord Kain and restore balance to the decaying world of Nosgoth.

I particularly remember the game’s inspired approach to combat; your vampiric foes couldn’t be killed by ordinary means, so after weakening them with hand-to-hand combat you had to hurl their broken bodies onto a sharp stake or into a patch of sunlight to finish them off. The level design was also a knockout, as Raziel was able to phase-shift into a spectral realm in order to bypass obstacles or solve puzzles.

But above all else, Soul Reaver is remembered for its story and characters. And we have the game’s director Amy Hennig to thank for that! As you’re probably well aware, Hennig later joined celebrated PlayStation developer Naughty Dog, serving as creative director and writer for Jak & Daxter and all three Uncharted titles.

Hennig graciously took the time to share her memories of Soul Reaver’s development, including some never-before-revealed insight into the game’s origins. Read on for the full story straight from Hennig, and be sure to leave your favorite Soul Reaver moments in the comments.

Behind the Classics: Legacy of Kain - Soul Reaver

PlayStation Blog: What was the original concept for the game?
Amy Hennig: I don’t know how many people know this, but initially, it wasn’t actually a sequel to Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain at all – our original proposal was a concept for a new IP we named “Shifter,” loosely inspired by Paradise Lost. The protagonist was essentially a fallen angel of death, a reaper of souls hunted by his former brethren, and now driven to expose and destroy the false god they all served.

The Shifter concept was the genesis of the game that would become Soul Reaver; the core ideas were all there. The hero was an undead creature, able to shift between the spectral and material realms, and glide on the tattered remains of his wing-like coattails. We conceived the spirit realm as a twisted, expressionistic version of the physical world. The hero was bent on revenge after being betrayed and cast down by his creator – like Raziel, he was a dark savior figure, chosen to restore balance to a blighted, dystopian world.

When we were asked to adapt this concept into a sequel to Blood Omen, our challenge was to take all these ideas and merge them creatively into the Legacy of Kain mythos.

Behind the Classics: Legacy of Kain - Soul Reaver

Did you know you were working on something special? What were your creative conditions as you worked on it – uncertainty, confidence, terror?

Amy Hennig: You’re never really sure when you’re in the middle of a project. Because we were initially such a small team, we were able to work under the radar for a while, and this allowed us to tinker with some unusual ideas that might not have survived premature scrutiny or skepticism.

When we first shared the concept with our colleagues in the company, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea but also justifiable concern that we might be taking on an unrealistic number of technical risks. We pared back on some secondary features – we had originally planned to include shape-shifting (morphing) as well as plane-shifting, for instance – so we could focus on elements that were more critical to our core concept. By the time we unveiled the game to the press, we were starting to get the feeling that we might be onto something special.

As far as the creative conditions went – we were very invested in our original Shifter idea, so it naturally caused a bit of consternation when we were first asked to adapt the concept to be a Blood Omen sequel. But creative constraints can be inspiring and invigorating, and once we dug into the challenge, the concept evolved in all kinds of exciting ways.

We definitely had set ourselves a lot of ambitious technical goals, though – so, yes, there was a fair amount of uncertainty and terror about what we were undertaking!

Did you draw inspiration from anywhere in particular for the game’s thematic elements, characters or dialogue?

Amy Hennig: There were so many different inspirations, it’s hard to just name a few…
As I mentioned earlier, the original idea was very loosely inspired by the rebellious angels of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The spiritual structure of the world was based on the philosophy of Gnosticism, the belief that the cosmos is ruled by a malevolent “pretender” god, that humans are prisoners in a spiritual lie, and that mankind’s struggle is a fight for free will in the face of seemingly insurmountable Fate.

We wanted to give Nosgoth’s dystopian future a decaying 19th-century industrial aesthetic, while the look of the spectral realm was inspired by the twisted architecture and disorienting angles of 1920s German Expressionist cinema.

Regarding the dialogue, we obviously took a cue from Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, with its florid language and ornate monologues. We wanted to carry a similar style into the sequels. I also drew inspiration from the dense, literate dialogue of historical dramas like A Man for All Seasons, Becket, and A Lion in Winter.

Behind the Classics: Legacy of Kain - Soul ReaverBehind the Classics: Legacy of Kain - Soul Reaver

It was an ambitious title for its time. What were the biggest challenges in realizing your original vision?

Amy Hennig: Our biggest challenge, hands-down, was getting the data-streaming working, to allow us to have a seamless, interconnected world with no load events. I think we were one of the first developers to tackle this problem (along with Naughty Dog, on Crash Bandicoot).

It proved to be way more difficult than we had initially anticipated – if I recall, we were still struggling to get the textures to dynamically pack correctly, just a couple months before release. We ultimately got it working by the skin of our teeth, but I wonder if we would’ve embarked on such an ambitious plan if we’d known how difficult it was going to be!

Our second challenge, of course, was figuring out how to store two sets of data for the spectral and material realms, and how to implement the real-time morph between the two environments. Our initial plan was over-ambitious, involving texture-morphing as well as geometry-morphing, but we realised pretty early on that our texture memory (and time) was too limited to achieve this.

We came up with the idea of leveraging the 3DS Max animation timeline to attach spectral values to the vertices in the geometry – i.e., frame 0 was the material world, and frame 1 was the spectral realm (or vice versa; I can’t remember for sure). This way we could alter the x,y,z coordinates of each vertex, as well as its RGB lighting values, to create a twisted, more eerily lit version of the physical realm.

Our ultimate challenge, though, was schedule and scope. Conceived as an open-world, Zelda-esque 3D adventure game, Soul Reaver was incredibly ambitious. Crystal Dynamics’ Gex engine gave us a leg-up on the 3D technology, but in essence we were writing a game engine from scratch, while developing a new IP. These days, a developer wouldn’t think of attempting such a thing in less than three years (minimum), but Eidos wanted the game in less than two.

In the end, we shipped Soul Reaver in under 2.5 years, but not without some unfortunate eleventh-hour cuts which still pain me today. The scope of the game was definitely too ambitious, but if we had shipped the game that Fall, instead of that Summer, I think we could have reduced the scope of the game more elegantly.

How close to your original concept was the finished game?

Amy Hennig: Pretty close, considering all the changes we went through over the course of development. We had to cut content, but the core concept of the game remained unchanged – even going back to the original Shifter proposal.

To hit the August ’99 release date, we had to cut the last few levels of the game, and end on a cliffhanger that set up Soul Reaver 2. Originally, Raziel was going to hunt down and destroy all of his former brothers as well as Kain – and then, using his newly-acquired abilities, he would’ve activated the long-dormant pipes of the Silenced Cathedral to wipe out the remaining vampires of Nosgoth with a sonic blast. Only then would he realise that he’d been the Elder God’s pawn all along, that the purging of the vampires had devastating consequences, and that the only way to set things right would be to use Moebius’ time-streaming device to go back in time and alter history (in the sequel).

So the story would have arrived at a similar place, just by a different route. In the end, as much as I hated its bluntness, Soul Reaver’s “To Be Continued” ending probably turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I think it opened up more interesting story options for the sequels.

Which element of the game are you most proud of?

Amy Hennig: I’m extremely proud of how our relatively small team managed to pull off all those groundbreaking technical challenges. And as a designer, I still take pride in the originality of Soul Reaver’s vision, and the unified way we were able to mesh the game mechanics with the fiction – for example, devouring souls for sustenance, and the way the spectral plane was integrated into the health system; how the combat mechanics were designed around defeating immortal vampires; the ability to glide on broken wings; and the balance between Raziel’s mechanics in the spirit and material realms, especially the ability to use the morphing terrain to your advantage. In many ways, I think it’s still the most well-designed game I’ve worked on.

How would you like Soul Reaver to be remembered? What did it bring to the video game medium?

Amy Hennig: Fondly, I hope! Even 13years later, I’m humbled and gratified to have fans and colleagues come up to me and say how memorable the game was for them, or how it influenced them as young game designers. The series still has an enthusiastic fan base, and is remembered affectionately in ways we couldn’t have foreseen all those years ago.

I hope it’s remembered as a well-constructed game with an original vision and an engaging story, and as groundbreaking in terms of what we were able to achieve on the PlayStation at the time. Our approach to voice acting and performance was also innovative for the time, the way we brought the actors in to record their dialogue together rather than in isolation. The performance capture process we use on Uncharted today – where we involve the actors as collaborators, and have them play the scenes together on the stage – owes its origins to the techniques we established for Soul Reaver fifteen years ago.

Which of the Soul Reaver characters is closest to your heart?

Amy Hennig: It’s impossible for me to choose between Raziel and Kain – they’re two inseparable sides of the same coin (so to speak). As a character, I probably like Kain more. Although ostensibly a villain, he’s really a classic hero, fighting for free will in a world shackled by Fate. Raziel is a more tragic figure, a pawn, and that makes him sympathetic – but he’s also a deeply flawed character, blinded by self-righteousness and vengeance. I loved writing for both of them.

More Behind The Classics:
Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, 24th August 2012
MediEvil, 7th September 2012
Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, 28th September 2012

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I remember when this came out, Tomb Raider was big at the time ” well for me it was anyway”.So to have a game come out to rival it was a great accomplishment.

Been playing it recently on my vita as well as all the greats from back then and it’s still as good today.

BEST PlayStation game right after Vagrant Story. God, I’ll give everything for remake/reboot/new game from Soul Reaver series.

VictorAnalogy 12 October, 2012 @ 3:50 pm   3

I’ve bought Blood Omen and Soul Reaver twice. Once on PSOne and again to play on my Vita. I would jump at the chance to play a sequel. The end of Defiance left me wanting more.

If anyone’s interested in the stuff that was cut from SR1, check out this awesome thread on NeoGaf http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=488564 – absolutely stunning stuff.

Stonesthrow 12 October, 2012 @ 4:05 pm   5

Loved this game, was cool that you could pick up the enemies’ weapons.

Biggabertha_ 12 October, 2012 @ 5:08 pm   6

I loved this entire series!

I followed all the games very closely and enjoyed every one of them!
Favourite part in the series..? How (almost) everything was fixed with Defiance that Blood Omen 2 mixed up… (or was that intentional..?)

Would love to see Naughty Dog handle a sequel to that! :D

Wow… I can’t begin to express how much respect I have for the developers of the Legacy of Kain series and the games themselves.

Ever since I played it for the first time back in ’99 it was one of my favourite games ever. I recently downloaded the PSN release of Soul Reaver and played it again. I instantly began to see the Gnostic influences I didn’t understand when I was a kid. To me the legacy of Kain series is a philosophical jewel, a trait seldom seen in a game. I remember I used to memorise the dialogue, even as a 9 year old, I found it to be profound.

The story and the characters were brilliantly written, the environment unique, the soundtrack haunting (Especially the implementation of Ozar Midrashim by Information Society) and it had an unprecedented (and yet un-duplicated) gameplay dynamic. To this day, including all games from all platforms, this series still ranks in my top 5.

I am kind of a follower of Gnostic philosophy now, and I’ve read some of the works of Goethe, Nietzsche and Plato and also Paradise Lost. I think in some indirect way this game played a role in shaping the way I saw the world. So I have to thank Amy Hennig and the developer team for a series I will never forget.

One more thing, even though I found the open nature Defiance’s ending to be quite satisfactory, a remake of the Legacy of Kain series could be amazing, provided that all the members of the old team work together with Naughty Dog to really produce something amazing. I think the gaming world needs more artistic and philosophical titles. Too many games are made for profit or crowd pleasing, but the fan base for a good story and character dynamic in games is still rather large, hence the success of the Mass Effect, Metal Gear and Uncharted series’s.

So in summary a remake/sequel/prequel would be great, but only if it meets the same standard for its time as the previous games in the series. Also both Kain and Raziel need to be there, their unique characteristics cannot be replaced.

Tenchuwoh 12 October, 2012 @ 6:27 pm   10

ARE THEY GONNA RELEASE A NEW ONEEEE???????I loved this game when i was really young,i remember that i was playing this game before many 7-8 years i loved it.I really loved that you could regain your life by getting the other persons’s blood with the vampire and by taking the souls with this blue game.Great game ^^

SherrifNL 12 October, 2012 @ 6:41 pm   11

Just playing the game and getting stuck at a section was so frustrating in a real GOOD WAY I REALLY LOVED IT.

i still have the original walkthrough of the game and i treasure it with my life just finished the game recently on my vita of all the games i have on my vita i just could not stop playing this game and knowing what i know now that amy hennig was involved just says it all.

Everything about the game characters, story, voiceovers,envirements were so brilliant i could keep on playing the game forever and till this day i haven’t encountered anything just like it.

Amy hennig i love you for what your incredible mind brings to the table in my whole gaming experience untill today.

tiago-kun 12 October, 2012 @ 9:17 pm   12

I remembered the first time I saw this game. It was a gift to a friend of mine. And he booted it up and started playing. I remember clearly how fantastic the graphics were, all the nice colors, and he started exploring and I was finding the game fascinating.

So, being a kid with very little buying power, I borrowed it from him when he finished it. And then I played the game and liked it even more. I went on to play the sequel and then the other game that bring the things full circle, but I never played the Blood Omen games.

I know that it’s hard to convince publishers now that making an update to the saga by combining all of the games and giving it a new coat of paint would sell really well. But I keep hoping that someday, someone with money gets convinced. A new one would also be really cool, but I find it a lot hard to get that. But it deserves to be talked here, it really is a classic.

Oh, Soul Reaver!

I think it’s the only game I decided that I must have immediately after reading about it for the first time. The seamless world with no load times, the plane shifting, the characters and the concept were hugely intriguing. It was hard to come by in the Czech Republic and I still own the disc. Along with the technical achievements, it also boasts one of the best intro sequences of all time and is probably THE most radically different sequel, which this interview explains why that happened. I already knew about what was cut from the game thanks to the brilliant work of Ben Lincoln at http://www.thelostworlds.net/

When the sequel was announced, I didn’t have to think about it – I wanted it, I became a fan. While the last game, Defiance, wrapped up a great many loose ends, it still left the story unfinished and we haven’t heard any plans for a final sequel yet. IT NEEDS TO HAPPEN! THAT STORY DESERVES TO BE FINISHED!

Or if You get a chance to remake Soul Reaver into the original Shifter concept, that would be swell, too… At least it would be SOMETHING.

StefNighthawk 13 October, 2012 @ 9:57 am   14

I remember how the game’s cover also shifted from the spectral realm to the mortal realm.

It’s also one of the few games where in the sequel your previous powers were not taken away.

As a game-series it really deserves to be known to a new generation of gamers by remaking it (including some of the things that were cut and fixing some of the incontinuities). Especially Blood Omen needs to be adapted from the 2D gameplay to the samish gameplay of the rest of series.

Dreamriver 13 October, 2012 @ 12:03 pm   15

HD Remake including the cut content please! Fantastic memories of this game.

I would not want anyone else at the direction of Defiance’s sequel but Amy Hennig.
Without her there is no Soul Reaver/LOK and I fear that there will be no way for her to work on the series again unless she leaves Naughty Dog, which given how important she is for them and how successful is the collaboration with them is unlikely.
A Soul Reaver reboot is also pointless because you don’t reboot a masterpiece.
Would you reboot Metal Gear Solid? I certainly wouldn’t.

top game only very chokt raziel was the sword ath end

i like idea of consept of a vampire game rpg
where u carakter u choose female ore male becomes more stronger by time + kils in world system like batman wen u die ore whith ability u unlock spector world of the same world very twisted ful of demons wheterwulfs …..
+ make stronghold to vampires whith large upgrades .
but remake = nope , master peace leat ith be .

RobertMorridin 15 October, 2012 @ 3:57 pm   18

I totally loved this game back in the day (and still have a lot of fondness for it).
I was often in awe of the huge areas and interesting bossfights.
But I also cursed a lot because sometimes it was quite hard to figure out where to go.

Pure classic gem, that has been hidden too deep and for too long.

UltraSilver64 18 October, 2012 @ 1:03 pm   19

I’ve enjoyed the series immensely also, particularly as it had one of my favourite voice actors: the late Tony Jay.

@Dreamriver, I agree that the uncut content should be restored – a kind of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver Director’s Cut release.

One idea that should be implemented is a Legacy of Kain HD Collection – HD remakes of Blood Omen 2, Soul Reaver 2 & Defiance plus the PlayStation Classics of both Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain and Soul Reaver.

The only question is whether Sony and Square Enix are willing to make a go of it…

Also, I would love to find out what happens next after Defiance (as probably many of us would) and hope the Legacy of Kain will continue into the HD age.