Legacy of Kain was released on October 31st, 1996. Since then we have been treated almost every year to some of the most engaging storylines and compelling action as this series evolves and reveals itself to us. The latest installment, Legacy of Kain: Defiance is probably one of the best of this series to date in terms of storyline. Unfortunately, much like the vampire subject matter the game circles around, this game has parts that simply suck.
The Legacy of Kain and Soul Reaver series has always kept the camera relatively close to the character, with each character is rendered with an extreme amount of detail. In this regard, Defiance is a little different than those before it. For the vast majority of the game you will be treated to a wider camera angle giving you views of sweeping vistas, extremely detailed castles, and some fantastic artwork in general. You will find yourself in ancient churches with elaborate masonry and stained glass, and in the squalid and dark depths of Nosgoth. Every scene is rendered with such attention to detail that you have to see that this was a labor of love for the art team at Crystal Dynamics. Absolutely awesome work…
Another point of note is the Spectral Realm. If you took a camera lens and smeared vaseline on the lense a bit to give it a distorted freakish look you might have a good idea of what it is like to travel in the land of the dead. The landscape seems alien and twisted and has never looked better.
Sadly, this title’s attention to the incredible art direction suffers from framerate issues. For the vast majority the issues are very isolated, but occasionally they stutter down to a noticable level. Thankfully, it isn’t low enough where you might miss a jump or fall off a cliff, but it is definately present.
The sound and music of Defiance is fantastic. Ever since Kurt Harland began writing music for the series the atmosphere of the music is absolutely perfect. When enemies are near, a quickening of the pace of the music puts you right in the action. The surreal music of the Spectral Realm is very fitting to the overall look of the area. It is amazing how well this soundtrack fits with the title. If you are interested in checking out more of Kurt Harland’s recent work you can pick up his album Don’t Be Afraid. The CD has some of the music used in the Soul Reaver and Legacy of Kain series, namely Ozar Midrashim.
As before, the voice acting in Defiance is absolutely unmatched. Michael Bell returns as the voice of Raziel, as does Simon Templeman as Kain. Tony Jay (Elder God), Richard Doyle (Moebius), Rene Auberjonois (Janos Audron), Paul Lukather (Vorador), Anna Gunn (Ariel), Alastair Duncan (Mortanius), and some other talented folk (providing all of the other voices) give a soul to this title that few other games match. Their voice acting makes you compelled to care about what happens to the characters, and more importantly, they compel you to care what happens next.
The only detracting factor in the music area is that much of the music was re-used from the Soul Reaver series. While this doesn’t make it bad, if you were hoping for something else or didn’t particularly care for the previous soundtracks, not a whole lot has changed. Regardless of this fact, it is, by far, one of the best soundtracks and voice acting combination in recent memory.
And now we come to it…the bane of all 3D adventure games, the controls and camera. If you are the type of person who adjusts the camera on the fly you are going to absolutely hate this camera system. It appears that they have tried to give the camera a bit of an AI to determine what the best camera angle would be given your location and what you are doing. It didn’t work.
The camera and controls are intertwined. Put simply, you cannot control your character if you cannot see them clearly or if you can’t see the surroundings. Let me say that the first 4 to 5 hours of Defiance is fantastic in respect to the camera. As you assault the castle you are given a wide view of the surrounding area with a clear view of your character as well as a clear shot of where you are going. The second you set foot inside the camera becomes cumbersome, if not downright stupid.
When inside, the camera can’t decide how best to kill you. If we could peer into the AI it would say something like “Should I have him run towards the camera as I zoom in so far that you can’t see anything but the character, or should I simply swoop around and look at something else?”. There were a few “Should I make you fight characters that you can’t see off screen, or perhaps I should make you jump at platforms you can’t see” moments that made this game move from immersive to controller-throwing frustration. As there is absolutely NO way to adjust the camera on the fly, you are going to die and often. The camera is the worst issue with this game, and let me assure you, it is as bad as the score implies.
One redeeming quality about camera is that you can push the right thumbstick in and look around in first-person view. You have to be standing still to do this, so it is useless in combat, but it comes in quite handy for looking for walls to climb or secret areas to discover. You can nudge the camera a little to the left or right (about 45 degrees) but it is so cumbersome given how disjointed the camera is that it isn’t worth adding to your frustration as you try to move, fight, and twist the camera into the right position.
The rest of the controls are fairly simple. Both characters start off with some basic combat moves, but learn more as the game progresses. Nothing more complicated than a few button presses and a direction, pretty easy to master just the same. Both characters control relatively alike, so when you have learned one you have learned the other.
Without the camera issues this game is a blast to play. Running around slaying humans and draining them of their life’s essence is as fun as it sounds, and when you are compelled by a storyline as complex and interesting as this you have no choice but to carry on. That said, the camera issues removes a big chunk of the fun-factor making this a ‘play in short intervals’ type of game. Thankfully you can save anywhere so that helped with any frustration with the title.
The Legacy of Kain and Soul Reaver series are quite linear, and Defiance is no exception. In the manual it describes how you can use superhuman leap and bat flight to move around, but honestly those are both simply trigger items to move to another area. If you needed a long jump during actual gameplay Kain is not helping you. Only when standing on the big red circle or bat-symbol is Kain going to heed your request. This means that you will be doing alot of backtracking finding just the right area to jump into, jump out of, or enter and kill some guardians, until you find the next trigger point. While I would have enjoyed a more open playground, it does keep the storyline moving in the right direction and I can accept that.
Using Telekenisis and various Reaver powers you will be trying to either charge up different aspects of the Reaver, or trying to reassemble the crest of the Reaver, depending on whether you are playing as Kain or Raziel at the time. This task will lead you to an area that, quite simply, is as redundant as The Library in Halo. It goes a little something like this:
- Find point to jump or use reaver to get into room.
- Shift to Spectral Realm or walk through metal grate to get to second area
- Fight progressively more and more guardians
- Get some item or smack a switch
- Go back into main room
- Fight more guardians
- Charge up Reaver
- Rinse, repeat.
As you can imagine, since there are 9 Reaver aspects for Raziel and 4 for Kain, this can get pretty old pretty fast. It isn’t enough to make you stop playing, but it does make you wish they took a few more months and made Nosgoth a little bigger.
Should you fall in combat, there really isn’t much of a penalty. Kain turns into a swarm of bats and flys you back to the last checkpoint, and Raziel shifts back to the Spectral realm. Unlike the previous games, Raziel does not shift on the spot, he shifts and ports back to the last checkpoint. I’m not quite sure why they changed this, but I can only imagine it was to prevent you from getting ‘stuck’ as there are far fewer shift points.
Once you have aquired the different Reaver upgrades, you can use them in combat. After slapping the enemy around a bit you get a glow over the blade that you can unleash on the enemy. Sometimes it sets them on fire, which I might add is very satisfying, or it might fling them onto some wall sconce to impale them.
If you have played Soul Reaver 2 you might recall that you could pick up the weapons of the fallen enemy and use them. Since so much of the storyline revolves around the Reaver, this option is completely removed from the game. At least you can still impale folks with the Reaver with a satifying “Vae Victus!” and a sinister laugh. It’s the little things…
While travelling around Nosgoth you will find ancient tomes for each character. The tomes unlock special things such as screenshots from previous titles, game introductions, and concept artwork for this title and it’s predecessors. If you are as into the lore of these games as I am, you will find yourself scouring the landscape for them…stop scouring. When you finish the game it unlocks all of the items for both characters so you can see the outtakes, introductions, artwork, and everything else without a whole lot of effort. This pretty much nullifies any searching that you might have done after beating the game.
The game itself is a mixed bag. The story is compelling and ties up a metric ton of loose ends from previous games, as well as explaining the relationship between Kain, Raziel, and the Reaver itself. Once the story plays itself out there is very little compulsion to go back and do it again. I might have done so several times as I did with previous titles just to enjoy the scenery and voice work, but that damned camera would keep anyone away. This is one of those times where the value is high but the replay value is nill.