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Soul Reaver 2
Review By:  J. Michael Neal
Developer:   Crystal Dynamics
Publisher:   Eidos
# of Players:   1
Genre:   Adventure
ESRB:   Mature
Online:   No
Accessories:   Memory Card
Date Posted:   3-13-02

Soul Reaver 2 is the third installment in Crystal Dynamic's gothic role-playing series Legacy of Kain. It is intended to be received by the public as a stand-alone title, but comes off feeling little more than an expansion pack. It functions as a conclusion to the events in the previous game, which ended with the main character Raziel and the protagonist Kain challenging fate head on at the threshold of a time traveling device. Soul Reaver 2 also acts as a bridge between the seemingly unconnected events in Soul Reaver 1 and the situations in Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, crossing the two stories’ paths and merging them into one cohesive story, very nicely I might add. This current chapter in the pages of Nosgoth's troubled and winded history originally started out as the rest of the story in Soul Reaver 1 before it was eventually broken into separate releases for practical reasons. This may very well be the game’s biggest flaw. In spite of the engrossing story, high quality voice acting, and intelligent puzzles, Soul Reaver 2 hardly feels like a complete game in and of itself.

Soul Reaver 2 does a nice job of playing the ‘missing link’ between SR1 and Blood Omen, but don’t be put off new comers, the game also does a nice job of bringing the unfamiliar up to speed through use of an informative manual, an interactive timeline inside the game, and some crafty back story in some of the game’s cut scenes. It even includes the original opening CG for the first Soul Reaver. In a nutshell you play as Nosgoth's answer to the angel of death, Raziel, as you aid in the circle of life by sending the undead back to the other side where they belong via the gapping void that use to be your jaw-bone. To aid you on your journey the Elder God, the omniscient benefactor that enlisted your services as his Soul Reaver, gave you the ability to devoir souls, shift between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and to eventually use the power of the Soul Reaver, a mystical blade of pure energy that has the ability to be imbued with elemental powers or to rend the soul from a creature’s body, to your benefit. Along with a few abilities you stole from your vampire brethren during the last game you also have a few natural skills like hanging on to ledges and climbing up certain surfaces.

Throughout the course of the game you will discover that the role you play is much bigger then your patron ever let on, for you seem as much an instrument of Nosgoth’s destruction as its redemption. Few answers can be gathered from the game’s many treacherous characters until everything is revealed at the very end, but ironically your biggest alley throughout the game seems to be Kain, the heartless archenemies of Raziel’s last adventure. This helps provide one of the coolest and most shocking role reversals in recent years. Meanwhile, the air of distrust generated by the other forces, all of them trying to bend the truth in their favor, hasn’t been this well done since Deus Ex. Half way through the game you will be completely unsure who to trust, yet ultimately have no say in the matter, seeing how the game’s linear style does the choosing for you. All the jumping back and forth in time you’ll be doing throughout the game makes things a little hard to follow at first, but the developers give the game’s story plenty of time to unravel. The only problem with the game story wise is its ending, which suffers from the same affliction as Shenmue and the first Soul Reaver, an interesting, yet anticlimactic resolution that leaves any sense of closure up to the next game in the series.

While story is compelling, it’s how does the game play that’s the real question right? Sadly this aspect of Soul Reaver 2 is hit and miss. While it is essentially the same as the first game (hack and slash combat in the third person with some Tomb Raider style platform jumping and puzzle solving) it seems a bit stripped down from the when last we saw it. A lot less critical jumps and minor puzzles mean less frustrating and tedious game play, but it also means less to do in between the game’s many cut scenes. Most of this game falls in to the "run from point A to point B, activate the cut scene, run to point C, activate cut scene, fight" category. Combat wise a lot of the strategy brought from fighting vampires in the last game, throwing enemies in sunlight to kill them for example, is absent. Most enemies in this game are either human or demon and can be killed by the simple mashing of buttons. Weapons combat does little to add variety, and boils down to using the slow weapon with good range or the fast weapon with bad range. Even the Soul Reaver itself plays a very small part in the majority of the game play. It’s used mostly as a giant key to unlock doors and puzzles.

The controls function well, however, and are very intuitive during combat, and mixing high and low attacks with blocking and dodging and the occasional finishing move does add some excitement to the game’s rather ordinary fighting. And of course, the now staple R1 auto-facing button and camera reset button, along with the obligatory right analog stick camera rotation controls, make keeping enemies in plan sight very easy and judging jumping distances a snap.

One of the biggest complaints about the first Soul Reaver was the near endless supply of clichéd "push the block, pull the switch" puzzles. Luckily they are a thing of the past in Soul Reaver 2. In their place, a hand full of puzzles so large and so ingenious that you will continue to put up with the game’s flaws if only to see what's around the next corner. I have to hand it to Crystal Dynamic for designing some of the best puzzles in recent memory. Overwhelming at first, each of the game’s multi tiered puzzles will take hours to figure out. They will require logic, timing, skill, a hand full of luck, and of course your trusty Soul Reaver to complete. This game the concept of puzzles to a whole new level: each puzzle is made up of many smaller puzzles that all need to be completed to activate the main goal. For example, in the Light Forge the goal is to reflect the sun's rays onto a large gold disc, reminiscent of Indian Jones. Sound simple enough, right? Well, in order to reach that goal you have to bounce the light off of many smaller discs, in rooms all throughout the level. You will discover that each chamber requires a different set of tasks in order to unlock, and once inside each room has a set of puzzles that need to be solved in order to position its disk just right. So by the time you get the light to hit the main disc, unlocking the power of Light and imbuing it to the Soul Reaver, you will have solved dozens of small, interlocking puzzles. Yes, this is as demanding as it sounds. The scale of each puzzle can bring a gamer to their knees, and finishing one is often a trial and error exorcise in frustration, but will eventually provide the player with a deeply rewarding sense of accomplishment rarely found in current titles.

When it comes to graphics, gamers won’t be as impressed. While the graphics are rather nice, sporting a few uses of particle effects and some cool lighting trickery, the overall quality isn’t much improved over the Dreamcast port SR2 originate as. Even though they don’t take advantage of what the Playstation 2 can really accomplish, however, the graphics are clean and stylish, with plenty of variety and a nice steady frame rate that get the job done. Characters are made of large and distinct 3,000 polygons models that sport some nice detail. Textures, often the Achilles’ heel of many PS2 games, are stylish and varied. One thing that does require mentioning is the game’s inventive take on level structure. For the most part the game takes place in one of a dozen interconnected areas, all streamed off the disc in real time. Shifting between the Spectral and the Material plan is also done in real time. This means no loading in between areas, which is a welcomed change of pace compared to the many load-happy next generation titles out there.

Another interesting aspect of the game’s level design is the fact that you never see the same thing twice, even though you pass through the same exact locations several times throughout the course of the games. How is this possible? Well, consider the fact that each time you travel through any given area it is at a different point in Nosgoth’s thousand-year history. This change in the time period opens up many possibilities for experimentation in design on the part of the developers. For example, early in the game you have to make your way through an underwater labyrinth. On your second trip through the same area it’s a dry, cavernous passage full of tricky jumps and dangerous creatures. On the other side of the former lake is a rather large, bright, snow-covered forest that use to be a dark, murky swamp. And while the swamp use to be home to eerie creatures of the night, it’s now crawling with human guards. When next you find yourself back will be different yet again, and appear as a ruined wasteland. This keeps all the areas fresh and memorable. Throw in a large number of ruins and temples, each with a unique look and feel, and numerous (yet somewhat jagged edged) cut scenes, and you have well constructed, if somewhat lack-luster, visuals. Excellent complements to the visuals, however, are the sweeping music and ambient sound effects. Footsteps echo in rooms realistically, the Soul Reaver roars as it tears through a person, and screams of pain ring clear as enemies collapse in a heap on the ground. Every sound, from the caw of crows as they scatter to the opening of doors is grand and powerful, and it should be said that the groan of the Reaver charging up for a projectile shot is just about the coolest sounding thing ever in a game. This helps to fill in the gaps in visual appeal.

Nothing, however, beats the voice work present in SR2, which is quite possibly the best ever heard in a piece of electronic entertainment. Michael Bell and Simon Templeman reprise their roles as Raziel and Kain respectively, while such talents as Tony Jay and Rene Auberjonis round out the rest of the main cast of characters. Between the dictionary-grabbing lines and the melodramatic delivery you'll be convinced the Bard himself inked this script. Each line hits with the passion that was originally intended written and few, if any, come off as forced, flat, or laughable. This is something few games can clam. Even such recent blockbusters as Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid 2 fall into this trap. And while some heated exchanges brim with over-acting, it’s more akin to the type of over-the-top delivery of a Shakespearian stage performer then the B-Movie style presentation of games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill 2. These guys just know what their doing, and they should. Simon Templeman has been the voice of Kain since the first title was released for the Playstation back in 1996, and everyone has extensive experience outside of his or her work on the previous title.

If only a comparable amount of time was put into balance and bug elimination as was put into the script, story, and voice recording. If it were this might be a must-have title. Instead it falls into the same pile as so many other games who’s programming and technical aspect isn’t up to snuff with its design and scope. Combat AI is all but non-existent. Enemies continue to run blindly into walls and other objects as if they think they can go through them, groups of creatures simply stand around as you take out comrades one by one, and nothing seems to be able to figure out how to reach you when you are on a higher, or lower, plane then they are. One of the best strategies in combat is to find a platform about knee high and stay there, hacking away at the enemy as he continues to run toward you, baffled at the difference in height, even though he can just as easily hit you as you can hit him.

Besides the god-awful AI, the game is so full of other bugs and glitches that it raises the question of any implementation of beta testers at all. At last count I ran in to at least 9 different bugs that left no other option but to restart the system. And considering that the save locations are sometimes hours away, this means heavy backtracking throughout the entire game. Most of these bugs are fairly common and have been run into time and time again if Internet forums are any indication. The game’s sporadic pace also makes testing seem overlooked. Some areas have three or four save locations littered about, while other more critical areas, like among one of the game’s many epic puzzles or near boss battles, have none for miles. While a "save anywhere" feature would have been nice, the simple inclusion of more save locations would have been enough to eliminate half of the frustration in this game. Considering the game’s rather linear structure it wouldn’t have been too hard to place a save location roughly every 15 minutes.

Despite the game’s linear structure, too often you’re forced to spend hours wandering around until you trigger the next cut scene. Most of the time the next objective is forward, in the next location, but often there is nothing ahead of you, and you have to trek back until you find the right area to trigger the next major event. These treks can side track you hours, forcing you to run over many large, useless areas full of time consuming enemy encounters over and over again. These excursions serve simply as a way to lengthen the game’s rather short playtime.

The fact of the matter is with the story and puzzles out the picture, this game is just a rather lifeless, uninspired platformer and another "why bother?" sequel thanks to some rather glaring bugs and trying, tedious game play. But sadly, after uncovering the secrets in the plot, and completing all the puzzles, that’s all you’re left with. There is very little reason to fire up this game again from the beginning, and considering how mind numbing the tasks can be at some points why would you? Even if you felt compelled to just for a second helping of story, the DVD style extras have a cut scene viewer that renders a second run through pointless. And although the aforementioned extras does add a little something to do after beating the game, even those wear thin after a few minutes. Only die hard fans that want the complete series on their self will want to take the $50 plunge and buy this game. Most others will be able to beat it and see all the game has to offer in a single rental and will find that this is enough for them. Maybe if this game was offered in some sort of collector’s pack along with the first Soul Reaver it would be worth purchasing, but as it stands Soul Reaver 2 has very little going for it. It feels too much like Crystal Dynamics took the tale end of SR1, stretched it much longer then it should have been, and threw in lots of filler like time consuming exploration and outtakes from recording sessions in order to make it appear that it was enough to warrant a sequel. Most gamers won’t fall for this, however, and see through to what SR2 really has to offer, great story, innovative puzzles, and little else.

HIGHS:

  • Quite possibly the best voice action and dialogue ever heard in a video game.
  • Some truly unique and challenging puzzles.
  • Nice atmosphere.
  • Story that will keep you on the edge of your set until the final show down.
  • Some very interesting level designs and memorable characters with a few nice effects and no load times.
  • Awesome sound effects and music that rival any Hollywood blockbuster.
  • DVD style extras are a nice touch.

LOWS:

  • Full of bugs.
  • Painfully bad AI.
  • Graphics only a step above the Dreamcast version.
  • Some areas can get a little too dark.
  • Combat and platform jumping tedious.
  • Tedious game play.
  • Bad save location placement.
  • Some pretty noticeable jaggies during the cut scenes.
  • Way too short.
  • The entire game has an unfinished feel to it.

FINAL VERDICT:

While there is some fun to be had in this game, for the most part it’s not rewarding enough to keep you coming back for long. The game falls short and feels incomplete, with lots of bugs and bad AI, and only few improvements over the first game. The story, acting, dialogue, and puzzles are enough to at warrant at least one play through, but that’s about it. Maybe if this were bundled with the first game, attached to the end like it should be it would be worth buying, but considering the fact that I can be beaten in a few days, after which all appeal has been sucked dry, file this game under weekend rental.

Overall Score: 7.1

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