Blood Omen 2 – Review

While being a reviewer isnt always easy, sometimes its even tougher when youre also a fan. Its our job to look at games objectively, but were still human. We all have our preferences and tastes, and theres nothing more miserable than seeing a series you love go down the drain with a rotten sequel. As if that wasnt painful enough, reviewing such a game forces you to thoroughly examine every single aspect of it, instead of having the luxury of deluding yourself into thinking it really isnt all that bad.

Such is the case with Blood Omen 2. Despite the original games technical flaws, it had enough heart and originality to become a true cult classic. After playing that troubled masterpiece years ago, I thought a blockbuster sequel would be a no-brainer. After all, what could be easier than to fix the technical problems and add a bit of polish? Sadly, of the three sequels released since then, none have managed to provide both story and gameplay at the same time. Blood Omen 2 doesnt provide either. I dont know how much more of this I can take and still call myself a fan of the series.

Blood Omen 2 places the player in the role of Kain, who is basically the ultimate badass vampire anti-hero. Events in Blood Omen 2 take place about two hundred years after the original PSone game, but several hundred before the first Soul Reaver. The gist of the plot is that our vampire had lost a huge battle, got knocked unconscious for centuries and then was re-awakened in a slightly more modern version of the world he knew. While asleep, he lost portions of his memory and most of his blood-fueled powers, which conveniently explains why hes a weakling starting over from scratch. With help from a group of vampire freedom fighters, he sets out to reclaim his power and the world. (If youre a little confused, dont worry. Vampire stories tend to be like that.)

The game is played from a third-person, behind-the-back view. Kain can attack with his bare claws, but he can also pick up and use weapons from fallen enemies. Combat uses a lock-on button to track the closest opponent, upon which Kain can dish out a three-hit combo. The right stick performs look around duties, and L2 brings up the Dark Gift menu that lists the supernatural abilities vampires can perform. Over the course of the adventure you will acquire several powers that include turning into a stealthy mist, a nifty-looking super-jump and the ability to control weak-minded mortals from a distance. While these definitely sound cool, dont get too excited. Almost all of the powers are extremely limited and unimaginative in their usage.

Far and away, Kains character and his superb voiceovers are the best things about the disc. Nearly all the discs actors are above average, but malevolently-throated Simon Templeman is the textbook example of EXACTLY how to do voices right. Hes dramatic, has excellent timing, and fits the role of an ancient vampire to a "T". His laugh is especially chilling... its a shame they didnt use it more often. Despite all the flaws Im about to discuss, I applaud the developers commitment to high quality when it comes to the vocal work. Its especially noteworthy since the characters use the same actors throughout all four games in the series.

The only other good thing worth mentioning is that Blood Omen 2 ties into the large, epic tale still unfolding in the dark world of Nosgoth. However, it kind of scores this one on a default since most of the worlds hypnotic allure was established in previous games. Still, while Blood Omen 2 is pathetically shallow in storyline, its nice to have some connection to sprawling drama, a familiar cast of characters and the pitch-black realm theyre set in. Oh, some of the environments were pretty good-looking, too.

Sadly, while I struggled to come up with good things to say and found scant few, there seemed to be no end to the list of negatives. For every one thing Blood Omen 2 does right, its a punctured hemophiliac in at least ten other areas. For the sake of brevity, I wont include the entire list of shortcomings here. However, believe me when I say that I could go on... and on... and on.

Technically, the game is an absolute, unredeemable mess. Youll immediately notice that the framerate stutters constantly and even comes to a full stop in the larger environments. Basically, its a complete slideshow. It cant even run smoothly during the cutscenes! The chop cant be blamed on the PlayStation 2 hardware either, since other titles including Jak And Daxter as well as ICO had larger, more impressive environments with virtually no slowdown whatsoever. On top of that, the game actually locked up and froze on me several times during play, forcing me to reset the hardware. There are also problems with collision, hit detection, clipping, and unbelievably bad audio/lip-synch foul-ups as well. With the amount of glitches, Im surprised the disc even runs in my PlayStation 2. This reeks of either inexcusably lazy programming or a money-hungry rush to get the game out the door. Or both. Gee, that hasnt happened in this series before.

Looking at the combat engine, it manages to be both extremely shallow and clunky as hell at the same time. Its not even as good as the previous Soul Reaver games. With the large amount of enemies to be killed, this is bad news indeed. For example, moving while locked onto an opponent is limited to slowly shuffling around or hopping a few feet to either side. Kain cant dash back, and he cant rush forward at all. Blocking is simple and works well, but its a slow process to go on the offensive and youll often get hit in the middle of a combo. The combat swiftly becomes boring, repetitious and frustrating, and controls so thickly that you often have to stop Kain and pivot him like you were backing up a car! I see no positive side to the stiff, unnatural Tomb Raider movement scheme and much prefer the smooth and fluid Mario 64-style engine featured in the Reaver games.

The other aspects of the title are equally poor. The "stealth" feature is a joke since you can only sneak around in mist or fog. Conveniently, there happen to be random patches of flat-looking fog everywhere in Nosgoth. Not limited to nighttime graveyards or chill moors, you can find it on factory catwalks, directly in front of guard posts, inside science labs and even on indoors upstairs balconies. I realize this is a fantasy game, but this is ridiculous.

The games much-ballyhooed city design is equally silly. Instead of being a huge metropolis to explore, or even being a reasonably large township, it takes a super-linear approach and puts all of the games locations in what amounts to a narrow one-way street. Now, Im no enemy of linear gameplay, but Blood Omen 2 takes it to a somnambulistic extreme with no freedom, no side areas to explore and no secrets to find. None of the puzzles amount to anything, since nearly all of them are brainless Doom-style door switches with a few solved by your telekinesis or mind-control powers for variety. Quite literally, everything you need to do is placed on the only path you can travel, and the game holds your hand the entire way. Put your brain on autopilot, since theres no thinking necessary here.

While all those flaws are game-killers in their own right, the biggest nail in Kains coffin is that the series strongest asset--speech, exposition and addicting plot twists-- have been abbreviated to the point of being practically nonexistent. While such amenities were the saving graces of both the original Blood Omen and Soul Reaver 2, theres about three minutes worth of vital story in Blood Omen 2. The first 3/4ths of the story and almost all the cutscenes are nothing more than awkwardly contrived rubbish and stale, one-note characterization. It seems strange that Crystal Dynamics writers would regress so badly after scoring a major coup with Soul Reaver's unbelievable climax, but hardly anything of consequence is said or revealed in Blood Omen 2. Even worse, youre practically beaten over the head with the games only significant twist within the first half hour, so theres not even a worthwhile payoff at the end. With a thin story and the gameplay to match, finishing the game didnt have anything to do with enjoyment.

All of these problems together add up to one huge step backwards for the series. Multiple technical bugs aside, the game is stuck with a dated, 32-bit design philosophy that pushes no boundaries and adds nothing new to the genre. Its not even on par with current games, and doesnt capitalize on the strength of the characters or atmosphere. The super-weak game design, limp story and shoddy production values wont win over anyone who isnt already a diehard Kain fan. If not for the connection to a series with such deep red charisma, this game wouldnt even be worth reviewing. Seeing the direction that the series is heading, I cant help but wonder what kind of games wed have had if Silicon Knights, the original developers, had gone on to create the sequels instead of Crystal Dynamics. Sadly, well never know. Rating: 4 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.