The last time I reviewed a game in the Kain series (2002's Blood Omen 2) I was appalled at how poor an effort it was. This darkly gothic series starring vampires, intrigue, and pathos has never been home to top-level gameplay, instead being driven by its strong voicework, memorable characters, and sheer cool factor. Despite that, it was such a lousy piece of software that I claimed one more game as shoddy as that one would most likely force me to jump ship and abandon the series. After playing through Crystal Dynamics' most recent installment, Legacy of Kain: Defiance, consider me swimming for shore.
The factual breakdown: The game stars two characters: vampire tyrant Kain and spirit wraith Raziel. They are carbon copies of each other functionally, able to dish out rapid sword-slash combos while dodging and jumping around the battlefield. Think "Devil May Cry Lite" and you'll have a clear idea of the breezy, mash-heavy combat featured here. Each character also boasts limited telekinesis powers for tossing enemies into environmental hazards or over cliff edges. Building on the last four games in the series, this installment was billed as an "ending" of sorts, bringing to a head a number of twists and turns, mostly involving time travel and Machiavellian puppeteering.
With a greater emphasis on action and the goal of delivering dramatic goods to the faithful who've stuck with the series through thick and thin, the stage was set to have Legacy of Kain: Defiance assume the role of series savior. However, there are just so many things wrong with this game that I don't even know where to begin. I find it very interesting that the Kain series' gameplay has been practically reinvented with each new installment, yet Crystal Dynamics has yet to hit a real home run with each new attempt feeling rushed and plagued with problems. It's mind-boggling that over the course of the last four games (the original was by Silicon Knights, not Crystal Dynamics) the people in charge have yet to achieve any significant results.
Far and away, Legacy of Kain: Defiance's most heinous offense is the way it shamelessly doles out its own sloppy seconds, thirds, and fourths in place of actually creating tasks and challenges that would be interesting or engaging. The operative concept? Overzealous recycling.
The first ten or so hours (out of roughly twelve) are made up of long strings of locked doors that are accessed by finding every item imaginable that could possibly function as a key—fancy daggers, glowing magic spheres, trick shields, five-foot pieces of brass in the shape of an eagle you name it, it's in here. Throwing any pretense of believable architecture and locksmithery out the window, players will find themselves doing the same basic key-fetch/backtrack routine for hours on end while hacking and slashing the same generic mobs of enemies that come their way.
In the game's worst sequence, when players need to find and talk with an ancient vampire, instead of walking in the front door or creeping in through an upper balcony, what's required is going on a ludicrously long sequence of finding three magical spears to impale three special statues, gaining a new special power for your sword to put out the small fires in a few braziers (never heard of water?), solving one puzzle room where you light lanterns and then another one where you extinguish them, and finally after all that, you go into the vampire's backyard and have a chat with him. After all that nonsense I simply had to laugh, and not in a good way.
Over-reliance on key fetching must be one of the oldest, most stale and creatively bankrupt tricks in the book, but what makes this even more insulting is that besides scavenging these random museum pieces (any of which would be right at home in the Resident Evil universe) the swords of both Kain and Raziel also function as keys—and guess what? You need to find pieces for those, too.
Not limited to the mechanics, the environments are endlessly re-used as well. I was flabbergasted when I realized that Crystal Dynamics had taken one cylindrical temple housing an "elemental forge" (the sword type of key) and very nearly cut and pasted identical versions of it into the game time and time again! In fact, I actually lost count of how many times they re-used it. The colors and locked door layouts were slightly different, but essentially you were revisiting the same area every single time and doing the same things—solving a few moronic puzzles, defeating the same palette-swapped pair of bosses in each location, and then gaining another element for your sword which boiled down to letting you open a different kind of portal. Unbelievably, this same kind of "enhance the sword" scheme was used in three of the last four games as well, but never as repulsively transparently as it was here.
I have a hard time believing that anyone at Crystal Dynamics honestly thought this was compelling gameplay. The visuals are nice, but they don't make up for this insipid structure, and the flashy battle engine is both shallower and more limited than it has been in the earlier games. Truthfully, I couldn't even finish the game by myself because I was so turned off. I actually had to call in my brother to trade off with me after each level, and if not for the brief mental vacations I was able to take thanks to him, I doubt I would have completed the game at all. (And if you're reading this, I owe you a steak dinner, man maybe even two.)
After all that ranting, I'm sure you won't believe that I actually have something positive to say about the game, but I do; the last two hours or so were actually fairly good. Cutting back on the item-fetching, adding some exciting boss battles and finally getting to substantial segments of the plot, anyone who can bear down and endure through the tripe will see secrets revealed and learn the ultimate resolution to the series. Is the payoff worth it? I'd have to say that the plot itself was probably the best anyone could have hoped for given the twists, turns, and meanderings that have accumulated during its convoluted history, but it's debatable whether the final denouement was reward enough for being forced to sit through ten of the most painfully inane, moronically repetitive and wholly unfulfilling hours I've ever had the misfortune to experience.
It's a shame that to enjoy the unique story and memorable characters, players need to put up with some of the most uninspired and pointless gameplay in existence. Who could possibly forget the deep, throaty growl of anti-hero Kain as he cleaves through legions of cowering mortals, or the eerie green glow streaming from Raziel's dead eyes as he glides his way through the netherworld? These characters are without a doubt some of gaming's finest. It's just too bad that they're bigger, better and more well-rounded than the games they inhabit.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.