Sometimes great games have bad stories, and sometimes great stories accompany bad games. However, I have never seen this distinction become more acute than with Soul Reaver 2 for PlayStation 2, Crystal Dynamic's long awaited sequel (actually third in the Legacy Of Kain series) to their 1999 vampire epic. Whereas Soul Reavers story wasin my admittedly unpopular opinionslight and disappointing compared to its predecessor (Legacy Of Kain: Blood Omen), Soul Reaver 2s is lush and vibrant with real dramatic depth. The gameplay, however, is a monumental step down for the series, resulting in an experience that alternates excruciating boredom and frustration with literate and inventive story-telling. Playing Soul Reaver 2 is a manic-depressive experience. Just when youre about to throw your controller at the screen you get a story sequence that instantly melts your resolve, making you grateful to trudge through hours of more gameplay until your love-hate relationship with the designers once again teeters on a razors edge.
For the uninitiated, Soul Reaver 2 (like Soul Reaver) is the story of Raziel, a human-turned-vampire-turned-soul-sucking-ghoul who seeks revenge against his maker, Kain, the cruel (and delightfully sardonic) vampire-ruler of the wasteland of Nosgoth. In Soul Reaver we saw Kain throw Raziel into a bottomless pit from which he returned quite pissed, and subsequently chased Kain all over Nosgoth only to have him cheat fate (and the players) by ducking into a time-gate in one of the most notoriously anti-climactic endings in recent videogame history. Soul Reaver 2 literally begins where the original left-off (abandoning all pretense that Soul Reaver was ever really finished) as Raziel follows Kain into Nosgoths past.
The player, as Raziel, literally begins the game with all the skills acquired in Soul Reaver, including swimming, climbing, and the ability to pass through solid objects under certain circumstances. In addition, the basic gameplay is identical to Soul Reaver. Raziel, being neither alive nor dead, still possess the ability to "shift" in and out of the Spectral Realm, an eerie reflection of the physical world inhabited by ghosts, as major aspect of gameplay. Likewise the combat is identical, involving a targeting system similar to the Nintendo 64 Zeldas. Weapons such as swords, spears, and axes can still be found and used but the main element of combat is still, naturally, the Soul Reaver, the ghostly blade stolen from Kain in the original game. Functionally, Soul Reaver 2 feels like exactly what it is: the rest of Soul Reaver.
Story, however, is a different matter. If in terms of gameplay Soul Reaver 2 feels like the second half of the original, in terms of story it feels the long-awaited and eagerly welcomed other three-fourths. While Soul Reaver was handsomely literate and absorbing in what little story it had, this fact also distracted from the realization that it barely qualified as exposition. Soul Reaver 2, on the other hand, hits the ground running and never stops. It handles plot point after plot point with finesse, building its narrative with growing urgency into a carefully planned and wholly satisfying catharsis. Soul Reaver 2 strikes such a comfortable balance between writing, acting, and graphics in its cut-scenes that these distinctions simply melt away. The character models are all wonderfully emotive in their facial expressions and body language, but the real compliment goes to their lip-syncing, which I can honestly say is the best Ive yet seen in a videogame. Simon Templeman returns as the voice of Kain and proves once againthrough that unmistakable Shakespearian drawl absolutely oozing with sardonic intelligencethat he is one of the best things ever to happen to videogame voice-overs. Michael Bell, who returns as the voice of Raziel, is technically as excellent as he was in the first game, although he seems much better this time since hes actually given a character to play. Other voice-actors are equally good and are all done justice by the dialogue of director Amy Hennigs very capable writing team. Kudos should also go to her as scenario writer for what is a practically air-tight time-travel plot that builds off the original game of the series, Blood Omen, with wit and creativity.
Needless to say, if story were my only criteria for judgment Soul Reaver 2 would receive all my loudest recommendations. Unfortunately, this cannot be the case. Soul Reaver 2 falls and falls hard in the areas of level and puzzle design. Whats confusing is that it does so without really changing much from the original, which, although not perfect, sported a far superior balance of combat, puzzles, and general playability. Whereas Soul Reaver was fairly meticulously designed so that combat was fun and levels were well-thought out, Soul Reaver 2s interactive segments feel strictly like an after-thought, a series of desperate annoyances designed solely to impede your progress in the story. This somewhat has to do with the central conceit of the plot being so much different from its predecessor while retaining all the same gameplay. In Soul Reaver combat and exploration were all built around negotiating the ruined future world of Nosgoth and defeating its predators according to a clear logic uniquely tied to the era. Soul Reaver 2, however, is mostly spent in the past fighting humans and exploring more familiar environments which would be fine if the gameplay had been accommodated to reflect this fundamental change. Instead elements like combat now seem suspiciously tacked-on requiring little or no strategy. Puzzles, which were esoteric yet tolerable in the first game, are maddeningly non-sensical here, invariably demanding what can only be called busy work. Also, the responsiveness of the controls seems to have lost something from Soul Reaver. Although well-animated, Raziel feels inexplicably sluggish compared to the original, which hurts combat as well as navigation.
The irony of all this is that Soul Reaver 2 has all the right inspirations for gameplay. The general design philosophy seems very much influenced by the 16-bit and 64-bit Zeldas: hardly a bad combination. However, the weakness seems to be in the implementation, which superficially reflects the paradigm of Miyamoto but lacks nearly all its depth. The result is a game that is sadly not the sum of its parts, partially redeemed only by the grace of its truly enthralling story. Its a shame as well as an irony that Soul Reaver and Soul Reaver 2 mutually succeed and fail on the opposite point. If Crystal Dynamics can combine the involving gameplay of Soul Reaver with the involving narrative of Soul Reaver 2, they might finally produce a sequel worthy of their exceptionally strong source material. Heres to hoping that third times the charm.