Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver and Opening
StoryScan: Critical Hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (Eidos Interactive, 1999), the story-driven action RPG known for its extensive development problems. This essay will cover content from the first ten minutes of the game, as well as from earlier titles in the Legacy of Kain series. Players who are unfamiliar with the series may want to set this article aside, as it contains substantial spoilers for the franchise.
Few video game franchises have had a more troubled history than Legacy of Kain. Since the 1996 release of Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, the series has moved between two different developers and four publishers, traveling from the creators at Silicon Knights to the current rights holders at the Embracer Group.1 Individual titles have been plagued by legal battles, tight development cycles, scrapped content, and delays, and the franchise has stagnated without a release since 2003. Yet despite its problem-filled past, the Legacy of Kain series still has a following almost twenty years later. Its multi-game story arc continues to be well-regarded, as does its cast of reluctant vampires determined to defy fate. The most highly-rated title in the series, 1999’s Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver,2 is considered a franchise stand-out despite its cliffhanger ending. Part of the reason Soul Reaver endures to this day is its stellar opening, which uses a mix of visual storytelling and narration to bring players up to speed on the plot, the characters, and the setting. This efficient opening gives players an immediate sense of direction, allowing them to dive right into the game with both a sense of purpose and a connection to the narrative.
In Soul Reaver, players take on the role of Raziel, a fallen vampire with a grudge against his master. Raziel is a discipline of Kain, the elder vampire who rules the land of Nosgoth. Nosgoth is a blighted place controlled by Kain’s vampire cabal and a slumbering Elder God beneath the waves. When Soul Reaver begins, Kain has been ruling for over a thousand years, and Raziel serves as the first of his lieutenants. This role comes with many privileges, including the ability to mutate in new ways that bestow the powers of Kain. So long as Raziel remains loyal, the arrangement is satisfactory for both parties, but the tenuous peace meets a bitter end when Raziel mutates a set of wings—a gift not even Kain possesses. Enraged by the betrayal, Kain shreds Raziel’s wings and hurls him into the Lake of the Dead, condemning him to eternal suffering. Raziel’s suffering does not last forever, however; after countless years, his broken body is resurrected by the Elder God, who tasks Raziel with killing Kain and restoring balance to Nosgoth. Raziel doesn’t have much choice, but it’s a good deal for him, too, as it’s his best chance of getting the vengeance he craves.
An Elegant and Efficient Opening
Soul Reaver’s opening is elegant in its efficiency, in no small part because of its deft introduction of the plot. Although the previous paragraph merely summarises the opening’s events, it doesn’t leave much out. The runtime from the opening line of narration—‘Kain was deified’—to the moment the player gains control is a hair over five minutes, and that five minutes covers everything from the reveal of Raziel’s wings to his meeting with the Elder God. In those five minutes, the opening lays out two separate conflicts: the global conflict of imbalance in the universe and the personal feud between Raziel and Kain. These conflicts may differ in their stakes and urgency, but they’re connected by a crucial unifying factory: the goal.
The world of Nosgoth is in peril. According to the Elder God, the universe is powered by life and death: the constant movement of souls. Unfortunately, Kain has wiped out most mortal humans, and he and his lieutenants have enjoyed an immortal reign for centuries. This new paradigm has arrested the flow of souls, and Nosgoth will collapse if the natural order isn’t restored soon. The only way to accomplish this is to kill Kain and his acolytes. It’s no coincidence that Raziel wants Kain dead, too; the Elder God revived Raziel with that goal in mind. Like the narrative designers behind Soul Reaver, the Elder God understands the importance of proper motivations. By the time the player takes control of Raziel, they have two solid motivations to keep them moving: vengeance for their avatar and a balanced world for the Elder God. Theoretically, Raziel should also benefit from the world continuing to exist, but his feelings on existence are a little bit complicated.
If there’s one thing the opening of Soul Reaver makes clear, it’s that Raziel has suffered a lot. After having his wings ripped to shreds by his former leader, Raziel is tossed off a cliff and into the swirling Lake of the Dead. As if the visuals of his flesh being eaten away by the cursed waters aren’t enough, Raziel is also kind enough to elaborate through narration. “Tumbling, burning with white-hot fire, I plunged into the depths of the abyss. Unspeakable pain, relentless agony: time ceased to exist. Only this torture…and a deepening hatred of the hypocrisy that damned me to this hell!” It’s a beautifully visceral description, and it’s also a fine introduction to Raziel as a character. Whoever he was before Kain’s betrayal is irrelevant in the wake of the mind-shattering suffering he endured at the bottom of the lake. By the time the Elder God revives him, pulling him back from ‘the precipice of madness,’ Raziel is forever changed, both physically and mentally. The ragged remains of his wings hang limply at his back, and his water-worn skin is a haunting blue. He’s lost his lower jaw, as well: an affliction he covers by wrapping his cloak around his throat. Yet in spite of these scars, the reminders of his betrayal, Raziel rises again. “The descent had destroyed me,” he says, “and yet I lived.” He is not the man he once was; he is an avatar for hatred, and it is that hatred that will drive him to kill Kain.
Kain himself is also fleshed out nicely by Soul Reaver’s opening. Although the events that led to Kain’s deification are chronicled in the earlier Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, the Soul Reaver opening cinematics fill in all the salient details for players who are unfamiliar with the franchise. Raziel’s narration establishes that Kain is a once-mortal deity who held contempt for humanity. To secure his supremacy, he created Raziel and his fellow acolytes, then allowed them to share in his gifts. His generosity is limited, however, as he cannot accept the idea of any of his lieutenants surpassing him. In spite of his power, he’s insecure in his position, and he lashes out when Raziel dares to grow beyond him. Kain’s willingness to torture his most loyal lieutenant for an unintended slight proves that he’s as capricious as he is vindictive: two traits that, when coupled with insecurity, spell disaster for anyone forced to serve under him. They’re also great qualities for an antagonist to have because they’re easy qualities to hate. Everyone loves seeing a cruel, petty tyrant get his comeuppance, even if it’s at the hands of a decaying avatar of vengeance.
The plot and characters take center stage in Soul Reaver‘s opening, but the cinematic also hints at the complexity of the setting. Nosgoth may have been a world like ours once, with mountains and seas and human beings, but Kain’s ascendance put history on a different course. Human beings are no longer in charge, and Kain and his cabal have taken control of the world. It has since become a barren place, dry, brown, and decaying, but Kain is indifferent to the decay as long as it guarantees him control. However, his control is not complete, as there is another world dwelling beneath the ground. The Elder God lurks in the water, guiding the souls of the dead, and Kain’s rule threatens the stability of his domain. Nosgoth is a place brimming with deep, unknowable magic, and not even the self-appointed leader Kain understands the extent of its power.
Soul Reaver‘s opening doesn’t just establish the setting as a place; it also anchors the setting in time. According to Raziel’s narration, he joined Kain in the empire’s infancy and served Kain for ‘over a millennium.’ Thousand-year empires are a rarity in the world of mortals, but time moves differently for Kain and his ageless lieutenants. A thousand years is nothing to them, nor is the stagnation that comes with their unchanging rule. The only visible markers of time’s passage are the increasing mutations occurring in Kane’s lieutenants: signs of their growing power. Kain’s inexorable reign is still leaving a mark on Nosgoth, however, and their continued growth guarantees the end of the world. Time may stand still for Kain and his allies and the endlessly suffering Raziel, but for everyone else, it keeps moving–for better and worse.
Fans have been waiting a long time to see another addition to the Legacy of Kain franchise, and after reviewing the opening of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, it’s easy to see why. The narrative designers mastered efficient storytelling by establishing the game’s plot, characters, and setting with little more than some cinematics and narration. Writers who want their openings to be similarly effective should look to Soul Reaver as an example of elegance and efficiency in introductory scenes.
One of the earliest known structures, Three-Act Structure divides stories into beginning, middle, and ending.
In theory, writers are only limited by their imaginations, but in practice, they’re limited by time, money, and a variety of other constraints.
StoryScan: Final Fantasy VII and Opening
Final Fantasy VII’s memorable opening succeeds by weaving in character, setting, theme, and conflict.
1 “Legacy of Kain.” Wikipedia, 2022.
2 “Legacy of Kain: Reception.” Wikipedia, 2022.
* Reference Footage: Shirrako. “LEGACY OF KAIN SOUL REAVER Gameplay Walkthrough FULL GAME (4K 60FPS) No Commentary.” YouTube, 2022.
** Reference Script: Kelly, Ryan. “Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver Script.” GameFAQs, 2001.