Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be paging through the mouldering tomes which comprise The Legacy of Kain‘s historical corpus. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
Though the internet is mercifully full of sources documenting this franchise’s complex trajectory, this article is particularly indebted to Ben Lincoln’s The Lost Worlds wiki and BoukenJima’s comprehensive Legacy of Kain series retrospective video.
Ontario-based video game studio Silicon Knights was founded by Dennis Dyack in 1992. Its first three titles – Cyber Empires (1992), Fantasy Empires (1993), and Dark Legion (1994) – were real-time strategy games developed for the Amiga and DOS platforms. Crystal Dynamics was also founded in 1992 half a continent away by former SEGA staffers Judy Lang, Madeline Canepa, and Dave Morse. The San Francisco-based studio spent its early years developing action games for the ill-fated 3DO home console, eventually achieving mainstream success with the BMG Media-published mascot platformer Gex (1995).
Gex creator Lyle Hall had joined Crystal Dynamics in 1993 and had the good fortune to meet Dyack at a game developers conference in the same year. The two felt that their creative trajectories were moving along similar lines, and Hall was particularly interested in Dyack’s pitch for a dark fantasy epic called The Pillars of Nosgoth. The game’s story, primarily written by Dyack and Ken McCullough and focused on a morally ambiguous antihero, had been heavily influenced by four cinematic and literary sources: Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (1990-2013), Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), Briam Lumley’s Necroscope (1986-2013), and Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth (1989). Over the following three years, a fruitful collaboration between Crystal Dynamics and Silicon Knights would see The Pillars of Nosgoth evolve into Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain.
Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain (1996)
Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain was originally planned for the 3DO, but this shifted first to the SEGA Saturn and then to the Sony PlayStation (though rumors concerning a completed Saturn version have persisted for decades). The PlayStation was accurately believed to have the strongest capacity for 3D graphics among home consoles of the time. Ironically, though, fans would discover that Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain was an almost entirely 2D game upon its release for PlayStation in 1996 and Windows PC in 1997.
The player takes on the role of antihero Kain, a noble murdered and transformed into a vampire during the game’s opening sequence. Kain sets off on a path of revenge against his murderers before being coerced into a much larger plot by the mysterious sorcerer who resurrected him. This epic journey centers on the formerly-titular Pillars of Nosgoth, a circle of monoliths which represent the spiritual and geographical hub of the region in which the game is set.
That region, Nosgoth, seems at first to be a relatively by-the-numbers medieval fantasy realm. Human villagers mill about and are often beset by dark supernatural forces lurking in the surrounding countryside. Complicating this seemingly simplistic milieu is a dense mythology which draws extensively from Western vampire lore while introducing layers of its own unique twists. Nosgoth was once home to a race of winged Ancients who banished their rivals, the Hylden, to a plane filled with demons. Before they were cast out, the Hylden used a curse to transform the Ancients into immortal vampires subject to an insatiable bloodlust. Centuries of history, recounted through the series’ extensive backstory, are reflected in the ebb and flow of dominance between the humans who rose after Ancients’ fall and the vampires attempting to return to their past glory. At the time that Blood Omen begins, the humans and vampires are locked in yet another struggle for control over Nosgoth.
Gameplay is strikingly similar to The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past (1991/1992), though the visual design is appreciably darker than anything Nintendo had produced. Kain is controlled from a top-down perspective as he explores a fairly open world comprised of settlements and dungeons. Combat involves swinging Kain’s sword in an arc at nearby enemies or making use of supernatural powers acquired throughout the campaign, including the ability to take the form of a werewolf or draining all nearby enemies of their blood.
Gathering blood is among the game’s defining mechanics and represents the beginning of a trend which would cause issues for the franchise later in its history. Ludo-narrative consonance, the intersection of gameplay and story, is a core piece of Blood Omen and its sequels. In this case, Kain’s diminishing sense of humanity is borne out by the dwindling number of humans from whom he can harvest blood to replenish his own health as the campaign progresses. While the player can make the moral choice to avoid coldly killing and draining villagers early in the story, desperation is likely to win out as enemies grow harder and sources of blood grow smaller. While this is an elegant marriage of gameplay and narrative, it can easily provoke frustration among players used to games where health resources are easier to replenish. The likelihood of frustration is increased still further by long load times and inconsistent enemy hitboxes.
Still, reception to Blood Omen was generally positive. The audio-visual presentation was virtually unparalleled in console games of the era, as a lengthy multi-layered narrative is depicted through extensive pre-rendered cutscenes. Every main character is voiced by professional voice actors, giving the plot a heft that it would not have had a generation earlier. Dennis Dyack and Lyle Hall had successfully established a dark fantasy epic for the rapidly maturing medium.
The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (1999)
Shortly after the release of Blood Omen, Crystal Dynamics began developing an unrelated new intellectual property (IP) called Shifter. Under the direction of Amy Hennig, who had been one of six Crystal Dynamics employees sent to aid in Blood Omen‘s development and would later establish a reputation as one of the medium’s greatest storytellers with Naughty Dog’s Uncharted franchise (2007-2017), the game took its cues from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). The player would have taken the role of an angel cast down from heaven and rallying resistance to Gnosticism-inspired false gods. The visual design and the name of the protagonist, Raziel, were respectively influenced by Hindu tradition and rabbinical lore. Crystal Dynamics’ executives eventually decided that Shifter should instead be adapted into a sequel to Blood Omen even though Silicon Knights’ popular title had originally been planned as a standalone game.
As Shifter was evolving into Soul Reaver and moving from pre-production into full development, Crystal Dynamics entered into a fractious legal battle with Silicon Knights over the future of the Legacy of Kain IP. Silicon Knights attempted to block the use of its property by Crystal Dynamics, asserting that ideas for a Legacy of Kain sequel were stolen from its own ongoing work, but Crystal Dynamics was able to successfully assert its control through an out of court settlement which gave it sole ownership as long as it acknowledged Silicon Knights as the franchise creators. Dennis Dyack would have no further role in the series he had pioneered.
Meanwhile, production continued apace on Soul Reaver. Ambition seems to have outstripped the hardware’s capabilities as Crystal Dynamics’ team struggled to implement the seamless 3D world that their vision required. In the end, a significant portion of the game’s final chapters were shaved off in order to publish it during the executives’ proposed timeline. Soul Reaver was finally released on the PlayStation in Fall 1999 and the SEGA Dreamcast in early 2000 after almost three years in development.
The second entry in the Legacy of Kain series is set 1500 years after the first, long after Kain toppled Nosgoth’s nine guardians and definitively established the vampires as its ruling class. Humans have been driven into hidden enclaves while heavy industrial smokestacks blot out the sun. Vampires are in the process of undergoing evolutionary mutations, and Kain’s jealousy of one such advanced member of the species sets the plot in motion.
Raziel, Kain’s lieutenant, is violently disfigured by his leader in a cinematic opening sequence and cast down into the Lake of the Dead. While there, Raziel is revived as a wraith and recruited by a mysterious eldritch force called the Elder God. This mass of eyes and tentacles demands that Raziel return to Nosgoth, put an end to the vampire hegemony, and restore the cycle of life and death that the vampires had disrupted. The Elder God is eager to consume souls trapped within the now-immortal physical forms of Nosgoth’s denizens
Crystal Dynamics wisely abandoned the overhead view of Blood Omen and instead depicts Raziel’s crusade from a floating mid-range 3D perspective built on the engine of Silicon Knights’ Gex (1995). Raziel’s model is a highlight, conveying character through shattered wings and a cloak that hides his disfigured face. Environments are rendered as fully textured polygons which facilitate more advanced exploration and combat.
This exploration actually spans two separate overlapping dimensions, as Raziel has the capacity to phase between the Material Realm and the Spectral Realm. The visual design of the former is inspired by 19th century industrial settings while the latter has an appearance informed by German expressionist films of the 1920s. Raziel can shift between the two at will to move past obstacles, though the system also serves to inform a unique death mechanic in which Raziel simply returns to the Spectral Realm if his physical form is destroyed; this is effectively an innovative interpretation of checkpointing. Since Raziel can’t die within the game’s fiction, it stands to reason that no traditional fail state would be present in the game’s mechanics.
Similarly bold intersections of narrative and gameplay occur in Soul Reaver‘s combat system. Raziel can make use of physical weapons found throughout the environment, but enemies can only be permanently destroyed by impaling them, drowning them, or exposing them to sunlight throughout much of the early game. Health can only be replenished by absorbing the souls of these defeated opponents. Raziel eventually gains access to the eponymous Soul Reaver, a supernatural blade which is able to destroy enemies without the use of environmental features but which carries with it a key penalty: Raziel is denied restorative souls because these are absorbed by the blade whenever its used to defeat a foe. This sets up an awkward situation in which the player is best served by entirely avoiding combat wherever possible, since the only reward for combat is souls drawn from downed enemies and even this reward is withdrawn when Raziel uses his most useful weapon. The same issue that caused criticism in Blood Omen – a ludo-narrative consonance that comes at the expense of engaging gameplay – is present once again in its sequel.
Soul Reaver‘s other key flaw is its heavy reliance on block-pushing puzzles. These ubiquitous environmental manipulation challenges are hamstrung by their frequency and the chance that players become entirely stuck, needing to reset the game. The puzzles do not mesh well with Soul Reaver‘s otherwise holistically grim presentation and gameplay, instead feeling as though they have been clumsily inserted to pad out what would otherwise be a relatively short playtime.
What remains of the game, after its sometimes-pointless combat and often-tedious puzzles have been stripped out, is a memorably cinematic audio-visual presentation. A suite of strong voice actors again provides spoken dialogue for the game’s numerous in-engine and pre-rendered cutscenes, enhancing the sense that this game was closer to a Hollywood production than many of its contemporaries. Graphics feature the muddy textures of the era yet require the player to suspend less disbelief than the heightened bird’s-eye view perspective of its predecessor while uniformly strong art design and writing allow the post-apocalyptic future of Nosgoth to be depicted with depth. In spite of its gameplay flaws, Soul Reaver would remain a largely beloved 32-bit title which moved the medium still closer to realizing Dennis Dyack’s dream of a truly expansive cinematic masterpiece.
The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 (2001)
Crystal Dynamics ended Soul Reaver with a cliffhanger that left fans anxiously anticipating a sequel. Unlike the long wait between Blood Omen and Soul Reaver, though, only two years would pass between the series’ second and third entries; an annual release schedule was discussed but impossible to implement. Though development began on the PlayStation and Dreamcast following the success of the latter’s definitive Soul Reaver port, Soul Reaver 2 would be published exclusively on the PC and Sony’s new PlayStation 2 in Fall 2001.
The story picks up immediately after the preceding game’s ending as Raziel finally confronts Kain and the two travel through a portal into Nosgoth’s past. Raziel discovers that he is the only being in Nosgoth not subject to predestination, allowing him to create time paradoxes which dramatically alter the future. Time jumps and moral ambiguity maintains the complexity for which the franchise had become known. The unlikely success of this increasingly Byzantine script is partially down to the involvement of British comic author Paul Jenkins.
The Legacy of Kain‘s narrative was made more prominent than ever by a revised gameplay structure, according to director Amy Hennig in a 2000 interview with IGN. Boss encounters are reduced in favor of smoother cinematic progression. Raziel maintains all of the abilities he gained during Soul Reaver – along with the Soul Reaver itself – while new skills gained over the course of the game advance the journey forward through mandatory areas rather than opening optional content as those in its predecessor had done. This structural change produces a more linear experience that emphasizes problem-solving over exploration.
Other gameplay elements have undergone similarly significant overhauls. The overall mechanics remain firmly within the genre of 3D action-adventure, but minute-to-minute actions are more compelling than they had been in Soul Reaver. Combat does not require Raziel to either deploy the Soul Reaver or make use of the environment to defeat his foes, as he can now dismember them with his claws in the course of familiar hack-and-slash gameplay. Block manipulation has been largely eliminated in favor of more stimulating puzzles based on phasing between the Material and Spectral Realms.
While Soul Reaver represented a major break with Blood Omen, Soul Reaver 2 is instead a refinement on its direct predecessor. Most systems are improved immeasurably while the story offers players more of what they had enjoyed in earlier series entries. Unfortunately, while it resolved the cliffhanger set up by Soul Reaver, Soul Reaver 2 would itself offer no closure to a number of core mysteries within its cosmology and no resolution to Raziel’s own journey. The next franchise entry would pivot away entirely from Raziel and back towards the character on whom the series had originally been based.
The Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2 (2002)
Due to its decision to split series development between two separate teams, Crystal Dynamics was able to begin the annual release schedule initially teased by Hennig during Soul Reaver 2‘s production cycle. A team led by director Glen Schofield – another soon-to-be-famous industry player who would go on to produce Dead Space (2008) and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (2014) – was set to work filling in more chapters of Legacy of Kain‘s dense mythology as Hennig’s team simultaneously developed Soul Reaver 2. Allegedly built on abandoned original IP prototype by lead artist and writer Steve Ross, the series’ next entry would reflect back on the history of its title character for the first time since its debut.
Kain’s story picks up 200 years after the events of Blood Omen and 1300 years before the start of Soul Reaver. The vampire general, spearheading his conquest of the region following his destruction of the Pillars of Nosgoth, soon finds himself defeated by a revived order of holy knights known as the Sarafan. Struck down by the Sarafan Lord, Kain languishes in a coma for an additional 200 years before resuming his crusade. Kain must regain his powers and navigate a complex set of oppressive institutions to conquer Nosgoth and take vengeance on the Sarafan Lord.
Much of the franchise’s aforementioned backstory is filled in by this entry and Soul Reaver 2. Time travel and the paradoxes introduced by Raziel’s journey in the preceding game allow Crystal Dynamics to explore the roles of the Hylden, the Ancients, and a shadowy resistance movement called the Cabal in shaping the region’s industrial future. As with earlier series entries, the plot has a direct influence on the game’s mechanics.
Though the swashbuckling action-adventure combat of Soul Reaver 2 is still present, Kain is stripped of the powers he’d acquired in Blood Omen at the start of Blood Omen 2 and loses the Soul Reaver to the Sarafan Lord. Much of Blood Omen 2, then, is spent finding new abilities and engaging with a new stealth system. Kain can make use of his claws or found objects to attack enemies. A starting power, which allows Kain to transform into mist, is primarily used to sneak around enemy-infested areas and engage in guerilla-like stealth kills. Additional powers used to defeat enemies or solve environmental puzzles, like hypnosis, are gained after slaying impressively complex bosses.
Kain can also drain enemies of their blood. In keeping with the franchise’s unique take on vampire mythology, this articulates as Kain psychically inhaling a victim’s blood rather than sucking it from their neck. Rather than strictly being used as health restoration, as it had been before, absorbed blood contributes to an experience point gauge and expands Kain’s total health bar once enough is accumulated. This system goes some way towards addressing the lack of combat incentives that plagued earlier series entries.
Blood Omen 2 was published on the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC by Crystal Dynamics’ parent studio Eidos Interactive in March 2002 and on Gamecube later that year. The story again received praise, but critics increasingly questioned the value of the series’ focus on rudimentary environmental puzzles. Crystal Dynamics was clearly beginning to identify lingering gameplay issues, though, and had successfully taken concrete steps to resolve them through more linear level design and compelling boss battles.
The Legacy of Kain: Defiance (2003)
Where Soul Reaver 2 and Blood Omen 2 represented refinements on their respective predecessors, The Legacy of Kain: Defiance would finally move the narrative past where it had been mired for two years. It would also blend the gameplay of the franchise’s two sub-series for the first time. Surprisingly, given some of the lackluster gameplay of earlier series entries, Crystal Dynamics was largely successful in marrying the mechanics of its two antiheroes.
The game had begun life under director Amy Hennig as Soul Reaver 3 but shifted early in development to include Kain as a playable character once members of the Blood Omen 2 team were brought on-board. The studio sought to improve on what had worked about Raziel’s acrobatic moveset in Soul Reaver 2 while also reintroducing magical abilities that Kain had not been able to use since the graphically-limited Blood Omen. With the advancement of physics technology on the PlayStation 2 hardware throughout the sixth console generation, Crystal Dynamics built many combat encounters around the ability to telekinetically throw enemies around and impale them on spikes.
Defiance is split into chapters which feature either Kain or Raziel as the playable character. The basic moveset of both is relatively similar – Kain and Raziel can both punch, swing swords, and respectively absorb the blood or souls of their enemies to restore health – but each does have a handful of unique ways to interact with their environment. Kain’s chapters include stealth and the use of powerful vampire magic, while Raziel’s chapters allow the player to phase in and out of the Spectral Realm to overcome obstacles. A new experience point system iterates on Blood Omen 2’s blood-based health expansion by teaching characters new combo attacks and skills once they have defeated enough opponents; runes found through exploration allow the characters to make greater use of their supernatural abilities.
The story picks up where Soul Reaver 2 had ended, with both its protagonists trapped in different eras of Nosgoth’s history. Kain comes to believe that he and Raziel are the champions of the region’s two warring ancient races – Ancients and Hylden – while Raziel seeks to restore the last Ancient to life in an attempt to avoid an apparent destiny of being imprisoned within the Soul Reaver itself. Defiance’s lengthy, cutscene-rich story explores the relationship of the Ancients to the Elder God, the ongoing conflicts between Nosgoth’s precursor factions, and the limitations of loyalty and self-determination. Unlike every series entry before it, Defiance ends on a comparatively conclusive and uplifting note.
Unfortunately, less uplifting is the critical reception received by the game upon its 2003 release for PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC. The development team had attempted to modernize the look of the series by replacing a behind-the-back player-controled perspective with a semi-fixed viewpoint in each area, heightening the cinematic sensibility which had informed the franchise since its debut, but this decision caused the series’ historically mixed controls to become less reliable than ever as navigation is reoriented each time the perspective changes. Though the game would sell over 500,000 copies, it would prove to be the final entry in the series as of August 2019.
Spinoffs and Canceled Games
Though Crystal Dynamics only successfully produced five Legacy of Kain titles before the series’ untimely 2003 conclusion, several other planned releases were in development at one time or another. Most lost content preceding The Legacy of Kain: Defiance consists of abandoned ports or early conceptual plans which would later inform completed series entries. Following Defiance, however, Crystal Dynamics unsuccessfully attempted to create two successors which resulted in no final product whatsoever.
The first of these attempts at a sixth Legacy of Kain game was Legacy of Kain: Dark Prophecy (alternately known as Blood Omen 3). Amy Hennig, who had represented the creative heart of the franchise since the departure of Silicon Knights and Dennis Dyack under a cloud of litigation in 1998, departed Crystal Dynamics in 2003 and Legacy of Kain development was passed to Ritual Entertainment. This Texas-based studio had assisted with Legacy of Kain: Defiance and was a natural choice to pick up the torch from Hennig’s team.
With input from three Crystal Dynamics consultants, Ritual Entertainment worked up a new series entry set primarily in the Hylden realm. According to an informal fan interview with one of these consultants – Daniel Cabuco – Dark Prophecy’s visual design was influenced by heavy metal, steampunk, and The City of Lost Children (1995). While most of the game’s cast consisted of returning figures from earlier titles, Raziel was cut during production at the request of Crystal Dynamics and a young version of Kain was expected to appear for the first time. Unfortunately, for reasons that remain obscure, Dark Prophecy was quietly canceled by Eidos Interactive after less than one year in development.
The next planned series title was The Legacy of Kain: Dead Sun. In development for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 by British developer Climax Studio under the guidance of Eidos Interactive’s new parent company Square Enix around 2009-2010, this ambitious open-world modernization of The Legacy of Kain was moved to the PlayStation 4 once its creators’ ambitions grew too large for the seventh generation of console hardware. A new story and characters created by Sam Barlow – later of Her Story (2015) fame – were intended to take up the mantle from Kain and Raziel.
The game was to be set in Nosgoth’s distant future and focus on the rise of a new vampire clan known as the Saradin. A multiplayer component mandated by Square Enix was simultaneously in development by Psyonix Games, though this was only connected to the single-player experience insofar as both shared a set of art assets and were built on the Unreal Engine 3 game engine. This mode would actually outlast Climax Studio’s single-player campaign when the latter was axed by Square Enix in 2012.
Nosgoth, a free-to-play online multiplayer spinoff to the Legacy of Kain franchise, was published by Square Enix exclusively on the Microsoft Windows digital distribution marketplace in 2015. This class-based third-person shooter, which had evolved out of Psyonix’s work on Legacy of Kain: Dead Sun’s multiplayer component, would be pilloried for its “perfunctory approach to its storytelling” even as its asymmetric team combat was criticized for poor balance. Square Enix’s decision to release a Legacy of Kain game bereft of the series’ core quality – its dense narrative – is genuinely mystifying. At least the visual design lived up to the franchise’s characteristically high standards of atmosphere. Citing an inability to establish an audience, Square Enix canceled the game before it left open beta testing in May 2016.
Note: Cover image is sourced from Steam
At the time of writing in August 2019, it seems unlikely that fans will see the release of a new chapter in the Legacy of Kain saga. The compelling tale of Kain and Raziel produced five action-adventure epics between 1996 and 2003 but none represented an unqualified success. Both the series creator and long-time series director, Dennis Dyack and Amy Hennig respectively, have moved on to other projects. Crystal Dynamics’ dark fantasy IP seems to have been stuck in stasis ever since Hennig’s departure, while the studio’s 2003 acquisition by Square Enix and commercial success with the Tomb Raider franchise during the 2010s has almost certainly made a return to their less commercially viable legacy properties seem an unnecessary risk. Eight years of groundbreaking cinematic storytelling is nothing to scoff at, though. Perhaps it’s best that the journeys of Kain and Raziel end with Defiance’s defiantly hopeful conclusion.
What do you think? Was The Legacy of Kain struck down before its time or had it run its course? Where would you like to have seen the series go? Would you play as Kain or Raziel in a battle royale? Let’s discuss below.
Join us at 9:00 AM next Friday for Franchise Festival #65: Civilization. Here is a brief list of other upcoming entries (subject to change):
- August 9: Civilization
- August 16: Danganronpa
- August 23: Wario
- August 30: [vacation]
- September 6: Ultima