About a week into April, shortly after my war of attrition with Grand Theft Auto was finally won, I started playing Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. It's a game I've been wanting to play for quite a while now, ever since I experienced the sequel all the way back at the start of 2009. Its environment-based puzzles, brilliant voice acting and complex narrative all kept me hooked from beginning to end. Last year I was able to get my hands on the original, spotting a copy of it on the shelf in my local Gamestation. I snapped it up without hesitation, paid the meagre £1.99 asking price and took it home, placing it on the pile of games marked 'to play sooner rather than later'. This month I finally started playing it, and was really enjoying the experience.
Until disaster struck.
I'd been working my way through Soul Reaver slowly, clocking up about ten hours' worth of play time across the last two weeks, and up until yesterday everything I'd seen really impressed me. Unsurprisingly, the game boasts a number of similarities to its sequel. A heavy focus is placed on solving environmental puzzles in order to progress, something I've come to recognise as developer Crystal Dynamics' action-adventure trademark through playing not only Soul Reaver and Soul Reaver 2, but also their trilogy of Tomb Raider games. The combat mechanics are fairly simplistic, but are spiced up by the invulnerable nature of the foes - their vampiric status means you have to make creative use of the environment to burn, impale and drown them into oblivion. The boss battles I fought were well-structured and rewarding without ever being frustrating. It even looks pretty great for an original PlayStation game, the gorgeous, decadent gothic art style and detailed character models belying the lack of graphical horsepower in Sony's first console. Sure, the game suffers from some of the characteristic problems of first-generation 3D games (awkward camera control and imprecise platforming being the big ones that spring to mind), but these barely detract from the overall experience.
Arguably the most impressive thing about Soul Reaver, though, is just how far ahead of its time it must have been way back when it was first released in 1999. The first 'blown away' moment came when I realised that the game was streaming the huge, seamless, 3D world of Nosgoth from the disc with no load times. And I'm not saying that in a fancy, spin-marketing kind of way - in the ten hours I played, right up until the aforementioned disaster, I don't think I saw a single loading screen during gameplay. To a modern gamer this fact might seem like a moot point, what with all the open-world games on the market that do the same thing, but I'll say it again - this game came out in 1999, on the original PlayStation. Take that into consideration and the fact the game provides a genuine seamless environment while still looking pretty damned great seems a fitting testament to how ahead-of-its-time Soul Reaver was.
There are other ways in which Soul Reaver seems to pre-empt the coming generation, some of which I've already mentioned - like the completely voice-acted script, recorded not by barely-competent voice actors but genuine big-hitters like Simon Templeman and the late, great Tony Jay. Their excellent performances really help to step the story up a notch, adding further gravitas and weight to a wonderfully-woven gothic tale of vengeance. Arguably the biggest moment of realisation that I had was about five hours into my playthrough, after trawling through the second 'dungeon' and beating the boss at its end. It was as the boss fell and I earned the ability to scale walls that I noticed the similarities between Soul Reaver and one of its contemporaries - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Mechanically, the two games have a lot in common - puzzle-based dungeon-crawling, strategic boss battles, earning new items and abilities which open up new areas of the map for exploration, two distinct versions of the same world that the player must traverse between to solve puzzles and move on... The list is almost endless. The big difference is that while the Zelda series is steeped in twee, innocent fantasy, Soul Reaver cloaks itself in the macabre. Putting it simply, Soul Reaver strikes me as a successful attempt at a dark Zelda game - one developed long before the gaming community started demanding one.
I'm sure the back end of the game is just as satisfying, if not more so, but I can't say for certain. My time with Soul Reaver was brought to a premature end yesterday, as I started experiencing disc read errors. They came consistently, always hitting right at the end of the boss battle in the Drowned Abbey. Cleaning the disc has also proven fruitless, which leaves me with just one conclusion - that one of the scuffs on the under-side of the disc runs a little deeper than a simple surface mark. It's incredibly frustrating, because I was really enjoying the game and was hoping to use my long weekend to see it through to the end. Now, thanks to those pesky disc read errors, I won't be seeing the end for a while yet, if at all. I've blogged in the past on the drawbacks of buying older games second-hand, specifically the unfortunate situation that arose when I purchased a used copy of the PS2 adventure game Primal way back in May 2009. These days I'm pretty meticulous when it comes to checking the condition of game discs before I buy pre-owned software. This pedantry extended to the purchase of Soul Reaver - the store I bought it from had two copies of the game, and I made a point of asking to see both before walking away with the better-faring of the two discs. Unfortunately I think this is just a hazard that comes with the territory of regularly buying and playing old games, and one I'm probably going to experience a few more times as I attempt to whittle down my Pile of Shame.
So for now, Soul Reaver returns to that pile unfinished. I am desperate to see the journey through to its conclusion, though, and I'm already thinking about ways of doing it for when I get paid at the end of the month. One option is to shell out for another used copy of the game on a site like Amazon or eBay - that would cost me around a fiver and would mean I'd be able to continue my game from my last save, but it would also mean running the risk of receiving another defective copy of the game. On the flip-side, for a similar price I could buy the game through the PlayStation Store and play it on my PSP - that would eliminate the possibility of any more disc read errors, but the sacrifice for that security would be having to start from scratch. In the meantime, while I think about how to approach the situation, I've moved on to try and tackle another original PlayStation title - Vagrant Story. Here's hoping my disc read error woes don't carry over to that title as well. Thanks for reading guys, I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Vagrant Story (PS1)