Legacy of Kain: Defiance | Principal Platforms: PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox | Developer: Crystal Dynamics | Publisher: Eidos Interactive | Genre: Action-Adventure | Year: 2003
2003 was a time when Sonic the Hedgehog made a cross-platform debut. It was a time when Deus Ex: Invisible War divided a fervent player base. It was a time when Soulcalibur graced home consoles once more, and a time when the most newly-released hardware was Nokia’s ill-fated N-Gage.
Clearly, this was a year for sequels, and among the many established franchises getting expanded in 2003, it’s not surprising that Legacy of Kain would be among their number. This was a video game series that got its start in the 32-bit era, and one that had made a successful leap into subsequent generations. Soul Reaver was a standout hit, and even if the linear thrills of Blood Omen 2 failed to take full advantage of their sixth generation tech, it still featured the same attractive characters and Gothic storytelling that made the series so popular to begin with.
Legacy of Kain: Defiance was envisioned as a final chapter of sorts. The threads of Kain and Raziel’s interconnected stories would finally come to a conclusion in this epic sequel spanning the fictional land of Nosgoth’s present as well as its future. The main selling point here is that players would get a chance to control both characters in the same game as they each battle through their respective time periods on a collision course with destiny.
Crystal Dynamics released Legacy of Kain: Defiance towards the end of 2003, mere months after Max Payne II; another high profile sequel whose mild commercial performance led to a long franchise hiatus. Whilst Max Payne would eventually be revived, however, the Legacy of Kain series has remained dormant to this day, with its developer Crystal Dynamics now hard at work on their modern Tomb Raider series instead.
Legacy of Kain: Defiance was actually released in Europe towards the beginning of 2004, and even with Halo 2 being several months away at that point, I can remember not getting far into my playthrough before abandoning it. Years later this memory would surprise me because what I did recall of Defiance seemed mostly positive. The immediate thrills of its 3D combat made a good first impression, and the swift pace of everything was a welcome departure from the rather sedate adventuring of Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2. With the PC version of Defiance now available for a pittance on Steam, I felt it the perfect time to return to Nosgoth, and discover whether this sequel really deserved to become a swan song.
My early impressions during this replay were just as positive as they had been fourteen years prior. PC ports of old console games rarely inspire a great deal of confidence, but aside from some typical woes in configuring my modern joypad, I found the computer version performed very smoothly at a high resolution. This is fortunate because one thing this sequel is known for is a fast-paced combat system that frequently sees players fighting multiple assailants at once. In the opening chapter where our elder vampire Kain infiltrates a human stronghold, players come across a small army of hostile soldiers, and butchering them all is a task that’s a lot more satisfying when undertaken at a steady frame rate.
Also satisfying is the ability to drink peoples’ blood. This has always been a highlight of these games, though compared to the laborious feeding animations of games prior, the sight of Kain biting into a hapless victim’s neck with a satisfying “crunch” had been an overdue guilty pleasure! The fact that engaged enemies will often stand still and watch you do this to their allies is a little incongruous, – as are the new mid-air combos for that matter – but it’s forgivable seeing as the combat in general is so easy to get to grips with.
What really makes fighting in the opening chapter so fun is the new spin on Kain’s telekinesis powers. Being able to manipulate platforms and levers at the touch of a button makes for the odd interesting puzzle, it’s just that using telekinesis to blast enemies off of cliffs or pull them onto spikes is a lot more entertaining! It’s a spectacle enhanced by some impressive particle effects too, whether they be the smears of blood that coat walls hit by bodies, or the bubbling clouds that accompany any vampiric creature who gets nudged into water.
Telekinesis is a lot of fun and it’s the most vital ingredient in making the player feel powerful because standard baddies are only ever one button tap away from being completely immobilized. Aiming the power couldn’t be easier; targets float helplessly above the ground before Kain yanks them either towards himself (to set up a custom combo) or into an environmental hazard for an easy kill. It’s such a fun ability that I’m surprised more wasn’t made of it, but then quite a lot of what makes Defiance initially appealing starts to fade away before long.
With regards to telekinesis specifically, it’s clear that Crystal Dynamics front-loaded all the best opportunities to use it. Later chapters introduce enemies who are immune to the power entirely, with certain demonic foes actually punishing the player for trying to use telekinesis at all. Raziel’s aptitude for telekinesis is not as strong as Kain’s is either, and the environmental puzzles also start to wear thin as the power loses its relevance.
Combat quickly becomes repetitive as a result, with later levels featuring bigger baddies that take far too long to kill. The animated statue creatures are particularly bad in this sense because they’re immune to launcher attacks as well as telekinesis, which means that a lot of the more enjoyable flourishes in combat simply won’t be an option. Neither is there the option of blocking attacks, so there will be times when fighting multiple enemies becomes unmanageable and rather frustrating.
It’s fortunate then that not every battle is mandatory. Some of the more open stages allow players to simply run past enemies, which is a blessing in disguise considering the amount of backtracking you’ll be doing. Of course, there may not have been this need in the first place if players had access to a map. You can expect to see many cutaways showcasing locked doors that require keys or sigils or other conditions to be met before they’ll open, and quite often it will be left to you to remember exactly where these things are.
Now, that would be completely fair and understandable considering ‘adventure’ is partly the chosen genre here, but it’s vital to point out how repetitive the level design can be in this game; quite often is the case where the various outdoor areas and temple interiors look remarkably similar. The majority of Kain’s levels are quite linear, but Raziel’s are typically more long-winded and difficult to chart, so a map would have reduced the inevitable tedium that comes from getting lost.
Anyone who has played through Vorador’s Mansion without a strategy guide will understand this pain very well. It’s a labyrinthine estate that Raziel explores towards the end of the game; one rammed with as many puzzles and locked doors as the demons who wander its hallways. Players travel from the foyer to every corner of the mansion grounds including the private quarters, the outdoor greenhouses, and even the underwater tunnels that lie beneath. The absence of a map, as well as an autosave for that matter, severely impacts the enjoyment factor of this level; a huge shame considering how fantastic it is otherwise.
Vorador’s Mansion most reminds me of Grunty Industries from Banjo-Tooie. There was another long and intricately designed level that despite its high potential for frustration, somehow still came off as a rich gaming experience. Vorador’s Mansion feels very similar to that, and my favourite parts involve the artefact rooms where Raziel must locate several buttons in a confined space. There are no enemies to deal with, and your sleuthing abilities are put to the test as you investigate the unassuming rooms for any sign of its secrets. One button may be hidden behind a concealed bookcase, or underneath a dining table that must be smashed, whereas another might be outside on a balcony, or in the rafters above your head. After several arduous levels full of repetitive enemies and painful platforming, it’s a welcome flash of creativity to pull you back in.
Alas, the game’s general awkwardness continues to plague even its best parts. Precise platforming with the characters’ ability to glide is often a challenge, and it’s a challenge made more difficult than necessary because of the abysmal camera system. Navigating Raziel’s opening chapter is nightmare enough, as you fall to your death again and again due to the semi-fixed camera which is always lurching at the wrong moment. This also makes it very easy to miss things whenever you enter a new room, and it’s a problem made worse by the indistinct textures that show when a wall can be climbed or when one can be broken to reveal an exit.
The sound design is surprisingly disappointing too. I’m not certain if the whole of Defiance’s soundtrack is a remix of the one from Soul Reaver, but it certainly sounds that way at times. The excellent Ozar Midrasm theme gets played quite often, but it’s usually heard in a truncated form alongside the game’s crummy SFX. Consider the sounds of combat for instance; how slashing at armoured enemies with the Reaver blade produces a flat “fleshy” sound (when you would expect to hear clangs), and how even then the tone sounds lame and not at all representative of the supposedly legendary swords that our characters wield.
Luckily, Legacy of Kain: Defiance holds up much better when it comes to the script. This series has always been acclaimed for its moody storytelling, and yet hearing the original voice actors reprising their roles continues to be a delight. Simon Templeman and Michael Bell are still magnificent as Kain and Raziel respectively, and it was a pleasure to hear the late Tony Jay receive more of a range in his role as the insidious Elder God.
Every cutscene is jam-packed with flowery dialogue concerning prophecies, and omens, and other such fantastical nonsense, and whilst these chin-stroking qualities will baffle all but the most ardent fans of the series, it’s played with just enough gusto and enthusiasm for you to appreciate it nonetheless.
There really needed to be more variety in the levels themselves though. The central plot cooks up plenty of contrived reasons for why its characters must traverse Nosgoth in order to upgrade their swords, and it’s a yarn that soon becomes boring. There is too much time spent raiding temples for glyphs, a lot of pontificating at ancient murals, and fighting the same enemies in samey-looking environments.
This feeling of repetition isn’t helped by the fact that Kain and Raziel share the same basic abilities and attacks, and thus switching between them rarely feels like a pivotal moment in the story. It’s a trap that the aforementioned Max Payne II would “fall” into as well (pun intended), and one that Halo 2 would not avoid the following year.
Even a lapsed fan like me was eager to see Kain and Raziel come face-to-face though, and I was relieved that the developers handled their inevitable showdown in a dramatic way. I suppose I would have enjoyed seeing the two leads form an alliance (like the box art implies), but for the most part the finale reaches a reasonably firm conclusion, mostly thanks to some sparingly-deployed boss battles and set pieces that convey the gravitas of the setting.
Nevertheless, I can’t ignore the number of instances where I genuinely wanted to quit playing this game, and this is in spite of it being quite short. A lot of that comes down to the chosen approach because unlike the innovative and atmospheric qualities of Soul Reaver, Legacy of Kain: Defiance mostly feels like a return to the hack n’ slash mentality of Blood Omen 2, and even though the overall pacing is much better, what you get is still sneakily padded with tedium.
I’m glad that I got the chance to revisit Defiance in the right and proper way, it’s just hard to shake the feeling of disappointment considering how positive my first impressions seemed to be on both occasions. The writers were clearly still game for what was happening in the world of Nosgoth, but I’m sad to conclude that this same enthusiasm doesn’t always show in matters of gameplay.