Blood Omen 2

Blood Omen 2

Crystal Dynamics' fourth foray into the land of Nosgoth may be the best, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have plenty of problems. Come read what should be the largest and most detailed review on the web.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: April 17, 2002
As game worlds go, Crystal Dynamics' Legacy of Kain series (that would be Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Soul Reaver 2 and now Blood Omen 2) has an incredibly rich lineage. All four games are tied into each other in very directed, purposeful ways that serve to both thicken up the back story and reward gamers that have joined the almost cult-like following that's cropped up since the first game was released for the PlayStation back in 1997 with little in-jokes and self-referential moments. There's something rather cool about seeing the world of Nosgoth changing from era to era, especially since there are times when you'll see specific scenes echoed in a couple games (such as the infamous Pillars of Nosgoth).

Of course, the following behind the series is still rather cult, and that means not everyone is in on the whole story, so I'll try to bring everyone up to date. Blood Omen 2 lies smack dab in the middle of the LoK timeline, 400 years after the first Blood Omen game, but still hundreds of years before the events of the Soul Reaver games. Kain is still relatively human looking, and has no problem passing for a normal man when seen by commoners throughout most of the game. At the end of the first Blood Omen, Kain had the choice of sacrificing himself to save Nosgoth, but instead chose to damn it forever, letting it slowly slip into ruin to rule it by himself. You can see the effect of this just by firing up a copy of the first Soul Reaver, and even more in the second. Blood Omen 2's Nosgoth isn't quite so defiled yet, however, so there's still ample opportunity to see how Kain's lust for power will lead to the land's eventual corruption, instead of hearing about his conquest in past tense.

Kain's power-hungry singular motivation provides that catalyst for both the game's intro, and its continuing storyline. Rallying vampires into massive armies, Kain takes it upon himself to enforce his self-imposed rule over all of Nosgoth, slaying countless numbers both through his armies and with his own personal attention. It's when he approaches the capital city of Meridian, however, that he's halted. The Sarafan Lord, leader of a massive zealotous group that seeks to destroy all vampires, confronts Kain, actually besting him in combat and using the vampire's own weapon, the Soul Reaver, to strike him down, presumably leaving him for dead. Kain doesn't die, however, but is instead rescued and nursed slowly back to life over the course of 200 years. When he awakens from his long slumber, he is weakened, and needs the help of the vampire resistance in Meridian to guide him against the Sarafan Lord until his powers return fully.

Meridian's entire existence is structured around something called Glyph Magic, which powers everything from machines to anti-vampire shields, and is maintained by mysterious men known only as Glyph Rites. Exactly how the magic ties into the Sarafan Lord's plans is revealed as you play the game, and more about his plans for Nosgoth in the wake of his defeat over Kain likewise. In the 200 years Kain slept, much about Nosgoth and its denizens has changed. Many of Kain's high-ranking lieutenants switched sides, joining the Sarafan with the promise that they would be spared, and what once was a proud army of vampires has been squelched into little more than a rebellious Cabal.

As the game progresses, Kain picks up a number of Dark Gifts -- individual powers imbued in a vampire that are unique to each creature -- from fallen enemies. These include some absolutely wicked boosts to Kain's attack arsenal, as well as a few power-ups that gift him with completely new abilities. Though he starts off with only the abilities to unleash a sort of super-hit and the power to assume mist form to silently sneak up and kill enemies (in ridiculously cool animations that change according to the weapon you're carrying), but soon learns to jump massive distances (landing with just the slightest bit of forward momentum and dropping to one knee with one of the coolest, most graceful-yet-powerful animations I've ever seen) or attack enemies with a huge lunging strike, telekinesis allows your to attack enemies with a mind blast or move switches from afar, charm will let you possess and completely control more simple-minded non-aggressive characters, berserk unleashes an unstoppable barrage of attacks that end in a Matrix-style slo-mo pan around you and your target, and finally gains the ability to raze an enemy without touching them effectively burning them alive and killing them in a single attack. The Dark Gifts themselves are given throughout the game at the perfect pace, allowing you to grow into a new give before letting you play around with a new one. By the end of the game, your options for attacking an enemy are so numerous that it becomes a play of favorites on how you'll take them out.

And attacking is at the forefront of the gameplay with Blood Omen 2. Unlike the ridiculously cutscene-heavy Soul Reaver 2, the emphasis in BO2 is on action, and plenty of it. A variety of axes, clubs, swords and my personal favorite, a double-ended retractable sword (think of Darth Maul's dual light saber from Episode I), can all be picked off dead bodies or occasionally found strewn about. Once engaged in combat, you attack in a parry and thrust give-and-take style of melee blows that can be blocked either automatically or manually with a hold or precisely timed tap of the L1 button, respectively. The manual setting works great at the start and while fighting one enemy, but later on when you have two or three monsters surrounding you, each laying into your with attacks, it becomes almost useless and certainly controller-breakingly difficult. While in combat, you have the option to actually grab your opponent by the neck, hoisting them up. From there, you can choke or toss them if unarmed, or just lay into them with your given weapon. The animations range from club and axe blows to the groin to a sword tip plunged into the poor sucker's head. Yeah, you read right, his head. Each weapon has two different types of attacks, one lighter and dispensable multiple times, and another that's a one-time uber-shocker.

If the description of the holds weren't a plain enough hint, let me spell make things crystal clear: Blood Omen 2 is ridiculously mature. Kain is evil. Not like anti-hero with slightly moral inner voices evil, I mean EVIL. He has no mercy, actively sneers at downed opponents, laughs manically as he guts defenseless prisoners chained to walls before drinking their blood, strangles those that double cross him even as they lie dying at his feet, and generally just goes around spouting lines that are so unbelievably cold and heartless that you'll never confuse him with any other videogame character, and certainly no hero. As pissed off and all-consumed with vengeance as Raziel is, he has NOTHING on Kain, and joy of joys, you get to control Kain through his world as he preys on hapless vendor and armor-clad knight alike. This game earns its M rating about two minutes into the experience, and it never, even lightens up.

Sadly, though, the game is far from perfect. Sure, plenty of elements are executed well, but some things, like the ENDLESS switch flipping is just needlessly tedious. The architect that designed Meridian and the outlying lands was apparently so in love with cranks and levers that they felt the need to put one, I shit you not, at about what averages out to be roughly every 30-45 seconds of gameplay - if not more. It's both hilariously sad and mind-numbingly repetitive, and only serves to hurt a game that's populated by so many cool story and cinematic elements that you can't help but feel like all the levers and switches cheapen the whole experience. Also, the auto targeting, something that's required before you can attack an enemy, can be incredibly frustrating at locking onto the wrong enemy at seemingly the worst time, pointing you at a nearby enemy that's just been knocked to the ground while his buddy behind your plays Happy Fun Stabby Time with your exposed back. There's also a bit of weirdness with attacks not registering while the first few frames of animation for an attack are starting, so if an enemy seems to be finishing up a series of attacks, but is actually just segueing into their next move, you'll swing at air and leave yourself completely open to attack. This is most frustrating later in the game where some single attacks can leave you a good 25% shorter on life.

Still, while you watch yourself getting beaten, punched, sliced and blown to hell, you can at least ooh and ahh as the visuals. The game isn't loaded with the most high-res texture work seen on the system, but it certainly is varied. Considering how large the levels can be (the only loading screen you'll see is at the beginning of each Chapter, though there are some issues with streaming game elements to memory; more on that later), it's impressive how little repetition there is. At first I thought this might be a limitation of the PS2's memory, but you'll actually get a worse looking batch of eye candy on the Xbox, which actually manages to look blurry and rarely fixes the slowdown that can crop up when more than a couple enemies are on screen at the same time. Perhaps it's just that the PS2 can't quite stream textures and geometry information to memory fast enough, but there were plenty of instances where you'd walk into a room or out into an open area only to watch huge chunks of the game world render before your eyes. The draw distance is decent enough, but I discovered early on that the various characters that populate the world had placeholders placed close enough that you could actually see the distance where they changed from full-poly, animated characters to what looked like a sprite cutout moving along a track. Peasants walking along in the distance could actually be seen popping from a standard clumsy gait to what looked like a moving target at a shooting range. It was amusing, but not in a good way.

Luckily, it's easy to get distracted by the absolutely gorgeous architecture. Especially at the beginning, the town of Meridian is teeming with small details like debris scattering the streets or bugs darting around street lamps. The world of Nosgoth in this era is heavy with a mesh of influences from steampunk pipes and machines to gothic cathedrals and almost Victorian-style houses. Later in the game, you'll find elements plucked straight from the mind of H.R. Giger, and a deliberate shift in both the design and layout of the environments. Particles are used heavily to accentuate everything from the blood streaming from just-slain foes to the aforementioned bugs dancing around lights and piles of garbage or decomposing flesh to Kain's Dark Gifts. Each offers plenty of variety and for the most part, they're a nice, subtle use of the PS2's oft-underused particle rendering ability.

The entire series of LoK games has always had terrific voice acting - even the original PlayStation effort, and the most recent release is no exception. I couldn't find a single instance of cringe-inducing voice work throughout the game's 15+ hour expanse. Moreover, I was hard-pressed to find any lines of dialogue that seemed overly-contrived or forced. There were a few clichés, but then you're dealing with very clichéd subject matter: vampires. The point is that nothing ever really seemed to detract from the game's story, quite the contrary in fact; the voices served to both narrate and showcase moments in the game that just wouldn't have held up otherwise. I'd even go so far as to say there were plenty of moments that rivaled Final Fantasy X's acting, though the whole package didn't quite have the same variety or production value. Strangely, the music wasn't quite as enticing. It certainly wasn't horrible, but even in the most dramatic of scenes, it never really jumped out at me. As a result, I can't actually remember any of the music in the game, though I suppose the fact that it didn't annoy me either should say something - especially when I'm usually a pretty big stickler about any sort of soundtracked accompaniment to what's on screen.

Blood Omen 2 has plenty of glaring problems. The game itself was a bit buggy in plenty of parts (I even caught the loading screen freaking out a few times), but I have a feeling the team over at Crystal D was feeling the omnipresent of hitting their release date. I remember when the game was actually slated for release late last year, so it's not surprising they couldn't let it slip anymore. Of course, with a little more time, the presentation and a few middling bugs could have been squelched, but they don't detract from the experience as a whole for the most part. That said, the game is an absolute blast to play; Kain is such a genuine badass, and his repertoire of moves makes YOU feel like a badass, so for just that reward alone, I'd recommend everyone at least renting the game. If you've played the other games in the series, this is a great way to fill in what happned between the first Blood Omen and the Soul Reaver games. At the very least, Blood Omen 2 deserves a good, long look. Rent it for sure, buy it if you must, but don't let it pass you by or you'll miss out on one of the best executed examples of how completely cool a vampire as a protagonist can really be.
The Verdict