Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain (1996)
by Pitchfork

 


Even the biggest monsters can have benign beginnings, as we've already seen in the instance of Final Fantasy, the slouching multimedia behemoth that entered the world as an 8-bit game slapped together by a group of no-name developers working for a nearly-broke studio. The video game industry today is rife with similar case: franchises that originally kicked off as the humble, homegrown projects of passionate, talented, and relatively obscure designers, which then unexpectedly took off, soared into fame, and came crashing down to earth after becoming too bloated to fly. Over the next few months, we'll be taking a look at the Legacy of Kain series in this context: though its rise was less lofty and its fall less appalling than that of the Final Fantasy series, the timeline of its plunge and the fact that it is now a defunct franchise make it an interesting study of how the modern video game industry (and the wider entertainment business) has evolved into a kind of gargantuan housefly that nourishes itself by taking good ideas and converting them to vomit.

But we're already getting ahead of ourselves.

Although the Legacy of Kain brand is most likely associated in the minds of today's gamers with a collection of cross-console Crystal Dynamics bargain bin mainstays, it once represented a one-of-its-kind adventure game by a then-unknown Canadian developer called Silicon Knights. Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain was the Knights' fourth game, following Cyber Empires (1992), Fantasy Empires (1993), and Dark Legions (1994), most of which were PC-exclusive strategy games. Not only did it represent the company's first shot at an adventure game, but their first foray onto a "mainstream" console (Cyber Empires was ported to the Atari ST and Amiga, neither of which were ever exactly indispensable fixtures of the American household/dorm room), and the wider gaming public's first introduction to the studio that would eventually become famous for such games as Eternal Darkness, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, and Too Human (though the latter might be most well-known for the lengths to which Silicon Knights honcho Denis Dyack went to rebut its critics).

Since Silicon Knights actually launched their own Legacy of Kain website in the days leading up to its release (and which the good folks at Dark Chronicle have taken the time to archive), let's let the team itself tell us about Blood Omen and themselves. Here is Silicon Knights' self-introduction (circa 1996):

Silicon Knights has been creating original content for 5 years. Kain is our most ambitious product to date and we are very proud of it. We believe that it is time that companies start delivering content over technology. It is our view that we create Entertainment. In fact, it is non-linear content that we are creating and that is a difficult thing. To do this, if we are creating entertainment we should concentrate on content, not the latest and greatest engine, simply because if you have the best engine that does not give you the best game.

Did you ever wonder: If 8-bit brought us game-play, the 16-bit systems brought more colours and the 32-bit brought us 3D, what will the 64- bit & 128-bit systems bring us? 4D? Virtual Reality? Internet Games? We don't think so.
[Two out of three still isn't bad.] We believe that technology will only get you so far and that engagement is what makes a game great, not technology. Imagine a future where technology is so fast that you cannot tell the difference in speed between machines, where there are no serious memory limitations. What will make the best games then? Not technology but content. We believe that we have started to prove this with Kain. It is a 2D game on a 32-bit system. You be the judge.

After that, there is a "Making of Kain" page, which is well-worth perusing in its entirety. Some highlights:

The original concept of Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain was conceived by Denis Dyack, originally titled "The Pillars of Nosgoth". It's [sic] complex story was outlined in a document full of sketches and concepts....We wanted to create a game where there was no ultimate weapon and armor. A game where you had to use your head as well as your reflexes...

Kain was conceived to be a game which adults would want to play. The character Kain was modeled in part after Clint Eastwood's character in the movie "Unforgiven". In this movie, there were no "good" or "evil" characters, they were all "gray". The vision of Kain was to create a game where the player is put in the position where everyone believes you are evil, perhaps even yourself. We wanted to ask the questions of "What is evil? Perhaps it is merely a perspective". We wanted to create an "anti-hero"....

Along with several other game Publishers, Crystal Dynamics was sent the "Pillars of Nosgoth" concept and several other proposals from Silicon Knights. Crystal and Silicon Knights decided to pursue Kain for the 32-bit market place....After looking at all the 32-bit systems Silicon Knights and Crystal Dynamics agreed to make the Sony the lead platform. Its streamlined architecture and excellent graphic abilities helped it to win out over the other platforms....

After some serious discussions and analysis it was decided to substantially increase the size of the development team on Kain to make it even better than its original spec. At this point, Silicon Knights more than doubles in size and several designers from Crystal Dynamics aid the increased design and level layout. This resulted in 5 designers from Crystal flying up to Canada and spending over 6 months with us. We would like to thank those involved who helped us to hone our vision of Kain. Anyway, 40 in-game characters are increased to 190, 40 tiles sets are increased to over 600, etc....

Activision and Crystal Dynamics strike a deal where Activision does the manufacturing and distribution for Kain in North America. In order avoid any confusion on who actually created, conceived and developed this game the credit screen was added to the credits. This is a first in the industry. We hope we have established a trend for other developers.

As you might expect, Blood Omen turned out to be a very unusual piece of work. What we have here is a console game designed by a team with virtually zero experience developing titles for a mainstream console audience, and that was expressedly devoted to doing things their way. Silicon Knights designed Blood Omen as the game they wanted to make, industry trends and market research be damned. It rather invokes the feel of a homebrew game -- clunky, endearingly idiosyncratic, and very well-insulated from external meddling. (Apparently, the only significant change upon which Crystal Dynamics insisted had to do with the names of the characters, which were originally somewhat too "fantasy paperback" for the MTV-marketed PlayStation crowd.) It is truly astonishing that Crystal Dynamics would give Silicon Knights -- back then a no-name independent developer with no proven hits under their belt -- the funding, extra employees, and free rein to make a game that deliberately swam against the popular tide. During a period when the rest of the industry was rushing to put out 3D games, Silicon Knights decided their game should use pixel graphics. When the markets seemed to dictate that successful titles were required to have an abundance of "attitude" and/or sex appeal -- see Crash Bandicoot, Duke Nukem, Tomb Radier, et cetera -- Silicon Knights made no effort to gussy up Blood Omen, opting for a set of character designs and overall style that look like they were borrowed from an old TSR Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebook. (Then again, this was also a few years after games like Mortal Kombat and Doom ushered in the age of "Gore = Good," so the ultraviolent Blood Omen, in this regard, does adhere to the dictates of the period.)

Released in late 1996, Blood Omen proved a modest success and garnered quite a bit of critical praise, but stood more or less eclipsed by the more famous PlayStation hits of the time, such as Crash Bandicoot, Tomb Raider, and Symphony of the Night. Naturally, Crystal Dynamics would eventually see to it that they their got their money's worth out of their investment, but we will get to that later.


The Basics

Okay, real quick: Blood Omen is a top-down adventure game in the style of the Legend of Zelda series. As the pompous nobleman- turned undead avenger Kain, you wander throughout the land/world of Nosgoth, visiting a sequential series of dungeons in a standard-issue "collect the eight objects" quest, using an arsenal of melee weapons, attack items, and spells to battle relentless mobs of highwaymen, vampire hunters, mutants, zombies, demons, and so on. Similar to Symphony of the Night's Alucard, Kain periodically gains the ability to morph into a few different alternate forms -- wolf, bat, mist, human -- which generally are used in order to reach previously out-of-reach areas. Like the Zelda games, the health and magic gauges in Blood Omen are augmented by finding special vials ("viles," if you're a Silicon Knights employee) and runes hidden in dungeons and obscure areas. You know the drill.

As we've already mentioned, Blood Omen isn't very flashy, but nevertheless tremendously evocative. Nosgoth is a chilly and desolate place; its cold colors, rough textures, and darkly atmospheric soundtrack (which makes frequent use of low tones, tolling bells, and airy synthesized woodwinds) suggest biting winds, loneliness, and decay. When you put aside the plot and themes, Blood Omen is a game about the wanderings of a cursed outcast in a dying world, and the presentation nails this on its own, without any help from the dialogue or cutscenes.

Of course, Blood Omen not without its problems, and some pretty significant ones. Most players' biggest complaints have to do with its load times. Today you would be much better off sticking that Blood Omen disk in your CD Rom drive and finding an emulator than slapping it in your sputtering old PlayStation or PS2. The load times are pretty hard to abide, even for a game from a period beset with the Now Loading... screen.

A related issue has to do with the menus, which are cumbersome and must be accessed whenever you want to change Kain's equipment or his on- hand items and spells. This is also what makes the load times such a bear. Say you've got a two-handed weapon equipped and want to switch to a one-handed weapon in order to cast a spell or use an item. That's one three to ten-second LOADING... to bring up the menu, and another three to ten-second LOADING... to get back to the game. Perhaps this was how Silicon Knights hoped to dissuade players from using the ultra-cheap Energy Bank/Soul Reaver combination: by making it such a pain in the ass to switch between the Soul Reaver and one- handed weapons that it would ultimately be less trouble to just take their chances and fight fairly.

So: Blood Omen is a fairly decent Zelda clone with a lot of atmosphere, horrendous load times, and a subtle, though frequently sense of clumsiness. Were Blood Omen your typical video game, it might be enough to leave it at that. But Blood Omen is by no means at all a typical game, as we shall see.


Characters


As per usual, we will be taking a quick look at the more important members of Blood Omen's cast (especially where the Crystal Dynamics sequels are concerned) and their roles in the story. There will be spoilers, but 1.) Blood Omen is the kind of game that if you were ever going to play, you probably already would have B.) Blood Omen is well-worth checking out even if you know how its story goes -- which I can personally attest to, having first played it after the two Soul Reaver games, which give away the bulk of Blood Omen's plot themselves.



THE CIRCLE OF NINE

First, some backstory and an introduction to the magical "rules" governing the fantasy land/world of Nosgoth where Blood Omen takes place.

The most striking feature of the land are the Pillars of Nosgoth, nine ivory beams towering above the clouds, rooted in a circular edifice rimmed with arcane markings. Constructed before recorded history, the Pillars represent the forces that preserve Nosgoth. (Think of them as the "crystals" of the Legacy of Kain universe.) Each pillar is tied to a particular element, and maintained by a human sorcerer called a Guardian. In the event that a Guardian dies (and they can only be killed violently, as their link to their Pillar allows them to go on living indefinitely), a new one is selected by the Pillars themselves.

Collectively, the Guardians are known as the Circle of Nine. The Pillars, the Circle, and Nosgoth itself are all symbiotically bound to one another. The spiritual and environmental health of the land is tied directly to the Pillars, each Pillar represents the mental state of its Guardian, and the Guardians themselves are apparently psychically linked to one another.

As Blood Omen begins, all nine Guardians are alive, but hardly well. The sorcerers have been corrupted, the Pillars have blackened and cracked, and Nosgoth has fallen into decay. Since all nine Pillars are tainted, the spiritual mechanisms governing them have become jammed. No new Guardians can be be born -- and Nosgoth cannot be restored -- until all nine members of the Circle have been put to death.

The Guardians and their Pillars are as follows: Nupraptor the Mentalist (Mind), Malek the Paladin (Conflict), Bane the Druid (Nature), DeJoule the Energist (Sandwiches), Azimuth the Planer (Dimension), Moebius the Time Streamer (Time), Anacrothe the Alchemist (States), Mortanius the Necromancer (Death), and Kain (Balance).


KAIN

The man himself. One of the most compelling protagonists in video games. As Blood Omen opens, Kain enters as a petty, inconsequential nobleman who gets jumped and murdered by brigands outside of a bar. During a brief sojourn in hell, Kain is approached by Mortanius and offered a chance to return to the world of the living and repay his assassins. Resurrected in his mausoleum as a vampire, the single-minded Kain wastes no time in tracking down his killers and getting his revenge. When he takes a moment to catch his breath afterwards, it occurs to him that he might have been a little too hasty in agreeing to Mortanius's bargain. Deciding that the life of a ravenous undead monster just isn't for him, Kain embarks on a quest to seek a cure for his condition.

Several characteristics set Kain apart from the pack of typical "evil murdering jerk anti-hero" protagonists. We'll get into them in detail a little later, but a few do bear mentioning here. One is the honesty and integrity belying his pompous arrogance and sadism. He'll gladly hack you to pieces with a pair of hatchets, but would never think of lying to you about it (or anything else). Unlike your Kratoses, Dantes, and Duke Nukems, Kain boasts a little something called "class." Can you think of any other video game bad-asses whose big catch phrases are in freaking Latin? (He actually pulls it off, too. Shout VAE VICTUS at a Legacy of Kain fanboy -- I'm sure there are still a few left out there -- and see how excited he gets.) And Kain brims with charisma, in spite of his appearance. Let's face it: compared to the illustriously-dressed and silken-haired vampire Alucard, Kain looks like a doofus. However, Kain has more personality in his forehead -- his big, white, egg-shaped forehead -- than Alucard carries in his whole ninety-pound bishonen body. Much of this is owed to Ken McCulloch's script, but it is voice actor Simon Templeman's virtuoso performance that burnishes the character to such a brilliant shine.


MORTANIUS

The Death Guardian is possibly the most powerful sorcerer in Nosgoth, and very likely the only one with any shred of sanity or integrity intact (at least when he's not in the thrall of demonic possession, anyhow). Though no less warped than any other of the Circle's members, Mortanius still has enough sense left to realize that the Circle has failed and needs to be destroyed. Remembering how easily his colleagues fell to the last vampire attack, Mortanius fishes the soul of the recently-murdered Balance Guardian from the abyss, resurrects him as a vampire, and sets him loose upon Nosgoth as its avenger and redeemer. Throughout Kain's journey, Mortanius occasionally acts as a distant mentor and guide, though he knows full well that he too must eventually fall to Kain if his plan to restore Nosgoth is to be successful. His voice actor, the mighty Tony Jay (R.I.P.), needs no introduction nor description.


ARIEL

Until thirty years ago, Ariel served as the Guardian of Balance, the axis of the Circle of Nine and regulator of its power. After her murder at the hands of an unknown assailant, Ariel's spirit did not pass on into the next realm, but became tethered to the Pillars. She is doomed to haunt them as a helpless spectre for the rest of eternity, unless the Circle is cleansed and the Pillars are restored. Privy to Mortanius's plot, she meets Kain at the Pillars, answering his demands for a cure with the vague intimation that by hunting down the members of the Circle and restoring Balance, Kain might be "released" from his curse.

Half of Ariel's face retains the beauty it possessed in life; the other side is a rotted skull. Fitting: though she acts in the interest of Nosgoth's redemption, she uses doublespeaking deceit in order to manipulate Kain into achieving this end. Her voice is provided by Anna Gunn, whom you can now catch on AMC as Breaking Bad's Skyler White. Good for her!


NUPRAPTOR

The kind and empathetic Nupraptor was once a beloved sage whose wisdom was sought by pilgrims from all across Nosgoth. When his lover Ariel took a knife in the back, Nupraptor was the first to discover her corpse. He snapped at the sight of it, and his own powers turned on him. Overpowered by grief and suspecting a traitor, the Mentalist's anguish and rage tore across the Circle as psychic shockwaves, poisoning them all with his own insanity. Since then, Nupraptor has holed himself up in his mountain retreat, sewn his eyes and mouth shut, and habitually distracts himself from his sorrow by hideously torturing any visitors foolish enough to come knocking. Ariel, obsessively mourning for the man Nupraptor once was, sics Kain on him first in order to put her former love out of his misery.

Nupraptor's slobbering rasp comes courtesy of Richard Doyle, who also contributes Moebius's cackle and Anacrothe's hammy shouting.


MALEK

The Conflict Guardian and ward of the Circle, Malek once served as a member of the Sarafan Brotherhood, an order of warrior priests dedicated to ridding Nosgoth of its "vampire scourge." When Vorador attacked the Circle for supporting the Sarafan, Malek arrived late on the scene, failing to prevent all but three members from being slaughtered. Mortanius punishes Malek by ripping his soul from his body and fusing it to his armor, damning him to serve and protect the Circle for eternity. Anyone wishing to raise a sword against the Circle's members must first reckon with Malek. Despite Kain's reckless bravado, he soon discovers that he's not much of a match for the monstrous paladin, and must seek outside help to put him down.

Malek's sinister hiss comes from the throat of Neil Ross, who also played the fat drunk rodent politician in An American Tail and the news reporter from the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes cartoon; neither whom I can ever listen to again without hearing "I'll hack you from crotch to gizzard and feed what's left of you to your brides!"


MOEBIUS

The Time Streamer Moebius is one of the Circle's longest-standing and most powerful members. For many years, he posed as the Oracle of Nosgoth, a jolly soothsayer offering prophetic guidance to whomever had the courage to seek him out in his cave in the northern mountains. After his mind was tainted by Nupraptor's magic, Moebius began using his powers of omniscience and time travel to manipulate history and destiny for his own gain. While Kain is already beset by Ariel and Mortanius's machinations, Moebius's designs on him are far more sinister and profound. After the Time Streamer is done with him, Kain becomes indirectly responsible for the near-total extinction of Nosgoth's vampire population, and remains the sole surviving member of his kind. Moebius eventually becomes one of the most recurring villains throughout the Crystal Dynamics sequels; killing him in Blood Omen becomes even more satisfying once you've seen the crap he pulls in Soul Reaver 2.


VORADOR

The most ancient and powerful vampire in Nosgoth, Vorador acts as the Svidrigalov to Kain's Raskolnikov. He achieved the height of his infamy 5,000 years ago (retconned to 500 in the Crystal Dynamics sequels) when he attacked the Circle of Nine for their support of the Sarafan vampire purge, murdering all but Malek, Moebius, and Mortanius. In the centuries since, Vorador has grown withdrawn and decadent, ensconcing himself in a luxurious mansion with his unimaginable wealth and a harem of vampiric concubines. Kain regards Vorador with a mix of fascination and dread. The old vampire's conviction that humanity is nothing more than a pack of cattle existing only to be slaughtered and devoured at his pleasure strikes a chord with Kain, who realizes he needs to find a way to cure his curse while he still regards it as one. Voiced with gusto by Paul Lukather, Vorador gets some of the best lines in Blood Omen next to Kain's. ("WHELP! AS IF YOU KNEW WHAT ETERNITY WAS! GROVEL BEFORE YOUR TRUE MASTER!")


LEGIONS OF THE NEMESIS

Throughout his wanderings, Kain occasionally hears passing mentions of an invading army from the northern wasteland. These are the Legions of the Nemesis, the relentless forces of a depraved despot who wants all of Nosgoth under his boot. Late in his quest, Kain happens to wander into the Legions' territory, and must fight for his life. It seems that while he was out picking off insane sorcerers, the single greatest threat to Nosgoth's survival had been allowed to go totally unchecked.

In one of his more heroic moments -- and contrary to Vorador's advice -- Kain raises an army to push back the Legions. They put up a valiant fight, but The Army of Hope is ultimately crushed, leaving Nosgoth at the tyrant's mercy. With the aid of a time-streaming device he conveniently happened to have tucked away, Kain travels fifty years into the past to murder the Nemesis before his rise to power -- when he was still the benevolent boy king William the Just. William's subjects, unaware of the monster that their beloved ruler would eventually become, do not take kindly to this. When Kain returns to the present, he finds the Legions of the Nemesis replaced by a fanatical and nightmarishly efficient army of vampire hunters he must reckon with instead.


HASH'AK'GIK
Also referred to as "The Unspoken" and "the Dark Entity," Hash is a demonic being whom some of the Circle's members have long worshiped, even prior to Nupraptor's deranging psychic attack. Thirty years before Blood Omen begins, Hash possesses Mortanius's body and murders Ariel, knocking over the first tile in his carefully-arranged row of dominoes. After revealing himself to Kain and gearing up for their final showdown, Hash cacklingly taunts Kain for allowing himself to be so egregiously manipulated on all sides. One suspects that by saying "screw you" to Ariel at the end of the game and damning Nosgoth to eternal ruin, Kain continues playing right into the demon's hands.

(Note: this bio pertains only to the Hash'ak'Gik seen in Blood Omen. Just wait and see how this all gets retconned in Defiance.



"You will have the blood you hunger for..."


A few different plots operate throughout Blood Omen. The first and most prominent is the Kain vs. The Circle scenario. The second pertains to the history and fate of Nosgoth, particularly the Sarafan purges and the Legions of the Nemesis. The third, and the most compelling, has to do with the former human Kain coming to grips with the monster he is becoming.

Before going on, it is worth briefly contrasting Kain to the protagonist of a better-known 1997 adventure game that similarly stars a white- haired, sword-swinging, spell-casting, shapeshifting vampire with mixed feelings about his supernatural nature. Examining Blood Omen and Symphony of the Night in terms of each other and the cultures that produced them might make an interesting project for a motivated video game critic wishing to explore the differences in the Western and Japanese approaches to game design (because in many ways these two games are quite similar), but I will only point out one nugget of interest: Kain is a vampire. Alucard is called a vampire, but is functionally just a goth bishonen.

Symphony of the Night's instruction manual and cutscenes tell us that Alucard is Dracula's son -- and therefore a vampire -- but virtually nothing occurs to support this while the player is holding the controller. Alucard might just as well be some kind of wizard, or otherwise fueled entirely by video game bishygoff magic. We are told that he feels a great deal of personal conflict about his vampiric nature, but this stuff is limited strictly to Symphony's non-interactive blah blah blah I've come to put an end to this blah segments. When it's game on, the player experiences none of this conflict himself, nor is he ever made aware of the subject of Alucard's internal struggle. Moreover, Alucard is popularly regarded as an anti-hero, which is a little silly and not at all correct. So he is a vampire (ostensibly, anyway) fighting against demons. Okay. Do any of his actions in the game or his interactions with the rest of Symphony's cast suggest any conspicuous flaws in his character? Does he commit unjust acts for the sake of a greater good? Can he be best defined by a striking deficiency of one primary virtue, or otherwise by some fatal moral failing? Or is he really just a typical goodguy hero who happens to dress like a badguy villain? (Remember: I'm not saying that Symphony of the Night is a bad game -- only that it is rather shallow in this respect.)

Blood Omen is very different. Kain's vampirism and twisted morals aren't just empty gimmicks, restricted only to the game manual and cutscenes. They are the very engine of the whole game, and the single most crucial and defining element of the experience.


"Life without blood. What a travesty!"


Once the conventions of a genre have been established, it is up to creators to find ways of either improving upon these conventions, defying them, or bending them. A Link to the Past is not a game that can be easily beaten on its own terms, so Blood Omen does not even try. Instead, it puts a relatively subtle, but tremendously clever and effective spin on the Legend of Zelda foundations.

Kain's health gauge is depicted in the (very prominent and intrusive) HUD as a tube of blood. It constantly depletes; if Kain isn't perpetually making an effort to replenish it, he drops dead. When the gauge approaches empty, the sound of a beating heart begins to thump over the music and sound effects, beating more rapidly as the gauge sinks closer and closer to empty, further heightening the player's sense of urgency.

Enemies in Blood Omen do not drop health recovery items. They are the health recovery items. When humanoid foes are struck enough times, they are put in a near-death "stagger," a'la the second-round loser in a Mortal Kombat match. While they are reeling, Kain can telekinetically yank the blood out of their bodies and into his mouth, restoring a portion of his health (call it a heart's worth). If Kain waits too long or delivers one too many hits, the enemy drops dead, and he blows his chance to steal back a portion of his ever- dwindling health gauge.

Unlike the Crystal Dynamics sequels, Blood Omen does not simply leave it at this. Most of the game's stronger attacks cause enemies to melt, explode, disintegrate, or incinerate, preventing you from draining their blood and recovering any health. Some spells and equipment allow you to drain enemies' blood automatically, without having to get them in a stagger state, but then there are also foes with tainted or poisonous blood that either inflicts direct damage or pegs Kain with a status ailment that subjects his health gauge to a much more aggravated decline.

So: your health is always depleting on its own, and you are virtually always under assault by crowds of enemies. The best means of mitigating the one problem is often counterproductive toward mitigating the other. In addition to bolstering its recurring "nothing is free" motif, it helps make Blood Omen a very intense game, despite the aforementioned clunkiness.


"Strange, isn't it, Kain? That one cannot quite accept that which sustains him."


The first town in Blood Omen is Ziegsturhl, which you wander through on your way to visit the Pillars of Nosgoth. You have just spent the last ten to fifteen minutes marching through the woods, killing and feeding upon the highwaymen who come rushing at you with swords raised. Eventually, you reach a point in the path where you spot a human figure with an unfamiliar sprite walking around. Since everyone you've met since leaving the mausoleum has been trying to kill you, your first impulse is to put your sword through him. He is staggered after one hit. You drink his blood, he drops dead, and you move on. Right afterward, you turn a corner and enter a village, populated by similar figures, and realize the fellow you just murdered was a totally innocent resident. Whoops!

Towns in Blood Omen are nothing like A Link to the Past's Kakariko village, or most other towns from most other adventure games for that matter. You can approach the townsfolk and hit the "action" button, but none will speak to you. You can walk into any tavern, inn, or blacksmith shop you like, but none of the merchants or barkeeps will acknowledge you. The women in the bars and houses will approach and slap you across the face as soon as they notice you, and you cannot get any explanations out of them or ask them to stop. There are two ways of getting them off your back. One is to turn around and exit the building altogether. The other is to kill them. As the vampire Kain, the only way in which you are capable of interacting with Blood Omen's human cast by is killing them.

This changes when you acquire the Disguise ability, which transforms Kain's sprite into that of a hooded peasant and allows you to solicit voiced audio clips from neutral NPCs. This is only interesting for about ten minutes; you soon discover that the human race hasn't a single god damned thing worth saying. All Nosgoth's menfolk talk like oafish cockneys -- "good day to ya!" -- and the entire female population consists of drunken prostitutes. The vampire Vorador pointedly refers to Nosgoth's human population as "the cattle;" the opening to Soul Reaver alludes to Kain's contempt for humanity. After chatting with Blood Omen's townsfolk for any length of time, is not difficult to see from where such sentiments might have arisen.

I must confess that I prefer to play the Lawful Good role in games like this. Given the choice, I would rather reserve my acts of savage violence for my deserving opponents, not waste them on hapless bystanders. (Perhaps this is why I could never get into Grand Theft Auto.) In Blood Omen, after discovering I had nothing to gain from mingling with the locals, I was content to raid their homes for items and continue on my way.

What Blood Omen does later on is rather sinister. Villages will be placed right beside hazardous areas filled with lava and crawling with toxic monsters. Stumbling upon Uschtenheim as I came fleeing out of Dark Eden was a godsend. After racing in consternation from a pack of poison-blooded mutants with sawblades for noses and having only a sliver of health left, how fortunate was I to pass into a safe zone filled with walking health packs? Unlike some of the other towns, Uschtenheim has no guards. I was free to slaughter and feed as I pleased without any danger of reprisal. Since this was about halfway through the game, Kain's health cap was considerably high, requiring that I kill off a not inconsiderable number of gasping, screaming innocents before I could return to Dark Eden with a full gauge. This became a fairly common occurrence afterwards; as Kain's health cap continually increased, more and more villagers had to die at each town. Like Kain, I hit a point where I stopped caring and saw Nosgoth's human population as nothing more than convenient power-ups. (Side note: I think the fact that my moral compulsions carry over to video games says more about the games than my compulsions.)

(Another side note: Blood Omen was released in late 1996 -- about three months before the release of Grand Theft Auto, which went on to instate running around town and brutalizing civilians as the basis of Western adventure game design. Another point for Silicon Knights' canniness.)

Actually, this nasty business begins much earlier in the game. Although the occasional "hovering vial of blood" health-up item will sometimes appear in the out-of-the-way corner, most health recovery items within dungeons appear in the form of pleading, groaning prisoners chained to the walls. You are incapable of freeing them or speaking to them. In dealing with them, you have three options. One: you can ignore them and move on. Two: you can put them out of their misery with a weapon or spell. Three: you can hit the "action" button to pull out their blood and recover your health. Since your health gauge is always on the decline and you're never sure when the next power-up might appear (and many dungeons are filled with enemies from which you cannot safely feed), there is only one sensible choice. Kain's vampiric nature doesn't give him -- or you -- much of an alternative.


"You wear those trinkets well, Kain. But I do believe that they would look better on me."


Right from the beginning, Blood Omen casually ruminates on the relationship between sacrifice and power. The first screen that appears when the player clicks "New Game" is a grim prophecy about the bloodshed that necessarily precedes the beginning of a new age. The tremendous power granted to Kain through his vampirism comes attached to a set of staggering weaknesses. Most members of the Circle of Nine are mutated and disfigured, having swapped a portion of their humanity in exchange for the power they wield. Et cetera, et cetera.

As with Kain's vampirism, this "power and price" theme is not merely a topic of cutscene discussion (actually, it is only explicitly mentioned once), but is built into the game itself -- perhaps most cleverly where Kain's arsenal is concerned. If you recall from before, Silicon Knights explicitly expressed an interest in designing an adventure game in which "there was no ultimate weapon or armor." So what does this mean?

Take, for instance, the weapons in Legend of Zelda. There is a sword, a better sword, and the best sword. The better sword is twice as strong as the sword, and the best sword is twice as strong as the better sword. The armor works the same way: there is Green Link (default), Blue Link (better), and Red Link (best). Early adventure and role playing games were often designed with very little nuance in terms of equipment upgrades. It was all in the numbers. The new stuff you got had better numbers than your old stuff, so you ditched the old stuff and kept the new.

Blood Omen takes a different approach. Here is a brief breakdown of how its gear works:

Iron Sword: Kain's first weapon. Has no special properties, other than being able to hit fairly fast.

Spiked Mace: Two hits puts human enemies into a temporary stun, during which you can feed and kill them. Against non-human enemies, it is useless.

The Axes (Havoc and Malice): Slow and crappy until you mash the attack button, which launches Kain into a berserker frenzy. Enemies are usually killed before you get a chance to feed, and items and magic are unusable as long as the axes are equipped; but for crowd control, they are unmatched.

Flame Sword: Very powerful, but it cannot put enemies into a stagger state (the last hit reduces them to a mouldering heap of burning carbon), and therefore prevents Kain from feeding without the use of special items or magic.

Soul Reaver: Like the axes, Kain can't use items or magic when it is equipped. One hit is enough to vaporize most enemies (even some bosses!), which isn't so conducive to bloodsucking. Every time the Soul Reaver scores a hit, Kain's magic gauge is drained by an amount based upon the enemy's hit points. When the magic gauge is empty, it does no damage at all.

Basically, The usefulness of each weapon boils down to circumstances. Admittedly, some of the weapons are more frequently useful than others, but there isn't one "best" weapon. Every advantage comes with a trade-off. This concept also applies to Kain's armor, which works the same way. The Iron Armor with which he begins the game is consistently the strongest in terms of its defense modifier. The other four suits offer extra bonuses whose usefulness depend upon the situation.

I certainly cannot say that Blood Omen was the first adventure or role-playing game to take this approach, but I am having a hard time thinking of very many pre-1996 titles that did. If I'm absolutely mistaken, feel free to email me and tell me so, but for now I am chalking this up as another point for Silicon Knights and their forward-thinking approach to game design.


"Alas, poor Nupraptor -- I knew him well. Well, not really."


Since we've spent a good chunk of this thing talking about Blood Omen's story, we should take a quick look at how the story is communicated.

First, Kain. In several of the earlier Square pieces, we've drawn a distinction between your Cronos (silent protagonists who act as in-game surrogates for the player) and your Tiduses (protagonists whom the player chauffeurs from cutscene to cutscene, then puts down the controller and watches him act). Kain falls somewhere in the middle of the continuum. He has a distinct and very palpable personality, obviously separate from the player's, preventing the person holding the controller from projecting his own characteristics onto him. And yet, Kain still has a more intimate association with the player than most protagonists of today's "cinematic" video games, both Eastern and Western. What gives?

First of all, though Kain does quite a bit of talking, most of it -- by a wide margin -- is directed toward the player. Scattered throughout Blood Omen are red "Vista Markers." Stepping over one triggers a voiceover clip from Kain, in which he explains -- more or less -- what he's seeing, what he's thinking, and what he's planning to do next. I'm not enough of a pure theorist to explain the mechanics here, but the effect is that Kain provides color and perspective to Blood Omen's events, but rarely distances the player from what is happening. Instead of acting as Kain or observing Kain, the player is made to feel as though he is traveling with Kain, acting as his unseen companion and confidant. (This might not be nearly as effective were Kain any less charismatic a character or Simon Templeman any less charming a voice actor.)

Another factor is Blood Omen's paucity of cutscenes. Discounting the opening/ending sequences and the Bat-o-Vision animations, Blood Omen has (by my count) a grand total of thirteen "true" cutscenes -- FMV sequences during which the player can only sit back and play spectator while the game's characters talk amongst themselves. Since they are so sparse, each necessarily marks a crucial event in the plot.

Even when meeting a boss for the first time, the exchange between Kain and the sorcerer is restricted to a couple of VO quips that occur within the playing field. As an example, here is the entire exchange between Nuprator and Kain (plus Malek, who is in the room when Kain enters) that occurs when they first meet:

Nupraptor
So, Malek, have you come to fail the Circle once more? Leave, paladin! I do not need your protection.

Come, Kain...come share my pain....

Kain VO
So this was the Mentalist Nupraptor, this broken, pathetic little man. Yet crippled as he was, he would not yield without battle. Very well, old fool. If it is death you seek, I will not deny you.


And with that, the duel is on. By contrast, the first boss fight in Blood Omen 2 (an aggravatingly typical "cinematic" game) has the player sitting and watching the two combatants pointlessly rattle sabres and spout hot air for about a minute and a half before putting the controller back in the player's hands and getting down to business.

After focusing on post-SNES JRPGs for so long, I am amazed at Blood Omen's ability to convey such a nuanced story with a multifaceted plot with a minimum of verbiage. Curiously, it does so by violating the old "show, don't tell" rule your creative writing teachers always shouted about. Let's take a look at another scene from Nupraptor's Retreat, triggered when Kain approaches a Vista Marker before a female prisoner chained to the wall. Stepping on it triggers this bit of voiceover from Kain:

I came upon one of Nupraptor's serving girls, catatonic with fear, choking out half-words through bloodied, broken teeth. Although tempted by hunger, I stayed my hand, allowing her to tell her story...

She spoke of her Lord Nupraptor, driven to insanity by the brutal slaying of his beloved Ariel. She spoke of his self-mutilation, sewing his eyes and lips shut to deny the outside world. Fueled by despair and hopelessness, he turned his magic on the Circle, infecting their minds with his madness. Nupraptor cared for nothing now, save his pathetic self-pity.

Scars such as hers would never heal. Death would only be a mercy.


Now. Most games today -- including all of the Crystal Dynamics Legacy of Kain sequels -- would require the inclusion of a two or three-minute cutscene to convey all of this information. The game would stop, the camera would focus on Kain approaching the girl, we would hear an offscreen whimpered followed by Kain's "what's that?" and five seconds where Kain looks around for its source (to heighten the tension, of course), and then we would sit passively by and watch their back-and-forth. This is all well and good, and it might work in some games, but Silicon Knights would rather not break up the action unless they really have to. Here, Kain's voiceover tells us everything we need to know about the scene, while arguably magnifying its horrific details by leaving their visualization to our imagination instead of a computer graphics artist. And all of this occurs in under a minute, and without once restricting the player from moving around and acting as he pleases. Whew!


"Time to choose, Mr. Freeman."


Hm. Wrong game.

Two years before Half-Life hit the market and taunted players with a choice between two unsatisfying conclusions, Blood Omen presented players with a similar dilemma following Kain's showdown with the Dark Entity. Realizing that he is the Balance Guardian and the final member of the Circle, Kain is faced with a choice. Does he sacrifice himself to redeem Nosgoth? Or does he go on living and doom Nosgoth to an eternity of decay and ruin?

There is a point to this, of course. Blood Omen, as you recall, was designed to be a game about a protagonist who never clearly falls on either side of good or evil. Kain kills a pretty fair number of totally innocent people to stay alive, but he is also the only one taking out the sorcerers threatening to kill just about everybody. He acts for the most part out of self-interest, but then he also goes out of his way to raise an army against the Legions of the Nemesis. So what is he: hero or a villain? The ending of Blood Omen is meant to let the player choose for himself which side the coin ultimately lands upon.

All of the Crystal Dynamics sequels assume that Kain chooses the card to the left. Disgusted with the scheming human sorcerers, fully embracing his powers, and realizing that he's probably the most powerful being left in Nosgoth, Kain opts to rule over the dying world rather than sacrifice himself to save it.


"Play on, little vampire, play on..."


I wonder if Blood Omen was as refreshing in 1996/7 as it is today? Even back then, Silicon Knights sensed which direction the video games industry was headed, and designed its first console game in hopes of redirecting or influencing the trend however it could. In this respect, Blood Omen was unsuccessful; it remained the exception rather than the rule. What do you suppose the gaming scene would look like today if more PlayStation games were designed the same way as Blood Omen? Do you think you would hear as many people grumbling about how video games have "gone Hollywood?"

But that's an idea belonging to an entirely different tangent. So, then: what makes Blood Omen so exceptional?

Blood Omen is greater than the sum of its parts, and this is a result to the high degree to which these parts are unified and bent toward a singular focus. For an example of a game that does the opposite, I keep thinking of the recent afternoon I spent watching a friend playing The Saboteur. As I looked on, I was a little overwhelmed by how much stuff was going on. It was all over the place. The Saboteur! It's a racing game! It's a stealth game! It's a shooter! It's a brawler! It's a sandbox! It's a riveting tale of loss, revenge, and heroism! It's sexy, funny, and badass! It mixes the artsy cabaret style of the 1940s with sex jokes and Nazi-battling action any twit can appreciate! It's a goddamned Katamari of unrelated objects slammed together into a single mass! (At least that was the impression I got; feel free to email me and tell me how stupid and wrong I am.)

When you design a game to do so many things at once, its separate elements all tend to detract from one another unless its designers really know what they're doing. A game that focuses exclusively on racing is going to be a better racing game than the game that has to juggle car chases with fistfights, sneaking, brawling, going out on missions, etc. There's a lot of stuff going on, but it all becomes less engaging. If a game like The Saboteur is a cloud of buckshot, a game like Blood Omen is a hollow-point rifle bullet aimed toward a particular target -- toward evoking a certain effect within the player.

Remember Legend of Zelda? Miyomoto designed it to evoke what he felt wandering through the Japanese mountains as a child. Similarly, Pokemon was built to emulate Tajiri's experiences collecting insects during his younger days. Both games are so effective because they were designed to bring about a specific effect in the person holding the controller (or Gameboy). This is the artful way of going about video game design, and we frequently see it employed in the best works of other media as well. Fiction, for example: imagine you have two horror authors. One sits down to write and thinks "I'm going to come up with a story about a monster that kills people." The other sits down and thinks "I'm going to come up with a story that will evoke such a particular fear in readers, and will use a monster to instill that fear." Whose story do you suppose will be the more effective one?

This is more or less what Blood Omen does, and the reason why it remains so compelling in spite of its datedness. It was not simply designed as a "vampire game;" the choice of casting its lead as a bloodsucker was settled upon because it seemed the best way of achieving its overall aim, as stated by Silicon Knights: to thrust the player into the role of a convincing anti-hero whose every act toward the greater good is tarnished by self-interest and violent murder. And for all this, Blood Omen never forgets that it is foremost a video game, not an interactive film or art piece. It might not be the best game ever made, but it stands as a model of how they should be designed.





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