Full Review: Why do all vampires have British accents these days?
It's not often that a gaming franchise features two main characters that are also clearly equals. For example, Mario and Luigi may be called the ?Mario Bros.,? but let's not kid ourselves -- Luigi has always been second banana to Mario. And Nintendo's ?reward? for his years of loyal servitude -- sticking him in Luigi's Mansion -- only underscores this fact. However, Eidos' Legacy of Kain franchise has been unique in that it's always featured two extremely engaging protagonists: the vampire Kain, and his former lieutenant, Raziel. However, they've always been kept separate -- Kain has been the playable character in the Blood Omen series, while Raziel has starred in the Soul Reaver series. With Legacy of Kain: Defiance, though, the two are finally brought together as playable characters in the same game, counting down to a final (?), ultimate encounter with each other.
Since Kain and Raziel have always shared the spotlight in this series, it's only natural that you'll alternate between the two in Defiance, as their paths intertwine across the dark and mysterious world of Nosgoth. Kain's areas focus more on action than strategy, while Raziel's levels transport between the spectral world and the material world. You'll definitely need a bit more of a cerebral approach for Raziel's areas, but overall, Defiance features a bit more action than previous Legacy of Kain installments.
Now, on the surface, Defiance would seem to promise an extremely varied gameplay experience. After all, Kain and Raziel are essentially opposites of each other. Kain is pure evil, while Raziel is more contemplative and sympathetic. Kain's a vampire, while Raziel is...well, I'm not exactly sure what he is, but it ain't a vampire! They even differ with how they regain strength. Kain, being a vampire, feasts upon the blood of his victims. Raziel has a bit of a different approach, however. Now, in the early-'90s WWF, the Undertaker often threatened to extract his opponents' souls -- however, he never actually appeared to make good on this promise (and I know what you wrestling fans are thinking -- Vince McMahon's lack of a soul predates Undertaker's arrival on the scene...). Raziel is not filled with such empty threats -- he must devour souls in order to replenish his energy, and he does so with style (even if his ?ghost mouth? is a tad disturbing...).
However, one of Defiance's biggest letdowns is indeed its biggest selling point: the difference between Kain and Raziel. Or rather, the lack of a difference -- gameplay-wise, they're essentially the same character. Sure, Raziel can transport between the spectral plane and the material plane, and he can swim, while Kain turns into a pile of bats if he so much as touches water. However, these are pretty minor things -- the vast majority of the time, there's no discernable difference between the two. I've long believed that if you're going to give players more than one character to control in a game, you'd better make sure that those characters are absolutely distinct. Kain and Raziel definitely have different personalities -- surely that aspect could have been incorporated into their play control?
And overall, sadly, Defiance is just not all that fun to play -- you're constantly backtracking; the fights are usually not all that engaging; and the puzzles are either way too easy or way too frustrating. There's a ?Hints? option, but it doesn't seem to help you at all when you need it the most. The objectives are just not clear enough, and the game doesn't do a very good job of explaining the various combat options, or the various items you acquire. Now, backtracking doesn't have to be boring -- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was filled with it, and was one of the most-loved games in (relatively) recent memory. However, Symphony of the Night's backtracking was fun and exciting, as you always wondered what would be behind the next door. In Defiance, backtracking seems like much more of a chore. If you're playing the role of a vampire or demon, you want to kick ass, but instead you feel like you're running around doing a bunch of little vampire errands for li'l old Granny Vampire, without any real reward.
Further affecting the fun factor is the camera system -- now, the most recent Blood Omen and Soul Reaver games featured behind-the-back camera angles, and that's one aspect of the series I didn't think needed much improving. However, Defiance's designers were clearly influenced by the success of Capcom's Devil May Cry, and a result, this game plays more like Devil May Kain than Legacy of Kain (i.e. filled with preset camera angles that you have no control over). This was a pretty big mistake, in my opinion. Eidos and Crystal Dynamics already had a demonic ass-kicker with long white hair to draw inspiration from: Kain! They didn't need to borrow anything from Capcom's Dante!
And just as in Devil May Cry, I was endlessly frustrated by this style-over-substance design. In one particular instance, I was surrounded by enemies, but the camera chose to focus on a stone pillar in the foreground, completely obstructing the battle! And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it! I also missed a good number of jumps throughout the game because the camera wouldn't give me a decent depth-perception angle. Really, I wish action game designers would realize that fixed camera angles do not work in these types of games! My personal belief is that the only reason we see fixed camera angles in action games is because they've worked so well in the Resident Evil series -- but really, they haven't worked there! They merely appear to work, as the action in that franchise tends to be pretty slow-paced. If I'm playing a game, I want victory or defeat determined by my own skill, not because of the stupid camera angles!
Okay...rant over! Well, despite some weaknesses, Defiance is not without some very strong points. The voice acting has always been one of the biggest reasons to play a Legacy a Kain game, and Defiance is no exception. Simon Templeman as Kain and Michael Bell as Raziel are simply the best voice actors I've ever heard in a video game -- really, you want to keep playing on just to hear their spectacular narration! And the rest of the cast are no slouches, either. The Legacy of Kain series should be required playing for video game designers, if only to show them how voice acting should be done.
Another huge plus is the game's story -- actually, I can't tell if the story itself is engaging, or whether the cast just does that good a job at telling it! Frankly, Templeman and Bell could probably spend the entire game reciting the Cincinnati phone book, and I'd be enthralled! But if this is your first time with a Legacy of Kain title, prepare to be confused -- and even if it's your fourth go-around with the series, prepare to be confused as well! You'll encounter many familiar faces from past games in the series, however, and it's always a fun guessing game to see who will pop up next. I would have liked to have seen the game open with an epic montage to show players exactly why things are the way they are in Defiance -- there is a small ?history of Nosgoth? section in the instruction booklet, but that's far from enough, in my opinion.
Defiance's music is a bit generic, but it does a decent enough job of giving the game a ?gothic feel.? It's not Castlevania, but then again, it's not trying to be. The one area where the sound could use some work is Raziel's spectral world. Its ?music? consists of a bunch of screams and mysterious voices chattering away, and the end result is surely the biggest misuse of ambient noise since The Beatles' Revolution 9...
Overall, Defiance's visuals look marvelous -- my only complaint is that the backgrounds tend to look a tad too similar, and the gothic look can wear thin after a while. Kain and Raziel look excellent, with amazing detail -- definitely some of the better PlayStation 2 graphics I've seen. Another plus is that the game's framerate is surprisingly smooth -- Defiance looks and feels somewhat like a Japanese-designed game to me, and that's a high compliment. I find Japanese-made games tend to feel a bit more ?polished? than their American counterparts, but Defiance is an exception.
Legacy of Kain: Defiance looks great, sounds great, and tells a great story -- and that only makes it all the more frustrating that it doesn't play all that great. In fact, Defiance is a bit of a rare animal: It's a very engaging game, but the gameplay itself isn't all that engaging...if that makes any sense! The strength of this series has always been in its storytelling, and Defiance certainly delivers there. But if you want fun, addicting gameplay, you'll most likely have to look somewhere else.