Friday, March 6, 2015

Critical Switch: On Legacy of Kain: Dead Sun

Check that link every week for new episodes! New stuff is gonna be slow here as I focus on Switch and the Final Fantasy VII book, so be patient, word lovers!

Here's the transcript if you'd like to read it instead of listening:

So there was a pretty significant leak recently of a planned reboot of the Legacy of Kain series entitled Dead Sun that was in development around 2012 but got canceled, I wanna talk about it for a little bit. Indulge me while I'm being less than critical for most of this.

So first of all, the official reason given for the cancellation was that fan interest in an LoK reboot didn't meet sales projections and that has to be addressed: of course a Legacy of Kain reboot didn't look like it was going to sell well.

The series was never a money bucket to begin with, plagued with truncated budgets and short development cycles leading to games that were 2/3 finished at best when they came out, leading to decreasing review scores, decreasing sales, and disgruntled fans. The last game, Defiance, came out when I was nine years old. We're talking about a franchise that hasn't seen a new game come out since the PS2 was just out of it's launch cycle.

That Square-Enix believed they could generate enough interest in the franchise to sell even a million copies is . . . well honestly it's indicative of the logic that says “let's make two sequels to the financially ruinous Final Fantasy XIII instead of focusing on something that 80% of our sales base wants to see” or “let's follow-up our largely faithful, limited-budget Deus Ex reboot that catered to that game's original fanbase with a bloated Thief reboot that tries to bring in a ton of new people even though it probably could've succeeded just by catering to the same Deus Ex crowd.” Square has never been known for the best financial decision making, (this stuff goes all the way back to the Enix merger,) but the idea of trying to turn Legacy of Kain into your next big western franchise is egregiously ignorant, especially given the age of HD remasters where they've yet to consider upscaling the PS2 era Kain games, all of which still look fantastic to this day thanks to incredible boundary-pushing in their time. (And for what it's worth, they also ran consistently at 60 FPS even though they didn't really need to.)

I say all of this partially because Dead Sun barely looked like a Legacy of Kain game to begin with. Now don't get me wrong, there definitely looked like some interesting possibilities in Dead Sun, especially the ability for it's protagonist to shift between realms at will, a feature that was always just about to happen in Soul Reaver and Defiance but just never made the cut. The spaces themselves were also gorgeous and looked really interesting to move through, which was another key strength of the Kain games.

All that being said, Dead Sun was clearly another example of a series reboot which shared a name, maybe some lore, and little else. The game was set to take place centuries after Soul Reaver, which is a great excuse for not featuring any familiar characters and also completely dumping the still-unfinished storyline of the previous games, and features seemingly entirely humanoid characters, which, sure, maybe this 30-minute snippet isn't representative of the whole game, but this was also a series that made really compelling central protagonists out of Raziel, a blue dude with an exposed spine and no jaw, and Kain, a dude with a skullet. The combat looks like it was going in a Defiance inspired direction, and featured the excessive blood and gore that was always a key feature. There's also of course the Arkham Asylum combo meter, which - Hey, wait a minute, I just found something to be critical about!

So there's the Arkham combo meter, which was probably inevitable, but seriously, if you ever wanna make your videogame combat feel tonally and thematically weightless, add a style bonus meter. That would be fine, except right after the first piece of melee combat we see there's a discussion between the two main characters about how and why they kill people and that sorta thing. That's a level of self-awareness that Legacy of Kain never engaged in on a diegetic level, which, ironically in this case, makes the combat in the older titles actually feel more serious. Defiance excluded, there is no reward to combat except Kain or Raziel's survival in a damned form which may never see them redeemed or forgiven. Given that combat is the fight for survival, a horrible thing that must, unfortunately, be done over and over and over again, and that this is acknowledged, the game is in no need to self-flagellate over how violent it is, even though the combat is genuinely grotesque and characters show little remorse. By making combat feel trite, Dead Sun is required to explain itself. None of that would be a problem if it was comfortable with the idea that combat did not need to be fun, or even necessarily engaging, as it usually wasn't in the Kain games leading up to Defiance, but rather, simply necessary.

Then we have the way souls work.

So in Dead Sun, souls would have been an in-game currency to buy new shit, some hackneyed God of War nonsense. Trite, but livable, and probably inevitable. It wouldn't be so bad except that you also pick up souls in a completely passive manner. This is a great example of a design shift in videogames that is not really based on critical investigation.

Souls in Soul Reaver and Defiance are Raziel's life force. Aside from taking damage, Raziel also, very slowly, loses his life force over time. To maintain his physical form in the material world, he must feed on souls, and this is a serious process. Raziel must expose his jaw, the lower half of which burned off at the beginning of the first Soul Reaver and stand completely still as he works to draw in the souls of his enemies. It is a process that, for Raziel and for gamers controlling him, requires free time, safe space, and concentration. It must be done quickly as well, for souls in the physical world quickly fade into the spiritual world.

I know why they changed it. It's a playability issue and always was a playability issue. Especially near the end of Soul Reaver 2, one would often be forced to watch the souls quickly fade away from the material realm while taking massive damage from huge demon enemies that resulted in an uncomfortable spike in difficulty. Artifacts of that problem exist all across the series.

Here's why it had to exist: from a game design perspective, without it, Raziel has no other weaknesses. He hurts like crazy and utterly dominates his enemies, even against large groups. Those are parts of his “gifts” in unlife: incredible strength, telekinesis, and in Defiance, the ability to control various elements. These gifts also allow him to perform feats outside of combat inaccessible to humans, for example, the ability to push really large blocks, or telekinetically activate distant switches. His weakness is then his fragility: he's not only a glass cannon, but his body also slowly degrades.

Like the changes to the combat, the alteration to how souls are picked up in Dead Sun also shines light on some hidden narrative depth that I never previously appreciated. While Raziel and Kain are both incredibly powerful, the concentration and time needed to feed really contextualizes just how desperate their struggles really are. The bloodthirst and hunger for souls that defines those characters truly is a haunting curse that consumes all things of their being, but there are no choices: Kain and Raziel must die, and leave the realm of Nosgoth unredeemed and irredeemable, or they must feed, and hope that perhaps saving Nosgoth means they can save themselves. That's wishful thinking, but in an existence so bleak, defined by a wheel of rebirth that damns all souls eternally, it is perhaps all there is.

One more thing before I go, briefly: in 30 minutes Dead Sun also takes the Legacy's representations of women maybe half a step forward and then multiple steps back.

The half step forward? Mostly trivializing the nudity of women's breasts and also doing so in a way I would argue does not sexualize them, drawing from the supposed tradition of female pirates fighting with exposed breasts to reveal their gender to the men they killed. (Fun fact: Hideo Kojima originally wanted to do this with The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3 and was censored, leading at least in part to the somewhat sexualized unzipping of her stealth suit before the battle that was likely intended to be an asexual revelation. Emelie Reed of The Arcade Review has a really good piece about this o n her blog that I'll link.)

The steps backward? The series previously featured exactly one important female character of any kind, Ariel, and her existence was of course defined by her relationships with men. That is not a good thing. Dead Sun features no major female characters except one who was slated to be killed in the game's opening (which, let's be fair, also happened in Blood Omen, but that game also never tried for masculine vengeance.) All that being said, the dialogue, throughout it's endless reems of poetics, was rarely ever directly misogynistic, never so after the original Blood Omen. (Likely a result of the brilliant writing of series Director Amy Hennig.) The bits of dialogue we see in Dead Sun are immensely insulting in exactly that regard. This is especially tragic given that these women are enemies of the protagonist. The series already had those from Soul Reaver 2 onward, fighting in equal capacity to the men and with designs that did not sexualize their bodies for the players amusement. It's really unfortunate that in western games especially we have to choose between no women at all and horrid representations of them.

In any case, thanks for listening to me ramble here through my appreciation of Legacy of Kain and my rather scathing critique of a game that never came out. Y'know, considering the footage will live forever on the internet even though the project was cancelled, and the initial series itself never had a proper finale, you might just be like Kain, go right for the juggular and call this series what it is: undead.

Next week, you'll be hearing from Zolani Stewart again with an episode on Proceduralism in Videogames. I want to thank everyone who helped crowdfund his new computer, y'all're total lifesavers. We hope not to have any more unfortunate mishaps like that, and we appreciate everyone's patience and support.

To everyone in San Fransisco at the Game Developers Conference, I hope y'all had a great time.

In this episode you've heard “Ozar Midrashim” (hope I pronounced that correctly) from the Soul Reaver original soundtrack and “Ariel's Lament” from the Soul Reaver 2 soundtrack both composed by Kurt Harland.

Critical Switch is supported by fans like you at, and that'll be linked in the description. Thanks as always this week to all of our Patrons, this week special thanks to Patron Richard LeMarchand, who had a critical hand in creating the Legacy of Kain games that I so dearly love.

This time from Port Orchard, Washington, I'm Austin C. Howe.

No comments:

Post a Comment