Just as the streets of Nosgoth are strewn with the corpses of human and vampiric combatants, so too is video game history littered with unlikely marriages of game concept and licence. Sometimes, these misfits are ill-conceived or just patently ridiculous ways of trying to use credible IP to sell unspectacular mechanics. Occasionally though, the stars align and things work out far better than anyone could reasonably have expected.
I can’t currently claim that’s true of Nosgoth, the free-to-play multiplayer take on the Legacy of Kain universe currently in development at Psyonix under Square-Enix, but cast your mind back to 1999’s Soul Reaver for an example of a well-regarded Legacy of Kain title that wasn’t originally part of the franchise at all. Soul Reaver started life as a Crystal Dynamics concept called Shifter and was initially intended to carry a biblically-inspired fiction.
The Kain lore was retrofitted after the breakdown of the relationship between Crystal Dynamics and Silicon Knights, developer of the original Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. After the latter’s mature and narrative-heavy 2D top-down RPG, a third-person Tomb Raider style action-adventure didn’t seem like the most natural fit, and yet under the directorial guidance of a certain Amy Hennig it worked out very well indeed.
There would be numerous attempts to recapture the early critical success of the first two games in the series but the franchise was finally laid to rest in 2003. Then, years later, Square Enix stumbled upon its rotting corpse while clearing out the basement and decided to try to resurrect it. Legacy of Kain: Dead Sun was thus conceived. It was originally intended to continue the single-player story that had lain dormant since Legacy of Kain: Defiance. Sadly, development was aborted because it just wasn’t panning out as anticipated.
“The worst thing we could have done is continue working on [a single-player experience] if we didn’t think it was going to be worthy and, for various reasons, it just wasn’t what we wanted it to be,” explains Square Enix design director, William Beacham.
What we’re left with instead is Nosgoth, a multiplayer project from Psyonix that was originally going to accompany Dead Sun. This free-to-play third-person melee-vs-ranged combat title now stands as Kain’s only video game representation in over a decade.
Frankly, it’s hard to reconcile the game before me with the series’ esteemed roots. Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain saw Dennis Dyack and Ken McCulloch's story and dialogue lend substance to a high-brow fantasy rich in lore and fiction. Nosgoth, on the other hand, is a much more “immediate” experience, which is to say that it’s less concerned with poignant existential wrangling than it is with shooting vamps in the face and rending humans with a frenzied mess of tooth and claw.
"We knew when we started work on this that there were going to people who would be upset, which is why one of the first things we did was identify the community leaders – those guys and girls who had been keeping alive the franchise through the forums and websites – and invite them into the office to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it,” Beacham recounts.
“Outside of the publisher and the developer they were the first people to play the game and we wanted to say to them that, yes, we know it's not necessarily the Legacy of Kain title that you've been waiting for but we think it's an equally valid, if different, addition to the world.”
It’s a push to claim that this radical departure is as valid an entry in a fiction-rich series as a fully realised single-player experience might have been. Based on brief play time of its four-vs-four team-based deathmatch, Nosgoth seems fun enough to play if somewhat generic in form and mechanics. It attempts to combine popular multiplayer elements and can list Team Fortress and Left 4 Dead among its inspirations, but the Kain fiction feels superfluous.
The vamps here are at least grotesque representations of the fictional bloodsucker, rather than the sparkly, vampjazzled pin-ups that have been defanged by popular media
That’s not surprising for a fast-paced title like this, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. While the vamps here are at least closer to grotesque representations of the fictional bloodsucker, rather than the sparkly, vampjazzled pin-ups that have been defanged by popular media, there’s little to suggest any real horror beyond some flayed skin and scenes of bloody feeding. Instead, it’s a title where character personality is defined by weapon loadouts and ability sets and the memorable features of its locales are defined by potential tactical advantage rather than backstory.
However, Beacham suggests that this switch to a less wordy – and arguably less interesting – fiction is as much a sign of the times as it is a result of a publisher looking to leverage the benefits of free-to-play’s piecemeal development. The benefit to fans, Beacham argues, is regular content updates that can renew interest on an ongoing basis. Meanwhile, Square Enix and Psyonix benefit from lower development costs that can be offset against gradual income.
“For the fans of [the franchise] we can say ‘well, you’ve been waiting a long time and now here's some new content for this world, and next month there'll be some more, and the following month some more.’ Suddenly, it’s like ‘you've waited how many years’ and theoretically the flood gates are open.
“The market and industry is changing and publishers everywhere are making some really good games that just do not perform. Fans may like them and the press might like them but they’re not ongoing concerns anymore because, in crude terms, they just don’t do the numbers.
“When that happens you can either say OK, we’ll spend more time and money doing it again and this time we’ll do it better and this time it will sell. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. So, we can either take that risk and hope or we can say what else can we do and adapt and change and look at what else people want.”
"The market and industry is changing and publishers everywhere are making some really good games that just do not perform"
I’m not convinced that Nosgoth is going to be that thing that people want. Beacham claims that some of the recent comments made by Square Enix’s top management concerning the mistakes the publisher has made with its most beloved properties have been taken out of context. However, it’s difficult to argue against the fact that over the past couple of years the publisher has simultaneously overestimated the potential success to be had from attempting to broaden the scope of its franchises while also underestimating how many once-loyal fans would turn their back on high-profile titles as a result.
Despite this, Beacham is adamant that right now, the signs point to a free-to-play multiplayer experience over a more in-depth and, frankly, harder to craft single-player experience for Legacy of Kain.
“Is this what the hardest of the hardcore fans have been waiting for? No, it isn’t. Can we one day give that to them? Maybe. If the various conditions align and we can make that happen. In the meantime, it's a way of bringing the franchise to a whole new generation of gamers that, to be honest, would not play a game of the type of the old games.
“Ultimately, the only way that we can convince people is to say ‘OK, play it and if you like it that’s good, and if it increases the chance of other stuff further down the line, that’s good too. I can’t promise anything but hey, who knows?”
Who knows, indeed? Nosgoth may well make Square Enix money and it’s apparent from Beacham’s allusions that a healthy appetite for its world and free-to-play multiplayer action may, in a roundabout way, one day lead to development of the single-player experience that Kain fans have been craving for years. Then again, it might not.
Evidently, if you’re to get the most – nay, anything – out of Nosgoth then you have to approach it knowing what it is and try to appreciate it for its strengths as a multiplayer experience, an area that developer Psyonix has been involved in for years, rather than hoping it might somehow bring about the second coming of Kain. For now, it seems we’re destined to get the Legacy of Kain game that the publisher needs it to be, but not necessarily the one that we deserve.