"This is one of the most troubled franchises in history," says Sam Barlow of the Legacy of Kain series. "I think every single entry, even if they launched, launched in a cut, curtailed, broken state. This was a franchise that has never gone to plan."
Indeed, the first game, 1996’s Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen, had a chaotic birth that led to an acrimonious split between developer Silicon Knights and publisher Crystal Dynamics, with the latter taking over the development of the franchise. The 1999 follow-up, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, ended up with much of the planned content being cut, resulting in a somewhat rushed and unsatisfying finale. And subsequent entries in the series – Soul Reaver 2, Blood Omen 2 and Legacy of Kain: Defiance – never quite reached the same heights of critical acclaim as Soul Reaver. The last officially released game came out 20 years ago, in 2003.
I think every single entry, even if they launched, launched in a cut, curtailed, broken state. This was a franchise that has never gone to plan
However, like the vampires it lovingly chronicles, Legacy of Kain is a somewhat restless corpse. There have been a number of aborted attempts to revive the series over the years, and by far the most fascinating is Legacy Of Kain: Dead Sun, which was being made by British developer Climax Studios in the early 2010s.
Sam Barlow created the BAFTA-winning Her Story in 2015, and later founded the studio Half Mermaid, which released the critically acclaimed Immortality in 2022. But before all that, he designed Silent Hill: Shattered Memories at Climax, which was released in 2009, and he was subsequently appointed as game director for a new Legacy of Kain title. After years of work, this game was cancelled in 2012, and strict NDAs have forbidden its developers from talking about it ever since. But now, for the first time, Sam Barlow is ready to reveal what happened to this promising, ambitious entry in the Legacy of Kain series.
"We'd done Shattered Memories," recalls Barlow, "and that had not been a huge commercial success, but critically had done quite well." Straight after that game, Barlow had worked on a fantasy title called Elveon, which was being developed by 10Tacle in Bratislava, but had been handed over to Climax for an extensive redesign – which Barlow describes as making it more like an "action RPG version of Final Fantasy XII". However, the investors behind the project got cold feet and pulled out, and Climax began casting around for their next game.
"So at some point, we were talking to Square Enix, and Ian Livingstone, I think, was still in charge at the time," says Barlow. Livingstone co-founded Games Workshop in the 1970s and later helped to form the Tomb Raider publisher Eidos Interactive, which was bought by Square Enix in 2009 – at which point Livingstone was made Eidos Life President. The purchase also gave Square Enix the rights to the Legacy of Kain franchise, since Eidos had bought Crystal Dynamics back in 1998. Barlow recalls that Livingstone had been impressed by Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, so when Square Enix was looking for a developer to restart the Legacy of Kain series, Livingstone suggested Climax Studios.
"We pitched them a thing called Savage Messiah," says Barlow. "We were talking about it as being a Soul Reaver reboot. Because there was Legacy of Kain, which was the Silicon Knights bit, and then Soul Reaver shows up, and it's amazing - and then they pull it back to Legacy of Kain, and it gets very complicated. But for us, Soul Reaver was the coolest one."
Because there was Legacy of Kain, which was the Silicon Knights bit, and then Soul Reaver shows up, and it's amazing - and then they pull it back to Legacy of Kain, and it gets very complicated. But for us, Soul Reaver was the coolest one
Barlow argues that the complicated time travel plot of post-Soul Reaver Legacy of Kain games ruled out the possibility of continuing the series with a straight sequel, since the storylines had become so convoluted. Instead, his idea was to set the new game in Nosgoth’s far future, a thousand or more years later, when the story of Kain and Raziel’s intertwined fates was but a distant memory.
He also wanted to resurrect a version of the original planned ending for Soul Reaver. In the finale of the released game, the protagonist Raziel follows Kain into a time portal, ending on a huge cliffhanger – but Barlow says the original plan was for Raziel to play the giant pipe organ in the Silenced Cathedral, the soundwaves from which would kill all of the vampires in Nosgoth. His idea was to have a similar climactic ending for Savage Messiah, where a large tower would wipe out all the vampires.
Savage Messiah’s storyline would centre on a vampire cult that, through terrible rites and practices, had learned to cross over to the spectral realm. The game starts when one of these vampires, Gein, attempts to kill a cynical human called Asher, who, in an act of cowardice, has taken on the role of a priest to avoid conscription into the Vampire Wars. The human religion involves sun worship since, at this point in Nosgoth’s history, the vampires have obscured the sun with a veil of volcanic ash to permit them to emerge in the daytime.
We meet Asher as he watches a puppet play recounting the history of Nosgoth in iambic pentameter. He wanders off, bored, and while he’s gone, the entire village is wiped out by vampires, including his pregnant wife and the village’s only child. "Part of the story was that the whole human race is becoming barren," says Barlow. "The Wheel of Life in the lore has slowed down because of the various machinations of people screwing around with things." Asher is then attacked by Gein, but to Gein’s surprise, Asher’s soul takes over his vampiric body. Asher then gradually learns how to control Gein’s abilities, with Gein remaining present as a disgruntled, disembodied being who provides exposition and a healthy dose of antagonistic attitude.
"Our gameplay gimmick was you can shift anywhere at any time," says Barlow. In the original Soul Reaver, you could only shift into the spectral realm at certain designated points, but in Savage Messiah, "you could be running along a broken bridge, jump, shift in the middle of the air, and land on a fully intact version of the bridge". Barlow adds that this realm shifting would also be integrated into the game’s combat.
When I played Breath of the Wild, I was like, 'Oh, shit, Nintendo 100% nailed this. Like, this is the best version of that thing we talked about, so good on them'. They just don't have all the weird, kinky vampire sex
The wider plot would involve the unborn child of a vampire and a human woman: a unique situation since vampires cannot usually procreate with humans. The vampire father dies during the Vampire Wars, and the pregnant woman subsequently takes her own life – but, miraculously, her body does not decay, and she is placed in a shrine and revered. Then Asher/Gein arrives on the scene and discovers he has the ability to resurrect people by transferring their souls from the spectral realm back into their bodies in the physical realm. Once resurrected, the woman goes into labour and gives birth to the vampire child, which it transpires has been alive inside her for some 300 years. The child has developed powerful telepathic abilities that it uses to control those around it, and at the very end, it would be revealed that the child is actually the game’s primary antagonist, since it has been pulling strings behind the scenes all along.
Beyond that, Savage Messiah featured an elaborate, lore-heavy story in which, many years earlier, a cabal of vampires had plotted to capture the Elder God. At that time, the humans were building a giant tower to use as a weapon against the vampires, somewhat like the Silenced Cathedral. But by destroying the tower with a bomb as the humans gathered within it, the vampires generated a huge influx of souls that drew out the Elder God, which was then caught in a second explosion and chained in the material realm. However, some of the humans absorbed part of the Elder God during this explosion – Asher’s ancestors being some of them, which is why he’s able to resist Gein.
Square Enix was impressed with the pitch and gave Climax the green light. But there were early signs that this small British studio had bitten off more than it could chew. "Even from the start, it was tricky," says Barlow. "I'm glad Nintendo made Zelda: Breath of the Wild, because that was basically the game we were making on a mechanical level. One of our big reaches was, ‘Hey, let's make a Zelda-type game where you can just climb anywhere’. And we had a stab at that. […] So when I played Breath of the Wild, I was like, 'Oh, shit, Nintendo 100% nailed this. Like, this is the best version of that thing we talked about, so good on them'. They just don't have all the weird, kinky vampire sex."
Right at the start of development, Square Enix insisted that Climax should come up with an 'X statement' that would be printed on a banner and hung in the studio to remind everyone what they were working towards. The statement they came up with was: 'If HBO Made Zelda'. "Which was funny, because Game of Thrones didn't exist at that point," laughs Barlow. "So to us, it was novel, the idea that HBO would make an epic dark fantasy story."
The game had some neat ideas. In addition to the ability to climb up almost anything, Asher/Gein could walk on water, making them unique, since most vampires in Nosgoth dissolve on contact with the wet stuff. The way that the character’s body repels water was even tied into a gameplay mechanic: if Asher/Gein stood at the bottom of an empty lake bed in the spectral realm, when they shifted to the physical realm, the lake water would shoot them into the air, allowing them to jump extra high and access otherwise unreachable areas.
I think that there was definitely, for a long period, this conflict between the game we thought we were making – and were told we should be making – and the game they really wanted
One level, in particular, used water throughout; a pleasure palace that was built for a vampire’s human concubine, and because she loved swimming, it’s filled with lakes and pools. Gein can’t enter the water, but he is shown by a vampire priestess that if he catches a fish and inserts his fists into its gills so it starts bleeding, he can hold on to it and swim through the blood that trails in its wake. The vampire who built the palace also installed a (now partially broken) mechanism that can fill the pools with blood to make them traversable, and completing the level would have involved reactivating the mechanism.
Unique gameplay ideas weren't hard to come by on this new project, but development was far from smooth. One constant headache for Climax Studios was attempting to match Square Enix’s continually evolving expectations for the game. Barlow envisaged a modest title along the lines of the original Soul Reaver, which he notes was "ambitious in some ways, but also smart in other ways: it's basically a big, empty, lonely wilderness, and that's part of its charm and its atmosphere."
He says that when Climax was given the green light, their day-to-day contacts at Square Enix seemed to understand that the studio wouldn’t be delivering something on the scale of God of War or Assassin’s Creed, games made by enormous teams and packed with intensively engineered set pieces. "However, I think throughout this, from day one, their bosses 100% wanted God of War, and Assassin's Creed, and Uncharted." The problem, he notes, was that Climax wasn’t given the budget to make anything approaching that scale. "I think that there was definitely, for a long period, this conflict between the game we thought we were making – and were told we should be making – and the game they really wanted."
Barlow says the team was tasked with crafting animations that were on a par with Uncharted, but without the budget to hire the animators needed. "We were looking at academic papers on predictive animation systems," he says. "Attempting to create a beyond-Uncharted animation system that was doing real-time geometry prediction within Unreal was a nightmare." He also remembers the publisher insisting on endless changes. "They would be like, 'We really like the big barren wasteland that's atmospheric and feels like you're in a kind of romantic painting, but maybe we could just put a few more side quests and collectables, constantly, everywhere? And we get that it's cool that you're walking along and it's beautiful and epic and lonely, but wouldn't it be cool if as you went past here, you had to run across the bridge, and it exploded behind you as airships were bombarding you? You know, the kind of thing you see in Uncharted?'"
The name was an issue, too. "That was the biggest argument we had," says Barlow. "We wanted to call it Savage Messiah, they didn't. And they came up with 'Dead Sun'. And we were like, 'The sun isn't actually dead, it's just covered by some smoke'." Barlow also wanted to use Soul Reaver as the prefix to the title, rather than Legacy of Kain, but was again overruled, being told that Legacy of Kain was the more recognisable brand in America.
Then at the last minute, they said actually, no, you need to deliver your vertical slice on an Xbox 360. It was an unbelievable achievement, especially by the artists, to make this thing run at that point on a 360
Another headache was trying to get the game working on outdated technology. Barlow says that throughout development, they were targeting a release on next-generation systems, which at the time would have been the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. "Then at the last minute, they said actually, no, you need to deliver your vertical slice on an Xbox 360. It was an unbelievable achievement, especially by the artists, to make this thing run at that point on a 360." He notes that the few videos that exist of the game show this compromised Xbox 360 version.
Dead Sun/Savage Messiah began life as a single-player title, but almost immediately, Square Enix insisted that it should also have a multiplayer element. "This was the time when Take-Two put multiplayer into BioShock 2, and all the publishers said we're basically not going to launch a game if it doesn't have multiplayer," says Barlow. Square brought in Psyonix – the studio that would later go on to create Rocket League – to craft a multiplayer component that centred around an asymmetrical battle between weak humans and powerful vampires. But it quickly became clear that the procedural animation that Climax had come up with for the single-player game couldn’t be used with multiple players. "That would have been extremely complicated and difficult," admits Barlow.
Ultimately, Barlow thinks that what killed Legacy of Kain: Dead Sun was the industry’s shift towards multiplayer and live-service games, combined with the rapid decline of the market for mid-tier games, which had arguably peaked at the start of the Xbox 360/PS3 era. "[Dead Sun] could have been an amazing AA game," laments Barlow. "Trying to push it into the right shape to be a blockbuster where you can sell 20 million copies of it always seemed like a tall order." Square Enix finally pulled the plug on Dead Sun in 2012, after around three years of development. "You had this whole team that was working extremely hard under extremely arduous circumstances, this last-minute push to get everything running on a 360, all the other drama and chaos to get to that point… and then for it to be ended in a way that was… not the cleanest," says Barlow.
Dead Sun was never officially revealed, but its existence was leaked in 2013, and the multiplayer component developed by Psyonix was released in open beta under the title Nosgoth in January 2015. However, Nosgoth received a lukewarm reception from fans of the series, who were expecting a lore-heavy single-player adventure, and the servers were eventually shut down in May 2016, with the game never emerging from the beta phase.
Portions of Dead Sun have been unearthed over the years. Barlow says the game’s plot and script were completed, as well as a short vertical slice of the game and a lot of concept art and planning for the remaining levels. A large amount of motion capture was also finished – interestingly, the role of the vampire concubine was played by Viva Seifert, who Barlow then asked to play Hannah Smith in Her Story after he left Climax.
I think they would have a lot of stuff they can take away in terms of all of the world building and the visuals, and the actual design that had been done in terms of the gameplay ideas and the level design ideas – everything but the specific implementation
Perhaps all of this work might be put to good use one day. Embracer bought Crystal Dynamics and several other studios from Square Enix in 2022, along with the rights to Legacy of Kain, and Crystal Dynamics put out a questionnaire in September asking fans whether they’d like to see the return of the franchise. Maybe the story of Dead Sun would be a good start.
"If Embracer was to have some momentary loss of sense, and was like, 'we should continue the work they did', rather than start afresh, I think they would have a lot of stuff they can take away in terms of all of the world building and the visuals, and the actual design that had been done in terms of the gameplay ideas and the level design ideas – everything but the specific implementation," says Barlow. And as he points out, one recent blockbuster has shown there’s a potentially receptive market for a game set in the Legacy of Kain universe.
Opaque storytelling? Vast, desolate, dying worlds? Zelda-like gameplay? Collecting souls? Now, what does that remind you of? Elden Ring has shown that bleak single-player adventures can still succeed in today’s industry. Perhaps it’s time for the OG to return.