Black and White. Good and Evil. Ying and Yang. There is always some type of duality to everything, because humans usually put it there to distinguish even the most obvious shades of gray. We can say something is good or evil, and leave it at that because those words alone mean enough to make a judgment. A lot of journalists use them as well, and it is certainly a theme in video games, such as Fable, Knights of the Old Republic, and Bioshock.
Now Soul Calibur IV, the latest installment of one of the most critically acclaimed fighting games out there, takes this to a new level, and not in a direction we would typically hope for. A game that is good enough to be above most, but bad enough to be inferior to it’s successors, nestles it into that shade of gray.
Essentially, what we have in Soul Calibur IV is more of the same, with a new wrapper and a few new features. The character combo system is still the crux of game, and as complicated as it is, it is deep and engaging enough for people to try and master the various styles of combat that each character in the game represents. As deep as it is though, the training mode here is seriously lackluster, letting the players experiment mostly instead of teaching them some of the harder, yet more important moves, like the guard impact or the attack grapple systems. A lot of what the players will do fall under trial and error, and for newcomers to the series, that could be a turnoff.
Another problem is the characters themselves have not changed since Soul Calibur II. We have only two new additions, Hilde and the final boss, and everyone else since II and III make an appearance, but are just cosmetically different. So if you’re a veteran of the other games, but still have trouble executing the moves right, it will be the same song, different verse. The characters still move slow, the combo system is still not as fluid as it should be, and it is sometimes just better to button mash then to try and execute precision moves.
And this time around, the guest characters are horrible. Now, back in II it was a fun idea because you can see Heihachi, Spawn and Link in these games with reason, and at the very least, they were balanced with the game. For the 360, Yoda is essentially broken; requiring a lot of patience to use because he has weak hopping techniques and charge moves, and the Apprentice is overpowered. He is faster than everyone else in the game, and can wipe the floor with some of the larger characters easily, like Rock and Astaroth. The other guest characters, five vixens from the world of anime, are also slightly off balanced, but at the very least they look like they fit in the game in some form. I always hated the idea of Star Wars in the 16th century, and no explanation will suffice for me.
The games single player modes are also criminally short. Arcade and Story mode are fixed battles between one or more opponents, last ten minutes at best, and offer no true challenge what so ever. The new Tower of the Souls player mode is a step up from the Chronicles of the Sword, and actually rewards players for learning combos and executing specific battle conditions with items for the character creation system. But it is essentially the same thing as the Story mode, only longer and can be done at your own pace.
Character creation, one of the things I loved about Soul Calibur III, is back but like everything else, has been changed for both good and bad. Here, instead of custom weapon sets, an idea that I liked a lot, you can only create characters with the sets of the current roster, meaning your characters are essentially different skins of the main cast. The only difference is you can tweak their stats based on what you put on them, because now every piece of costume in character creation has stats tacked onto it that can increase or decrease health, attack power, defense, and other special powers like blocking a ring out, invisibility or automatic countering. This is a good idea in theory, but it also means some costume parts will never be used, and there is likely one maxed out set of armor that every player under the sun will use to make their character god-like.
One thing that is new and long awaited is online multi-player, which will pit you, and any fighter in the game against opponents over X-box live. I think the online needs to be tweaked, because I tried for two hours to fight other players, and like almost everything else, there is no explanation on how it works. However, the fact that you can fight custom characters online greatly expands the Soul Calibur experience, and is easily the most enjoyable part of the game so far.
Graphically the game has never looked better. The level of detail is astounding, and the effects of fighting, which now include the erosion of armor as it breaks away adds another element of realism to the game. As for the sound, well they finally added Japanese dubs; so listening to the horrible voice acting is now an option.
So, all in all, Soul Calibur IV is essentially what Soul Calibur III and II were, a game that embodies the shade of gray. Unlike the dichotomy of good and evil that the games theme is all about, Namco took the middle route and created a game that, while is a cut above the rest in most aspects, has failed to change much over the past five years. The game is barely worth a buy, just barely if you can shell out the cash for it, but the series is now at a crossroads where changes need to come in, or else it will venture from that gray area and rapidly fall into darkness.
Final Score B-