Sweet Soul Music
Here at GR, we have a tradition of settling disputes with a few beers and a couple of rounds from a classic Pong machine. But every now and then, ol’ Pong gets a break and a new game takes center stage. Almost a decade ago, that game was Soul Calibur, an amazing 3D weapons-based fighter that gave people a reason to believe that buying a Dreamcast wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Fast forward to the present day, the next generation of gaming, where we find Soul Calibur IV for the 360 and PS3. Both versions are enhanced but some special guests from the Star Wars universe and continues to bring everything to the arena that you would expect from the Soul Calibur series.
Even though almost three years have passed since Soul Calibur III, the gameplay hasn’t changed much - and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Old friends like Mitsurugi, Kilik, and Voldo are still on the roster along with their very familiar moves. Anyone who has played any of the Soul Calibur games will instantly connect with their favorite character to dish out the pain. Even newbies to the series won’t have much trouble picking it up and playing, though more complex moves and combos will take some time to master.
That, however, doesn’t mean that everything is the same. Well-placed strikes can destroy the three sections of armor that each character has (high, mid, low), and the Soul Gauge changes up the game for players with a strictly defensive strategy. One of the issues in past installments was that some players would get in a few hits, then sit back and block until time ran out. Continual blocking decreases one’s Soul Gauge and a depleted Gauge gives opponents a split-second opportunity to execute a “Soul Crush” critical finish, which completely destroys an opponent no matter how much life the opponent has left. (Gary Coleman - I want a rematch!)
New faces for SCIV include Yoda on the 360, Darth Vader on the PS3, and non-exclusively Vader’s secret apprentice and a handful of new characters like Angol Fear, all of whom have strikingly similar styles to some of the other fighters. Out of all these new faces, the one you need to keep an eye on is the diminutive Yoda. With his small size virtually eliminating high attacks and the inability to throw him, fighting Yoda can be quite a chore to defeat. (Gon I am. ~Ed.)
The Star Wars characters that I mentioned earlier will certainly attract the Lucas-loving crowd, but you won’t need midi-chlorians running through your veins to enjoy the vastly improved character creator. The crown jewel of Soul Calibur IV goes beyond modifying existing fighters and allows customization of a character’s physical attributes, over ten different classes of accessories, weapons, and all the details in between. Sure, the character's fighting style is restricted to the styles of the other twenty-five other fighters, but the character creation is still impressive nonetheless. Opening up all of the options takes some time, though, as they become available as achievements and honors are unlocked, so get to work.
The majority of the goodies you can unlock and purchase have attribute points that contribute to the special skills you can outfit your character with. These skills range from the simple- decrease ring-outs and increased damage to the more exotic, like Appeal which increases stats when fighting an opponent of the opposite gender and decreases when fighting an opponent of the same gender.
Plenty of vids have already surfaced, showing the amazing work that people have done customizing fighters. I’ve seen the vaguely familiar mugs of Blanka, Sephiroth, Solid Snake, Rogue, and the Joker, and even a head-to-head matchup between Barack Obama and John McCain. SCIV is also the only game where I’ve ever seen Mary Poppins kicking the snot out of someone.
Also noteworthy is the long overdue addition of online combat. Even though the Dreamcast was online-ready when the original Soul Calibur came out, it has taken almost a decade for us to kick the butts of complete strangers in the privacy of our own home. Playing online with SCIV is as easy as they come. There are essentially two types of play to choose from if you don’t count the ranked/unranked choices: Special and Standard. In Special, characters are allowed to use the special skills they have picked up, while in Standard, it’s just real player-versus-player matches. I definitely commend Namco for finally getting an online mode in the game, but I’m disappointed that they didn’t do more with it. A tag team mode would have been nice - after all, it is something that we see regularly in the single-player mode. Maybe in another ten years…
And speaking of the single-player game, the Soul Calibur series has been home to some of the most interesting, as well as odd, single-player modes that have ever graced a fighting game, from the awesome Mission Mode in the original game to the oddly strategic Chronicles of Swords from SCIII. SCIV’s offering is somewhere in between. The Tower of Lost Souls mode is essentially a floor-by-floor crawl of versus matches against a varying number of opponents, with special skills enabled while going up the Tower and then a survival mode while going down. There’s really not a whole lot to it, but the eighty available floors do provide much more of a challenge than either the Arcade or Story mode, which offers us the best Soul Calibur tales a dime bag can buy. The explanation of how the Star Wars characters got involved in all this is especially wacky, but you didn’t come here for the storytelling, now did you?
Through the hours upon hours of playtime, I couldn’t help but wish for more interactions with the environment on some of the stages. Sure, you can slam opponents into walls or occasionally break things; however, there is the potential to do so much more. One of the levels, the Ostrheinsburg Castle Throne Room, features a “wall” of shielded knights that moves forward as the round progresses, pushing the combatants toward a precarious ledge. What if you could push your opponents into the spiked shields for damage? What if the knights occasionally take a swipe at you? This kind of interaction with the stage would have been much more desirable.
Visually, SCIV looks as good as ever. Character models are well-built and the custom fighters look as good as the stock ones, even with all the available combinations of gear. Interestingly enough, Namco seems to have taken a play out of Tecmo’s book and improved the series’ jubbling technology as well.
Thankfully, Japanese audio with English subs is still an option, since the English voiceover leaves something to be desired. And best of all, the famous announcer guy is back with plenty more of his famous one liners!
So there you have it - another page in the history of Soul Calibur is written to the polite applause of this reviewer. SCIV certainly doesn’t break any new ground, but it continues to do what it does best by providing us with some of the best weapons-based fighting action in town. The character customization is worth the price of admission, and the online game will keep you coming back for more.