August 10, 2008
Soulcalibur has always been my favorite fighting franchise. Sure, it doesn't have the gore that Mortal Kombat prides itself on, nor does it have the quick action of Street Fighter, but what it lacks in flash it more than makes up for in technique and execution. Former developer and current publisher of the franchise Namco (Bandai) has always taken care to uphold the story behind the game and connecting all the characters to the main plot. There's no Lizardman for the sake of having a lizardman. He has a story and a connection to the Soul Calibur/Soul Edge weapons, as does every other character featured. It isn't a tournament for glory but a struggle of good versus evil. A great story with great execution makes any game worthwhile, but it is especially vital to what I feel is a very stale fighting genre.
The character creation system first featured in Soul Calibur III returns here. However, rather than being able to choose any type of style, it is now limited to simply mimicking another character's fighting style. If you're a Talim fan (like myself) and would like to change her appearance or even make a male version of her, you can select her fighting style and then select any number of physical features, armors and even change their voice a bit. The system is limited at first, but as you progress through the game and are able to unlock/purchase additional armors and weapons, the system really gets interesting. Some pieces of equipment will offer bonuses to health, attack and other attributes whilst other pieces will grant special abilities that can heal with each attack for instance. Using your created character during the Tower of Lost Souls or online play is extremely helpful.
Speaking of the Tower of Lost Souls, this is a new feature in the 4th installment of this series. With 60 floors ascending and 20 floors descending, you can earn gold to purchase items from the shop or even unlock them for free by successfully completing various tasks on each floor. Some are as easy as performing a throw, while some require beating multiple opponents without taking a hit. Depending on the floor, you will usually have two or three characters to switch between while facing another similar set of enemies. The fights get progressively harder and the odds become further stacked against you the higher you climb or the lower you descend in the Tower.
Story Mode is somewhat lacking this time around. Each story probably takes ten minutes or so to complete (maybe double that on Hard if you have to retry at all, but the same if you don't) and does not do much to actually tell that character's story. Each run through is prefaced by a few minutes of scrolling text explaining that particular character's connection to the Soul swords. From there, you are tasked with 5 stages where you will face off against 3-4 opponents in succession with only one life bar to defeat them all. Stage 3 is a mini-boss against one of the new characters in the game and Stage 5 is the main boss fight against either Nightmare, Siegfried or new boss, Algol which again depends on the character's connection to the Soul swords. This fight is a bit tougher due to the boss getting two full life bars compared to your single bar. After the final battle you are treated to a small cutscene wrapping up the story. The whole thing is extremely disappointing and does little to further the mythos of the Soulcalibur franchise.
Strangely, arcade mode is what I was hoping for in a story mode, except without the story. Eight one versus one fights at various locations in a simple duel to move on to the next stage make up the entirety of this mode and feels very much like the older days when I actually played games like this at a real arcade. Playing through this mode with special guest character Yoda (yes, from Star Wars) will unlock a second Jedi character called simply "The Apprentice" who is actually a man named Starkiller from the upcoming Star Wars game The Force Unleashed. This is a unique cross-marketing campaign and while it is fun to use the force-powered characters, they feel extremely out of place.
With almost three dozen playable characters, including each of the final bosses from story mode, the question of balance definitely comes into play, as it tends to with every fighting game. The only real problem I found with the AI was the uncanny ability to get a Ring Out while at low health. Some stages have portions without walls and being thrown or hit in their direction will result in you falling out of the battlefield and an immediate defeat. For the most part, the AI fought the same through entire matches so long as you didn't stand near the edge, but I found being near an edge while my opponent was near death was never a good idea. Other than that, most fights could easily be won by utilizing simple moves and combo sets. Practice mode really helps to learn and become efficient with each character.
The real "cheap" actions are usually only found against other human opponents, which makes the Xbox Live portion of this game very frustrating. I may have just been extremely unlucky when I tried it for the first time, but I was pit against the same person three times in a row who used the same 3-move combo with Cervantes that left me unable to move for the entire match. Now, leaderboards are cool and all, but using the same person and the same move over and over to simply amass wins doesn't seem to me that it would be very fun. More power to him, I suppose. I went back to the Tower of Souls shortly after my first and only foray into ranked matches. However, if you have a few friends who you can trust to not spam the "cheap" moves, you can setup lobbies to challenge each other that are winner stays on. This again reminds me of the old arcades I used to visit, seeing how long I could last against challengers on one quarter.
The fighting in Soulcalibur is much more fluid and technical than most fighting games. There isn't so much thinking about how to pull off "special" moves (like fireballs or what have you) as there is about how to link one simple attack into another, then into another, and so on. Combos from basic light and strong attacks tend to be where most of the damage is dealt. There are "special" moves and even unblockable moves (signified by your weapon turning to fire), but those to me seemed more reserved to humiliate someone than to really focus on fighting and defeating them, due to the amount of time they take to pull off.
"Critical Finishes" are a new feature in this installment and when performed will end the match immediately with a flashy cutscene. Anytime you block, your Soul Gage is reduced. If you block too often, it will deplete completely and your health bar will begin flashing red. If you continue to block you will be put in a state called Soul Crush which will give your opponent about one second to hit the left bumper and launch their Critical Finish. These don't actually happen too often, but there are certain moves that the AI will tend to block more often than not, giving you a good chance to launch your finisher.
Along with its precise fighting, the graphics do not disappoint. The stages aren't all that elaborate, but they do look good. The character models are excellent and I never noticed any clipping or overlapping issues during the fights. Also, the, uh, physics engine is definitely something to behold. Ok, let's call a spade a spade here. The developer must have spent a decent amount of time on the jiggle physics and the game makes no qualms about having well-endowed ladies defying gravity with very little support. If you've seen any pictures of Ivy, you know exactly what I'm referring to.
The one thing I was concerned about regarding the sounds, was getting the Jedi noises right, but those are spot on, just like everything else come to think of it. In fact, an entire stage is set in a hangar bay in what appears to be the Death Star which despite feeling a bit out of place was one of my favorite stages to play on. The only thing that might be a little lacking is decent voice acting, but that is nothing new, especially in the fighting genre.
The achievements in this surprised me. Every other fighting game to be released previous to this has had a ridiculously hard 1000 points, but this can actually be accomplished in a mere week or less if you spend a decent amount of time with it. Most achievements will come along the way when completing every story mode and the Tower of Lost Souls (required to unlock all the armors/weapons), while many can even be done online with friends. Nothing counts in local versus mode which was a bit annoying since I enjoy having tournaments with a few friends around. There are a few ranked online achievements though, and due to the problems described above those might be a bit frustrating. Overall there is a bit of "grinding" to earn money to purchase all the items as well as leveling each character to their maximum, but the game is fun enough that it won't feel as tedious as some games.
I feel like a broken record these days, but sound effects are hard to get wrong anymore. The Jedi stage and lightsaber noises are a nice highlight though. The voices tend to be a little lacking, but that is nothing new from the fighting genre.
The stages and characters look great, the gameplay is fluid and the physics are excellent. The ladies tend to be a little over-the-top and a few even appear to have their own gravitational pull, but hey, the video game world is dominated by males and the target audience can't help but smirk when they play.
The controller layout is a bit spread out, but you'll find you stick with a few basic things most of the time. It will take some time and practice to become familiar with each character which can frustrate new players, but if you stick it out it really pays off. The random low-health Ring Outs are never welcome, but if you fight smart you can avoid the cheap wins from the AI.
I never played much of SC3 because I felt it took a step back from its roots, but this game reminds me of the great times I had with SC2. The characters are all fun to use for the most part and the fighting is very fluid. The added Critical Finishes, armor bonuses and Star Wars characters really make this a fun, addictive game.
Most of the achievements come naturally which is great. There is a bit of grinding to finish off all the item purchases, but the game is fun enough to counteract that a bit. The online achievements really annoyed me and definitely lost it a few points though. Compared to other fighting games, this is a breeze.
Unique fighting styles, weapons and characters coupled with very fluid and technical gameplay is really the formula for success in an ideal fighting game. Soulcalibur IV hits all those right on the head. Getting some friends together to have a tournament and forcing everything to use the random character select is a great way to spend a night. Playing by yourself is equally fun and the option to battle online is very welcome, though a bit frustrating if you're not playing friends. This game is a must-have for any fighting fan and a great starting place for newcomers.