[Strong, boomy, arcady voice] “Soulcalibur. IV!”...
Namco's Soul series has been an arcade favorite amongst fighter fans for over a decade now. However, just like how the company's name has changed over the years, so has it's franchises. Soulcalibur is in it's fourth iteration as it makes its debut on this generation of consoles—correction, Soulcalibur Legends marked the first title of this generation, but does anyone really count that?—but not much has changed in the overall scheme of things. A tweak here and there, however misplaced or uneventful they may ultimately be, complement what is an already strategic, rhythmic fighter that is a button-masher's worst Nightmare.
As a fighter, Soulcalibur IV not only sticks with the series' classic mechanics for gameplay, but storytelling as well. If you've grown up in the Soul universe, you know the story of the two legendary blades: Soul Edge (the evil one), and Soul Calibur (the sword created to counter Soul Edge). Each character in the game has their own reasons for pursuing the weapons which now rest in the hands of the new boss, Algol. Playing through Story mode, you learn of each fighter's motivations through a scrolling text before your six-stage pursuit, and at the end your adventure with a melodramatic cutscene.
Ultimately, it seems like as the game has moved on from the Arcade environment, not much has been done to revamp the plot and storytelling elements of the series. While there are stories in the game, they never make much sense; they're just too convoluted and pieced together for their own good. There is a character tree where you can learn the back-story of what's going on, but presentation is seriously lacking here.
Then again, plots were never a fighting genre strong point, so I guess we can move past that, for now.
The, uh, physics are impressive...
If there's one thing you come away with from Soulcalibur IV, it's a new appreciation for the Havok engine. Not only do the fighters feel like they have weight and power in every attack, parry or Ukemi (rolling dodge), but their on-screen movements display characteristics of fluidity and life.
While we're on the topic of the physics, it's really hard not to make a comment about the female fighters. With such liveliness exuding from the game, it's impossible to miss the more bouncy aspects of some of the over-the-top women in the game—let's just say, sports bras are severely lacking for the more well-endowed fighters; it's a wonder their “physics” don't backfire on them sometimes.
Beautiful, plain and simple...
Though some may spend their time oodling at the aforementioned visuals, it's impossible to completely ignore the crisp, beautiful environments and detailed character work used here. Soulcalibur looks great both in-game and in cinematic moments, with layers of detail not only in clothing and on characters, but in the shading, water and lush stage design as well.
Bravo need not look any further for their next Top Designer contestants...
Character creation makes a comeback in SCIV, but with a twist. Instead of having free reign in designing a fighter from the ground up, all of your custom characters are based off of the fighting styles of game's main cast. That doesn't mean that you have to keep male characters looking and sounding like Rock, Siegfried or Cervantes, however, it just means they'll move like them, and fight with their kinds of weapons. Even if you're restricted to the base characters, it's still entirely possible make some awesome creations—so far we have an effeminate looking Indiana Jones (based off of Ivy), and a ragin' Cajun-alike, Gambit.
There's two ways for going about this: completely building a character from the ground up, and assigning them a fighting style; or, tweaking an already existing character with weapons, attributes and equipment.
Along with this new creation format comes a RPG element where you can unlock equipment throughout single-player exploits, and open up special abilities as you level-up character styles.
The mechanic is simple to use, but robust enough to explore with your imagination. It's a great mix for people who only want to max out a character, or for those who want to recreate their favorite heroes, even at the expense of Hit Points.
It's still Soulcalibur, but now it's online...finally...
The character creation aspect of the game allows for some deviation in the fighter's predictable formula, where adding certain items can increase a characters strength, health-bar, speed or abilities, to make progressing through the game somewhat easier. This setup is especially important for the new Survival-type mode, Tower of Lost Souls, where you ascend and descend levels to fight an ever-tougher mix of fighters.
However, SCIV is a game bore from classic arcade action—you know like getting out in public to pound quarters into a machine and to trash talk like no tomorrow as you pummel challenger after challenger—and where would be the fun in simply beating up the computer? Yes, there is two-player action for when you have a misfortuned buddy to play, but the real meat of multiplayer is in PSN play.
Like any online game, you can play ranked and player matches, but while the former delivers nothing interesting (unless you love Leaderboards), the player matches breath some classic arcade life into the console title. Unranked games pit four players into round-robin play where in two people fight, and two watch; and it all ends with the victor bragging as their Win Streak tallies up in the corner of the screen.
Either way you play online, you have your choice to allow stacked characters or not, but simple tournament style play with your own creations is a treat to watch and play, and with little to no latency issues to speak of, it's finally starting feel like the home console can deliver experiences similar to the unpredictability of arcades.
Oh, hell no:
The Dark Side in Soulcalibur...
The most marketed, reveled and talked about aspect of the newest Soulcalibur iteration has to be the inclusion of Yoda, Darth Vader and The Force Unleashed's Starkiller into the same universe as Mitsurugi, Kilik and the like. While bringing outside characters into the quest for Soul Edge may not be anything new to the franchise, it's hard not to feel like their inclusion is misplaced.
In the PS3 version, you're able to play with the Jedi turned Sith, Darth Vader, from the start, and can play to unlock Starkiller later on. Both of these characters bring Force powers into the mix, but while Starkiller can execute an array of lighting, saber-toss and an array of equally unfair moves—okay, seriously, he's one of the most annoying, and hard, opponents to ever walk into a fighting game—his master seems a bit less powerful with slow, deliberate attacks, which make him feel like an old-timer when compared to the spry apprentice.
The effort is there, and the homage to one of the most beloved pieces of pop culture is much appreciated, but no matter how competent the gameplay may be (especially when compared the poor-yet-somewhat-fun Masters of Teräs Käsi), or however exciting it is to play as Star Wars characters, the hashed together story and lightsaber-on-katana action feels just out of tune with the fighter.
Just a little bit more, please...
Though we commented above on how beautiful the environments look, it's a bit disappointing to see them be so stagnant. Yes, there is some destructibility and interaction, and there's even one stage that dynamically changes with slowly marching knights who push you towards a chasm, but they all end up feeling like a simple fighting ring.
The mechanic for Ring Outs is classic, but it's time to see things get a bit more diverse, a la Dead or Alive.
It's like you want to scream, “Finish Him...Her!” but you never get to...
Like we said, Project Soul is trying out some new features with SCIV, and while online and a different kind of character customization are great, there are still some things which work, but which don't feel entirely important: equipment destructibility and Critical Finishes.
Enter the Soul Gauge: an indicator which acts like a level of stamina for a character, with different colors indicating their ability to block attacks. Repeated abuse, and a character's inability to land attacks, can not only bring about armor destruction for the high, mid and low sections of the body, but also causes the Soul Gauge to dip into a blinking red state, making them vulnerable to a one-hit KO Critical Finish.
Destroying armor is fun, but it doesn't seem to carry any measurable change in a character's defense abilities. Similarly frustrating, is trying to execute a Critical Finish: it seems almost impossible to degrade an opponent's Soul Gauge enough in any kind of action enough to activate the cinematic finisher, less Training mode with a continually-blocking dummy.
Ah, makes me feel like a kid again...
In the end, whether it's your first time touching a Soul game or not, it's hard to not appreciate what's been done here: beautiful, crisp and bouncy graphics mix well with a fighter heavy on a classic formula of strategy, timing and execution, with it all backed by inviting-yet-deep character customization and creation.
There are a few hiccups in presentation and a some odd choices here and there, but a strong heroic, rhythmic soundtrack nullifies any headaches you may get in trying to understand just what's going on with characters' stories.
Now that gameplay feels to be right on, it seems like it's about time to show a bit of creativity and attention to all of the contexts within which we play, story and dynamic levels included.