Namco Bandai had an updated build of its latest installment in the Soul Calibur franchise playable on PlayStation 3 at its recent Editors’ Day event. Since the game was last shown at CES, when the announcement that Darth Vader would be playable exclusively on PS3 and Yoda on Xbox 360 was made, two new characters and three new environments were revealed. That brings the total number of characters to four (out of 30-plus in the final version including famous Manga-designed characters like Scheherazade and Angol Fear) and five stages in this build, which featured in the first hands on with the PS3 version of the best-selling franchise.
While the Roman-Greco and Amazon jungle stages were playable at CES, the other three interactive environments were brand new. There was a pirate ship with railings that will break during combat and cause opponent to fall overboard. A German clock tower featuring a carousel with rotating statues also offers interactivity. When one of these statues is hit, it will break your character’s fall, but then break off. The next time it won’t be there to stop a ring out. There was also a dojo room that overlooked a battlefield.
Since veteran fighters Taki and Cassandra were playable at CES, I started out with veteran character Seong Mi-Na, who looks great with her next gen make-over. Character armor and cloth gets shredded as a fight progresses, adding realism to the action. Mi-Na plays the same as we’ve all known her with her signature speed and staff attacks. While all of the female fighters feature enhanced bosom physics, Taki’s chest, accentuated by her outfit, was especially jiggling.
But the real standout in this build was newcomer Hilde—and not for her breasts. She’s a Joan of Arc-type warrior who fights with a sword and a staff. She plays very differently than other characters. The long staff allows one to fight from afar and take down opponents with a number of strategically placed hits, followed up with close-quarters swordplay. One of the most unique things about her attacks is the use of the long staff to power up, which can be tricky in the throes of mortal combat. This adds a risk/reward factor to the game, since the damage her attack can relay on an opponent is great, but taking the time to safely charge up this attack leaves her vulnerable.
Soul Calibur IV’s character customization screen, the Create-a-Soul mode, allows you to change costumes and pick new armor and weapons, some of which will be unlocked as you progress through the game. These changes won’t just be physical, they’ll change the way each fighter behaves in the ring. Players can choose from offensive and defensive fighting styles. When taking the action online, Namco Bandai has split the online combat into two. You can play online in either the original arcade version of the game or in the special combat mode, which allows both players to use the new costumes and moves for any fighter.
There’s a whole new dimension to fighting in this game on several levels. In addition to new combos for all the pugilists, there’s now a Soul Gauge, a large gem that appears at the end of the screen’s life bar. Over the course of a battle, this gauge measures how defensive a player you are. In order to encourage offense, the gauge turns red if you’re too defensive, fending off attacks rather than using combos and tactics to take the fight to your opponent.
Those who don’t heed that gauge will find themselves susceptible to a guard-break attack, and, ultimately, an attack that breaks your armor. An on-screen indicator alerts fighters to their armor status as high, mid or low. Once armor has been broken it remains broken throughout the entire fight and until you choose another character.
In perhaps its boldest statement in favor of offense-first fighting strategy, Soul Calibur IV has introduced the match-ending critical finishers. Once at least part of an opponent’s armor has been destroyed, you can knock him or her to the ground and push all four face buttons simultaneously to pull off a super finishing move. Unique to each fighter, these cinematics showcase a brutal attack that finishes off your opponent regardless of how much life bar remained with just one blow. Cassandra’s cinematic has her putting her butt over her downed opponent’s face as hearts explode around the screen. This can change the fate of a match at any time, but they must be perfectly timed and they’re not easy to pull off.
Although neither Darth Vader nor Yoda was shown in this build, Wayne Shiu, product marketing manager at Namco Bandai told me that both of these Jedis have been balanced inside the game world. They each have unique Star Wars backgrounds from the films and feature moves from the movie like Vader picking up an opponent by the neck and tossing him over the side like in Return of the Jedi. Each fighter will also have his own critical finisher that revolves around the Star Wars mythology.
In addition to the weapons-based fighting, Namco Bandai promises a new story set-up based around the swords of power with each character having a unique reason to acquire the all-powerful swords. Overall, I found the gameplay to be very accessible. It was as fun to jump into Hilde and button-mash through several victories as it was to employ timed combos. And for those worried about the critical finishing moves, they’re only available when an opponent spends the entire match blocking rather than attacking. It serves as a nice balance for those who like to fight fairly.