A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a tale of souls and swords was eternally retold.
Namco Bandai has just released the latest installment in its critically acclaimed fighting franchise, Soul Calibur IV. Apart from getting groovy with the force, the basic formula of the series remains the same. Although it does little to redefine the fighting genre, Soul Calibur IV manages to further advance the franchise with improvements across the board on an already fantastic foundation.
Let’s begin with what’s most pertinent to a good fighting game – balance. After a rather skewed balance in Soul Calibur III, Soul Calibur studio Project Soul sought to equalize the cast of characters in IV, and they’ve done a top-notch job. From veterans like Ivy and Mitsurugi to newcomers like Hilde and Algol, none of the characters feel cheap or severely underpowered.
In order to help regulate “turtles,” people who block excessively, two new gameplay mechanics have been implemented. The first is destructible armor. With this aspect, a character’s high, middle, and low armor may be broken by powerful offensive attacks or extreme amounts of blocking by a defendant. Once a piece of armor has broken off, a character is more vulnerable in that specific area.
Secondly, one hit kills known as critical finishers have been implemented into the game. Performing a critical finisher in battle is actually fairly rare, as it’s usually easier to kill your opponent before you make them susceptible to a finisher. That process involves lowering their Soul Gauge, a jewel next to the health bar, to a blinking red state by attacking them, then guard impacting (parrying) one of their attacks or performing an attack that breaks their guard. If all of the above occur, you’re given about a half-second opportunity to hit all the face buttons at once. If you succeed, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning finishing animation during which you can mock your opponent to no end. Darth Vader’s lightsaber chuck is a strong candidate for the best of the bunch.
Speaking of Darth Vader, the figurehead of the Dark Side is indeed present in the PS3 version of Soul Calibur IV, as is his secret apprentice. Their presence in the Soul Calibur universe seems out of place – and it literally is. Vader’s story episode explains that he crossed over into an alternate universe from his own after he sensed a great power -- of which the Soul Calibur and Soul Edge swords were the source -- emanating from a portal.
Storyline aside, Vader is slightly slow and unwieldy when compared to many in the Soul Calibur cast, though his force moves compensate somewhat. Easy to execute, vast in number and highly effective, Vader’s force powers are regulated by a regenerating force gauge under his lifebar (the same applies to the apprentice). One force maneuver, a grab to force choke combination, is particularly satisfying.
Darth Vader’s apprentice is a more than worthy addition to the Soul Calibur crew. Though irritating to unlock (you must defeat him in Arcade mode with Vader), he’s an absolute blast to play. Featuring more ‘electrifying’ force moves than Vader, the nimble apprentice skillfully twists and turns as he slashes his opponent to bits.
As for the other new additions to the Soul Calibur lineup, Hilde and Algol prove quite versatile and destructive respectively. With the massive contrast between Hilde’s short sword and long spear, those who master her play style will have the best of both worlds at their fingertips. Algol, the game’s ‘boss’ character, has fragmented power of both the Soul Calibur and Soul Edge within him, thus he can perform some unique and powerful attacks. He’s strong, but by no standard unfairly so.
Technically, there are five more bonus characters that must be mentioned. Though they don’t all possess unique fighting styles, each character was designed by a different renowned anime artist. Several, like the mechanical Ashlotte, are downright strange, though a few of the others are very cool, especially the deadly Shura. Regardless of taste though, they add even more variety to the professionally designed characters of SCIV.
When I say ‘professionally designed,’ I’m inferring that the custom character creator previously seen in Soul Calibur III is back and better than ever. Ever felt Siegfried might look better with an afro? You’re now able to modify existing characters as you would an original creation. Other enhancements to the customization system include voice pitch alteration, upgradeable status effects within battle, and simply more quantity and variety of nearly all options and items.
This time around, instead of having separate fighting styles for custom characters, you assign a standard character’s style to your custom creation. So, for example, you can make a character with Talim’s style. The style isn’t gender restrictive either; just today I battled a worthy adversary -- a recreation of Solid Snake -- with Talim’s style (Talim’s CQC skills are off the charts).
Well, how on earth did I create a custom character and not know about it? I didn’t, of course. That’s my unnecessarily long-winded way of saying that you’re able to bring your created characters online. Soul Calibur IV is the first in the franchise to offer online support, and the overall implementation is fairly standard. It’s somewhat difficult to join a match if you don’t already have one planned with a friend (invites via the XMB are supported), the game sorely lacks a quick rematch option, and voice chat isn’t supported during actual matches. Still though, unless you or your adversary have Internet problems and the game lags as a result, Soul Calibur IV online is an addictive experience that vastly extends the game’s lasting appeal. This is especially true if you lack someone to play with locally, which, for all it’s worth, is still the best way to experience the game.
That brings us to a depressing situation – what if you’re all alone and aren’t connected to that PlayStation Network? If that’s the case, then the game becomes a lot less appealing. Here’s the rundown on all that’s offered on the single-player front.
Arcade mode is back, featuring the now-standard series of eight battles with any character, with the only difference from past iterations being the online leaderboard tracking. I hate to break it to you, but unless you’re some passionate pro, there’ll always be thousands of people with higher scores than you. Moving on. Story mode offers us a brief insight into the background and future of each character. Unfortunately, you can power through each character’s story in a mere five to ten minutes. At least the one unique cutscene per character upon completion of their story is usually fairly entertaining.
By far the most intriguing addition to the single-player game is the Tower of Lost Souls mode. You pick a series of characters and attempt to survive several floors of multiple enemies, often graced with special conditions or enhancements. Performing specific tasks will garner hidden rewards. It’s certainly the least repetitive of all the single-player activities. To be perfectly honest though, I miss Chronicles of the Sword from Soul Calibur III. Was it perfect? No, but it was an innovative single-player mode that combined real-time strategy and one on one fighting. It could have been enhanced into something incredible, but instead, it was tossed out the door, and that’s a true shame in the eyes of at least one gamer.
At least my eyes can be revitalized simply by glancing at the screen, as the game is truly visually stunning. Soul Calibur IV takes full advantage of the PlayStation 3’s raw horse power. It’s unimaginable how Project Soul pulled it all off; super-high polygon models, intricate environments, spectacular lighting, particle, and depth of field effects, all at a super-silky framerate. The audio is a tad more of a mixed bag, but hardly so. The English voice actors provide a fairly competent performance (even if their lines are a bit nonsensical at times), the music is epic, and the general sound effects are first-class as always.
That’s actually the best way to describe Soul Calibur IV: first-class. The game doesn’t make any significant changes to the overall series formula, but it makes so many little improvements that it has become something truly great. The fighting, while not necessarily the fastest in the genre, is 3D at its finest. Simply put, Soul Calibur IV isn’t a revolution, but it’s one hell of an evolution.
|Soul Calibur IV Review by Eric Blattberg|
-The Final Word-
Soul Calibur IV isnâ€™t a revolution, but itâ€™s one hell of an evolution. Although it does little to redefine the fighting genre, it manages to further advance the franchise with improvements across the board on an already fantastic foundation.