It’s been a long time running for the Soul Calibur franchise, with the latest version, Soul Calibur IV, appearing on both Sony’s and Microsoft’s next-gen consoles. Each sequel has dulled the shine of the previous title, mainly within the single-player version, and we were eager to see that trend reversed with Soul Calibur IV. The original Soul Calibur made our jaws drop on the Dreamcast; “now this is the next generation of gaming,” we thought. It stunned us at the time, with fighters’ hair flowing, fabric moving, even seeing breath condensation on the appropriate stages.
Soul Calibur 2 dipped into console-specific characters for the PS2, Xbox and GameCube, and contrary to popular belief, the GameCube version actually sold the most copies (never underestimate the power of Link, from The Legend of Zelda). But console-exclusive characters couldn’t cover up a lacking single-player experience, nor could the create-a-character mode that debuted with Soul Calibur III on the PS2. So, with Soul Calibur IV, would the Xbox 360 and PS3-exclusive characters of Yoda and Darth Vader be an innovation replacement, or mere icing on a rejuvenated cake?
The gameplay in Soul Calibur IV has thankfully remained as rock-solid as it was in the original Soul Calibur, an important thing to consider, because fighting games live and die by their control schemes. Its fighting mechanics are quite rewarding for someone new the genre, with pick-up-and-play aspects that lead to experimentation and eventual success, not frustration. Moves in Soul Calibur IV aren’t a complicated series of stick and button inputs; one can, by picking the right attack, start executing moves like a pro.
New to Soul Calibur IV is the one-hit kill, which you’ll be able to pull off if the defender blocks excessively (a tactic known as “turtling”). These kills are rare against the AI, but they’re rewarding all the same if you happen to land one. And, in keeping with the “manageable controls” mantra, they don’t require 26 to 32 button presses and a thumbstick combo, but a simple move executed when your character flashes red.
Obvious as it sounds, this playability is the biggest strength of the game and illustrates the fundamentals of the fighting genre to beginners. The Street Fighter series could learn a thing or two. In fact, Soul Calibur’s control schemes are something every gamer should memorize, because every fighting game borrows from them time and time again.
As solid as the controls may be, though, the console-specific fighters this time (Yoda, Darth Vader and, yes, The Apprentice from The Force Unleashed) just don’t fit within the franchise, no matter the excuse given. Soul Calibur is a weapons-based fighter, and the fact that anything weapon- or armor-wise can block a lightsaber has us raising our collective eyebrows. In other words, it’s just a marketing gimmick, but this time it really doesn’t work. Fortunately, you can choose to ignore these characters and play with the familiar ones from the past nine years, each of whom has been nicely updated graphically.
The single-player options give you the requisite story mode for each character, instant battle, and the usual multiplayer (both online and off) with the option to limit characters. The meat of the single-player mode is based on the Tower of Lost Souls and its 64 ascending and descending levels. Here, you’ll unlock various items and costumes — if you can figure out how to accomplish that feat in each level. That’s because success isn’t spelled out for you in each level, but teased through a sentence that opens the scene. The items are specific to the round and not the stage, which further complicates matters.
Although some are quite oblivious, others may leave you scratching your head or consulting the Internet, much like you’ll have to do to figure out the conditions by which each round is won. It’s not as easy as just finishing with more heath than your opponent; there are time attacks mixed in, which brings about a little pang of angst, because sometimes spamming the AI with cheap moves seems to be the only to get through a level. And, depending on your skill, you’ll eventually a hit a difficulty wall and never be able to get over it, no matter whom you use. All of these are problems indeed.
At this point, we’d normally give up and place the game in the Nasty category. But — and this is a big “but” — somehow the game compels you to keep playing. That’s a big plus in Soul Calibur IV’s favor, as it never really frustrates, per se, as much as it drives you to try “just one more time” to go another round and try a different approach or character.
All in all, Soul Calibur IV isn’t the kind of game that could dazzle a non-gamer, nor is it one that lives up to those unrealistic TV commercials. But, it remains anchored in its mechanics, an element that most franchise fans will appreciate and newcomers will certainly find inviting. Soul Calibur IV is a fighter with as much a depth as players are willing to invest. We were hoping for a bit more innovation in this go-round, but at the end of the day, we can settle for more of the same good Soul Calibur gameplay.
- Score: 8
— Phil Vollmer