The Legend Will Never Die
Some would say that the Soul Calibur series has been on a downward spiral since the first game on the Dreamcast in 1999. It already established itself as a premier fighter among the competition with its deep weapon-based combat, beautiful graphics, eight way runs, and cater to both the hardcore and the casual gamer. While the sequels, Soul Calibur II and III, had commercial success, there was some disappointment among fans about some of the decisions Namco has made with the franchise during those years such as including guest characters, no arcade version for SC3, and the last game being a PS2 exclusive. Soul Calibur IV has finally arrived for the current generation of consoles (Playstation 3 and Xbox 360) with hopes of capturing the same commercial success of the second game including Star Wars characters while maintaining the same fighting system we come to expect to be great. On the gameplay side, it succeeds on that way of the fact the fighting is still deep and fun to play with despite disappointing single-player modes and surprisingly good online multiplayer.
Fighting games are not really known for having good storylines, but at least they are excuses for the characters to meet up and beat each other up. Soul Calibur IV is no different continuing their same storyline regarding the two huge swords, Soul Edge and Soul Calibur. A new character is introduced this time around, Algol, that has both these swords in some capacity even though Siegfried and Nightmare, the series's main characters, still have the swords in hopes of vanquishing each other for whatever reason. The other characters, however, just have their own excuses to go after the swords and often have lackluster endings in the story mode. Speaking of the story mode, it is one of my disappointments regarding the single player modes for Soul Calibur IV. It is too short (only five stages) of random fights with a mini-boss against a bonus character, which are the special ones that were influenced by anime, and a last fight against Algol, Siegfried, or Nightmare pending on the character you chose. Even the story itself for the characters is told in a lazy way with slowly progressed text at the start of the run to an ending cutscene. If you're hoping that this Soul Calibur will get it right for the story, you will end up disappointed, but of course fighting games are more about the fighting itself rather than the storylines.
The gameplay still shines in Soul Calibur IV, which will please fans. While some of your favorite characters might be buffed or nerfed pending what Namco has done with them, most of them are still a blast to play with. Pretty of much all of the characters from the last game return like favorites Mitsurugi, Kilik, Taki, and Ivy. The lack of new characters designed specifically for the universe is disappointing too with only Hilde and Algol being the newcomers. Namco hopes that the addition of Star Wars characters will bring more sales to the game for both versions (Yoda on 360, Darth Vader on PS3, and The Apprentice from The Force Unleashed on both versions) and they succeeded on that, but the execution of them being in the game feels too awkward just like in Soul Calibur II with Link, Spawn, and Heihachi. Yoda's small size is his advantage which makes him broken since he can't be thrown or get hit high. Darth Vader and the Apprentice make a little more sense for a fighting game for their height, lightsaber skills, and their force powers. Speaking of the force powers, the Star Wars characters have a limit towards using those powers as a blue meter is used for the Force. A new addition for this sequel is leveling up the character's fighting style just by playing as them lots of times and winning fights, which will affect which skills they will have for the Tower of Lost Souls and the character customization that will be mentioned later.
The fighting system is still fundamentally the same with some new additions, but they are rarely used unless something crazy happens. Just Impacts are another form of Guard Impacts and can be used right in certain situations. The big new additions to the gameplay is the Soul Gauge and Armor Damage. At any point during fights, your clothes can get damaged and lose your armor which is a neat idea that fighting games never really implemented much. As you lose armor, the more damage you will take. The Soul Gauge is what also causes the one hit kills, aka Critical Finishes, to occur. If the Soul Gauge is flashing red, your character is in danger of getting Soul Crushed which will often lead to Critical Finishes if you time all your button presses. These one hit kills rarely happen in a fight, but it can happen if the opponent blocks too much not using timed Guard Impacts. Some of these Critical Finishes can look devastating or awkward pending on the character. Other than that, you can still deplete the opponent's health or take them out of the ring for victory.
Other than the story mode, the disappointment of single player modes continue with Arcade Mode the Tower of Lost Souls. Arcade Mode is a tradition for console fighting games being a standard eight fight run through while being judged on time, health, and other things. Also a tradition is the training mode for players to practice their moves. The tower is the other serious single player being a decent challenge for even the hardcore Soul Calibur players as it gets incredibly difficult later in the Ascend mode. Descending the tower is more of a survival mode as you use two fighters and you can switch between them at any moment during the fight which could lead to some interesting combinations that remind me of Tekken Tag Tournament. A customized character is pretty much required to tackle The Tower of Lost Souls whether it is one of the existing characters or a new one from scratch. With the character customization, Soul Calibur IV offers the best customization regarding wardrobe and messing with stats and skills. You can have a good looking custom character, but it is likely to not have good stats or skills. On the other hand, a meshed up character of the best clothes can have balanced stats.
The online multiplayer is perhaps the most anticipated addition to Soul Calibur IV and surprisingly performs well. Of course, it depends on your internet connection if any lag will occur. Usually at a ping of four and five, the matches go way smoothly, but will slow down like crazy if it is three or less. The standard affair of ranked and player matches are there in normal versus or special versus modes that apply the skills in the fights. What will keep players going in the online modes and motivated to climb up the leaderboards is the level up system. As long as you win fights consistently, you will level up quicker. Once you're at level 20 or beyond, it is a more serious playfield of great players or even tournament level players that play the game seriously. Other than that, be prepared to deal with scrubs and newbies that will spam certain moves or characters to get a win any way possible. Especially frustrating is people using Yoda online since he is a broken character right from the get go, but usually online players seem to pick Kilik, Mitsurugi, Taki, and Siegfried the majority of the time.
Graphically, Soul Calibur IV looks great with some beautiful environments where the fights take place. From Egyptian themed cages, pirate ships, the Death Star, throne rooms, and a throwback underground stage, the stage variety is there with most of them being open for ring outs while others are completely closed. The only instances of slowdown I witnessed are usually when the finishing blow happens and it says K.O. on the screen as it just felt weird at times. The characters themselves also look great with some amazing models of accuracy for at least the cool looking ones. Sure, you can make a case for the over boobage of some of the females on the roster like Ivy and Taki as SC4 takes it to even Dead or Alive level or maybe they surpassed it. What's even awkward is that some players' custom characters are barely clothed (even worst than some of the existing females) as some will only wear underwear, but I guess that's what they want. The cutscenes seem fine being real-time with no CG happening.
The Soul Calibur franchise is also known for amazing great orchestral soundtracks and number four still delivers on that front. While previous games had better tunes, this sequel's soundtrack is not that bad and at least better than the console fighting games out now. The voice acting, however, is pretty bad on English as the Japanese voices with subtitles sound way better and makes sense for the game. At least the announcer is okay as expected. The sound effects are also impressive with sword clashing while most of the sounds are the same from Soul Calibur III with stuns, impacts, and more.
As a fighting game in 2008, Soul Calibur IV does keep the genre alive being one of the forerunners of some renaissance with more highly anticipated fighters coming soon. It keeps the franchise on good terms with its deep fighting system, memorable characters, great graphics, and good online multiplayer. The single player modes are my ultimate disappointment with the game along with the addition of the Star Wars characters. Plus, the storylines feel more like a waste rather than an excuse that drives the characters to go after the Soul Edge or Soul Calibur. Fans of the genre and the franchise will get enough replay value out of it learning their favorite characters again, clashing against the best online, and racking up the honors (also achievements on the 360 version). While it doesn't bring back the magic the first game had on the Dreamcast, Soul Calibur IV is a close attempt of returning it to its glory. Since the game already sold two million, I guess the legend will never die after all.
- The deep fighting system is still as great and fun as ever.
- Perhaps the best character customization so far for a fighting game.
- Surprisingly good online play with minimal lag at high ping.
- Great graphics and sound.
- Single player modes like Story and Tower of Lost Souls are a huge disappointment.
- Star Wars characters feel out of place in the game being a marketing ploy for Namco to sell more copies (Yoda sucks since he's broken).
- The English voices are awful (Stick to the Japanese voices).
- The storylines are more of a waste rather than an excuse.
- New gameplay features like Critical Finishes are rarely seen.