A superb fighting game lopsided by a few noticeable quirks.
Within the vast array of fighting games available on the market, there has always been one series that has asserted its uniqueness and style within the slew of traditional fighters. Yes, I’m talking about Tecmo’s Soul Calibur series. There’s no denying that this weapon-based fighting frenzy has made an impact on the fighting game genre, and even though it dates back to the simpler days of Dreamcast, it still retains its essence with Soul Calibur IV on the Xbox 360. Obviously, no game is without flaw, but Soul Calibur IV has some flaws which most fighting games don’t. These flaws are like messy scotch tape around what could have been a beautifully wrapped gift, and you can’t help but feel slapped in the face by the whole experience at times. Nonetheless, Soul Calibur IV delivers an outstanding fighting game that’s accessible to both veterans and newcomers of the genre alike, and despite some inconsistencies it employs within what could have been a near-perfect package, it remains a game well worth experiencing.
Soul Calibur IV’s core game play is nearly indistinguishable from its predecessors; however, some noteworthy additions keep the combat fresh and responsive. Like all other games in the series, Soul Calibur IV’s combat is weapon-based, meaning that the typical fist-fighting combat found within other fighting games is absent here. Each character has their own unique weapon, attached with some advantages and disadvantages, which already deepens the game play. There are agile fighters, such as Raphiel, who can keep his ground through quick-witted swordplay and dexterous dodging. Then, there are the more powerful fighters, such as Rock, who uses pure might and a giant hammer to annihilate his foes into a bloody pulp. However, pretty much all characters in Soul Calibur IV rely on defensive abilities to win a match, whether it’s moving, jumping, or the most popular, blocking. Which brings us to a brand new feature introduced in Soul Calibur IV: armor shattering.
The armour shattering mechanic works pretty much like it sounds; you ram on your opponent’s armour and it breaks. You and your opponent have three pin-pointed armor areas – top, middle, and bottom – which when repeatedly struck, will break, thus exposing the broken area to more damage. As ineloquent as mindlessly destroying your foe’s gear sounds, however, this unlocks a new realm of strategy to Soul Calibur IV’s matches, and despite the simplicity of its application, you’ll soon find yourself devising on where to strike your enemy rather than resorting to the contemptible button mash. Another welcome addition to Soul Calibur IV’s game play is the soul gauge right next to your health bar. This gauge appears blue at the beginning of each match, and as you persistently block attacks, it goes to yellow and eventually red. When your foe’s gauge flashes red, you can perform an aptly named fatality on them, which instantly kills them and ends the round. There’s nothing too original about the soul gauge, since it appeared in some of the previous games, but it continues to draw players onto the prospect of strategy over how fast you can press a button (albeit that is a significant aspect of the combat as well) to achieve victory.
But Soul Calibur IV’s attempt at discouraging easy victories and creating a thought-provoking combat system does not eliminate the frustrating losses and pushover victories which are inevitable in almost all games of its genre. As aforementioned, players are deterred from the act of button mashing to win a match, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that button mashing can’t snag a few victories. Unfortunately, some characters are more powerful or easier to use than others, and this exposes itself more so online. The majority of combatants fall under the “easy to use, hard to master” category, but some only follow the former or latter of that statement. Remember when I was talking about the game slapping you in the face? Yeah, this basically epitomizes what I said. Also, the element of luck is fairly prevalent within some matches, due to how easy it is to knock your opponent out of the ring, instantly winning the round. The fact that these “ring outs” can occur, while realistic, feels a bit contradictory to what Soul Calibur IV tries to achieve with its thoughtful game play, and once again the hand meets the already lashed face.
Soul Calibur IV's roster remains typical to its pedigree, and while old legends like Siegfried and Yoshimitsu are still here, there are a few new fighters thrown into the mix. Hilde, being the most noticeable of the new additions, is actually one of the most functional and balanced characters in Soul Calibur IV, with her ability to execute both powerful close range and long range attacks with a dagger and pole-arm. But this is where things get a bit ... off-putting, to say the very least. Soul Calibur IV features Star Wars’ Yoda and Darth Vader as cameo combatants for the Xbox 360 and PS3 respectively. Yes, that’s right: you can be a light-sabre wielding green rat or sci-fi dark lord among the martial-artsy, fantasy type characters which are consistent among Soul Calibur IV's roster. Yoda and Darth Vader don’t feel like they belong – at all – within the roster, and playing them just feels goofy and awkward. There’s also the apprentice, another Star Wars character, who once again feels like an alien in an alien world, and no logical ties between him and any of the characters in the game exist. It’s hard to say whether Tecmo is trying to be humorous with the placement of these characters, or sincere that they would positively contribute to the game. Whatever their intentions, Yoda, Darth Vader, or any Star Wars character does not belong in the world of Soul Calibur. Period.
Then the eternal question arises: whether to play online or off. As for offline play, arcade is the most formulaic of all three single player modes, and it basically gives you the opportunity to blow through eight matches and get a feel for a character’s abilities and style before delving into some online action. The story mode, on the other hand, offers absolutely no reason for why you should be bothering with it. Unlike Soul Calibur III’s rather informative lore and entertaining cut scenes, you are bombarded with a wall of text at the beginning of each story mode, and the last droplet of an actual story occurs at the end with a tiny cut scene which is about as entertaining as Nintendo at E3. The only worthwhile single player mode is the tower of lost souls campaign, which gives you the ability to switch between characters during a match and fight hordes of enemies one at a time. The fights occur on “floors,” in which you must ascend or descend down the tower to conquer these enemies. The great thing about this mode is the separation of abilities that each set of enemies unleash on each floor, allowing for an overall varied experience. Ironically, despite the tower of lost soul’s solidity, the whole single player experience of Soul Calibur IV ends up feeling soulless.
It seems that Soul Calibur IV caters more to players who prefer online rough-housing rather than those desiring a deep single player game to sink their teeth into. The simplest online mode available is the arcade mode, in which characters are stripped down of any special skills and pitted against each other in what is usually the fairest, most balanced version of combat. The alternative is the special mode, in which stats granted by armor and special skills influences the combat. Character customization is also a contributor to your online experience, allowing you to engineer your character to your exact liking, via gear customization and special skills selection. While the only actual reason for character customization in arcade mode is to show off how cool your combatant looks, it plays a much larger role in special mode, because that is where stats and special skills are actually effective. Whether you play arcade mode or special mode online, both will grant you a fast-paced action and accessibility.
But if there’s anything near-perfect about Soul Calibur IV, it’s definitely the technical aspects of the game. The graphics look consistently crisp and clean, and in contrast to other elements of the game, the aural appeal feels just right. While the environments look like anything you’d expect in a fighting game, the aesthetics of the combatants look phenomenal. No other fighting game has offered the visual appeal that Soul Calibur IV’s roster does, and in action they look just as good. Everything from the way they maneuver to the animation of their abilities is awe-inspiring, and thankfully the frame rate is more than stable. The musical score, as well, is fitting for the pace of the action, and every single sound effect, whether it is the clanking of swords or crushing of armor, is well placed and consistent. While you will experience the occasional laggy match online, there really aren’t any flaws regarding the game’s technicalities.
It’s hard to say whether Soul Calibur IV is an outstanding game or not. It has all the elements of one, yet there’s something about it that feels cold and heartless. It’s the inconsistencies, the goofiness, and self-contradictions that can occasionally detract from the overall experience. But are these flaws game-breaking by any means? Fortunately, they are not, and there is still a gem of a game within a translucent layer of grime. While Soul Calibur IV can’t by any means be called perfect, it offers one of the best fighting game experiences existent on the market today, making it an easy recommendable for anyone looking for some slick, weapon-based action.
Oh, and see the creepy green guy with the light sword at the top-left corner of the character selection screen? Yeah, just stay far away from him.