The fighting game genre makes a triumphant return and yes the soul still burns.
With the release of Soulcalibur IV one thing is apparent; my soul still burns for this long-running franchise. Since it’s inception before the turn of the millennium the Soulcalibur series become one of the most prominent franchises in the genre. With its quirky cast of characters, smooth as butter fighting engine and copious amounts of content the series has become a staple in the genre. Soulcalibur IV continues this tradition by packing in all that we have come to love about the series while expanding on all of the ideas that make it great. The character customization has been vastly improved, the fighting has been tweaked to near perfection and the addition of online creates a virtual arcade that gives players the ability to hone their skills against a sea of competitors. Soulcalibur IV is the true definition of how to make a sequel worthy of its name.
Let’s begin with the single-player portion of the game. You have your traditional Arcade and Story modes, but you also have a new mission mode called the Tower of Souls. In this mode you ascend and descend through a series of floors facing unique challenges along the way. Each section contains a set of stages against a number of foes (all of which possess some form of power) all while trying to meet cryptic goals to unlock new equipment for the create-a-character mode. The first ten or so floors start off fairly easily, but once you begin to ascend into the double digits things heat up. The challenge is great and gives you incentive to keep playing. The best part is that the sections are broken up into small enough increments that even failure will not deter you from pushing on.
Once you have reached a certain level you can begin to descend the tower, which is an entirely different beast altogether. Here you select two characters and can tag in and out much like Namco’s other duo brawler Tekken Tag. The catch here is that once you select these two fighters you are stuck with them through the whole endeavor so make sure you choose two that you are familiar with. Unlike the other mode here you will gain new items per sections like every fifth floor. The challenge of descending is also much more difficult forcing you to utilize the health regeneration your partner receives while being tagged out. The Tower of Souls is a great addition to the formula and makes unlocking items addictive and challenging.
The story mode is your basic rundown of fighting a series of contests against different sets of opponents. With a stable of 30+ characters it is amazing that each one has their own unique ending, including your created character. While the endings leave something to be desired the story mode does a nice job of serving as a quick way to earn gold. With only five stages you can usually blast through each one in a matter of ten to fifteen minutes earning some gold to purchase new items, weapons and even characters.
The storylines themselves have become quite convoluted over the years and Soulcalibur IV does little to change the formula. The introduction of Star Wars characters into the mix only further confirms that they narrative in the game is simply there for entertainment. Arcade mode rounds out the package with a traditional set of rounds against random characters finishing off with a battle against the newest Sith Lord, The Apprentice (who might I add is one of the cheapest AI characters of all time) and of the finale against Algol.
Everything you do in the game serves a purpose: unlocking items and collecting gold to beef up your options in the character edit mode. This expanded mode now allows you to not only customize existing characters outfits, but also gives you an insane amount of customization options to create new fighters that can even be used online. Since the release of the game there have been forum threads and sites dedicated to these Create-A-Souls and the results are incredible. People have created everyone from Kratos in God of War to more obscure characters such as General Zod from the Superman series. The sheer amount of depth available in the create-a-character mode is uncanny. This is where the single player portion weighs so heavily as it serves as a catalyst to unlocking new items such as headgear for your customize creations.
Soulcalibur IV also introduces the ability to level up the style of each character’s weapon. For instance the more you play with a certain weapon the higher your level reaches. The higher your level reaches the more skill points you can add to that character. These range from anything such as guard impact improvements to health recovery. Equipping your character with these traits is crucial when playing the Tower of Souls mode at higher floors, but rest assured purists these can be omitted in both offline and online matches to avoid breaking the fine balance of the gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay Soulcalibur IV once again manages to be one of the few fighting games that can appeal to both hardcore and casual players. The combat system flows smoothly and allows button mashers to wail away and perform great looking attacks all while still having a great time. However, if you are more into learning the intricacies of the system Soulcalibur IV is ever bit as deep as the previous versions, and possibly even more so now. The guard impact system has been tweaked and improved giving frame counters reason to celebrate. The critical finishes that some people were afraid would break the game are so ridiculously hard to pull off they are not even a hindrance. Everything about the game feels finitely tuned with a ridiculous amount of attention paid to detail. It is a hard line to walk creating a game that is fun for both hardcores and casuals, but Namco has managed to traverse it backwards.
The character selection this time around brings back many returning favorites and a host of new faces. The most talked about by far are the additions of Star Wars characters. As of this writing Yoda appears exclusively for Xbox 360 and Vader for PS3 while The Apprentice, dubbed Starkiller, appears on both. Adding these characters raised a lot of concern when they were first announced and upon playing with all three extensively I can safely say they were great additions. In fact this only makes me dream of a sequel to Masters of the Teras Kasi developed by Namco, I can dream can’t I? Yoda presents a new element into the mix with the idea that he is extremely shorter than the rest of the cast. He cannot be grappled and his attacks mainly require you to jump to help balance out the fact that most horizontal slashes cannot connect with him.
Vader and the Apprentice are fairly different and feel more like traditional SC characters. Vader possesses a slower, more methodical approach and feels more at home than the other two. The Apprentice is fast and can use various projectiles and force moves to his advantage, making him a more of a button masher’s delight. All three have a small force bar below their health that allows them to perform various special moves related to their mythical abilities. Overall the addition of these characters makes the game more interesting and we hope to see more available via DLC in the future.
The other added characters were designed by famed Japanese artists and have more of an anime vibe to them. The disappointing part is that all of them are simply palette swaps of existing characters making their move set a bit predictable. When all is said and done the sheer amount of stock characters combined with the insanely robust create-a-character option give you plenty of options when it comes to choosing your avatar. Couple that with the possibilities of future downloadable items and characters and this game could easily occupy your time well into the fall.
Outside of the single-player offering Soulcalibur IV includes a solid multi-player component and the inclusion of online; a first in the series. There are basically two types of modes to be found: one is the standard one-on-one versus mode you have come to know and love and the other is a special versus mode that allows you to utilize custom setting such as your added on power boosters. Online ran smooth for the most part on both Xbox Live and PSN, but there were hints of lag from time to time. The system is similar to DOA 4’s online lobby system or the more recent Tekken Dark Resurrection for PSN. Up to four players can join in a lobby in a sort of quarter match as winner stays rules apply. Offline there is the option for both modes, and of course it runs smoother, but if you want to prove your skills online the network is actually pretty stable considering it is a first for the franchise.
Visually Soulcalibur IV is a sharp looking game. Character models sport some amazing detail mixed with smooth animation transitions. The backgrounds are varied and colorful and the frame rate is rock solid for the most part. Everything still looks and feels like Soulcalibur which can be both a good and bad thing depending on your taste. The game is not quite as gorgeous or realistic as some of the newer generation games. The developers have chosen to go with a more artistic look as opposed to a realistic one. The audio is again very much reminiscent of the series complete with the over-the-top announcer guy that spouts off seemingly random introductions. The English voice-overs are decent enough, but the Japanese vocal track is the highlight for sure. The music is a nice mix of epic melodies and dramatic sonatas. The look and feel of the game is 100% Soulcalibur, for good or bad.
Soulcalibur IV is the definition of how to make a sequel to a beloved franchise. Everything is dialed up and the amount of content will keep gamers occupied for months to come. The fighting engine is deep enough for hardcores to take pleasure in while easy enough for casuals to simply pick up and enjoy. There is plenty to see and do and the addition of online will add serious legs to this already highly replayable game. While it may be a bold statement, Soulcalibur IV is quite possibly the greatest 3D fighting game of all time and well worth your sixty bucks.