The Soul Calibur series has been with us quite some time now, since 1999 in fact. Going back further than that the series actually began as Soul Blade in 1996, and was then renamed Soul Calibur. Now with the beat ’em up genre somewhat light on games, the latest entry from the series has been unleashed in the form of Soul Calibur IV.
First up, let’s get straight in there with the feature I know a lot of people have been interested in; the guest characters. For anyone out there who has not already heard about it, both versions of the game have some very special guests from the Star Wars Universe. The Xbox 360 version gets cuddly green Master Yoda, whilst the PS3 version gets the menacing Darth Vader. Both versions also have The Apprentice, who is the star of the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed game. So, with this knowledge, the first thing that I did when I booted up the game was to jump into a couple of versus matches with Vader to see how he felt, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. He is nicely balanced, with a good mixture of force and lightsaber moves, a worthy asset to the roster. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about The Apprentice, who just felt overpowered and a bit cheap to use.
With that out of the way let’s get down to the nitty gritty of it all and take a look at the gameplay itself. Anyone who has ever played a Soul Calibur game should be right at home, because to be honest, not much has changed. I guess it boils down to the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ principle, and I completely agree. For the most part the game plays very much like its predecessors, which is to say, very well. The fights are beautifully paced, control wonderfully and look gorgeous, but then that can be said about a fair few fighting games, so what sets this one apart? First off is the armour system. What this boils down to is that if you keep hitting someone in the head, you will damage their head armour and break it. When this happens, you deal more damage to that part of the body. In addition to this is the Soul Gauge, which is great idea. If a player keeps blocking your all your attacks, their Soul Gauge will wear down and become red. When it is flashing red, you can pull off a critical finish move, which not only looks great, but ends the fight. This mechanic really helps keep battles fast and frantic, because it means that neither player can continuously keep blocking without paying the consequences.
Now, whilst the fighting engine may be great fun and well polished, it does have some downfalls when compared to certain other fighting games. The key downfall is that button mashing tends to work well, meaning there will often be times when a button masher can beat a highly skilled player just by hammering button after button. What this means is that if you are after a serious fighter where skill will always prevail, you should look elsewhere. If however you are after a fighting game which you can stick on with your mates round and actually give them a chance at beating you, this is your game. You can of course still take this approach and learn all the moves, and you will still have great fun with it as you pull off all these great looking moves and watch your mates gawk in amazement, but you may then get somewhat annoyed when the next round he manages to kick you in after mashing his pad the whole match. It’s nice for people to be able to be average through button mashing, but it is frustrating when button mashing can actually result in victory against a master of the game.
What the game loses in depth, in terms of the fighting engine, it seriously gains in the amount of different ways you can play. First up is the standard story mode, which is pretty much a few fights strung together by a loose storyline. It’s pretty basic stuff, but at least it’s there. Following on from this is the Tower of Souls mode, which gives you the task of either fighting your way to the top of the tower, or fighting your way down the tower, and seeing how far you can get in a type of survival mode. Whilst this mode is essentially more fighting, it tends to mix up the fights quite a lot, often pitching you against multiple foes each round. It is also the mode in which you can use multiple characters at a time, switching between them on the fly, similar to Dead or Alive’s tag system. Unfortunately this tag system is limited to this mode only, which is a shame. The final game mode comes in the form of the expected versus mode, which also includes online play (a first for the series) along with a special versus mode which we will get on to later. For the most part the online versus mode was lag free and a joy to play, and so that really adds to the replayability of the game, as you should always be able to find someone willing to take you on.
Despite all of the different modes, the single biggest new feature that the game has is the new character creation mode, which allows you to create your very own fighter from a large array of different options. You can alter their appearance, give them new abilities and items which alter their stats, and then choose what fighting style you want them to use. You unlock all this different gear as you progress through the game, finding them in treasure chests in the Tower of Souls mode, or buying new items with the gold that you earn as you fight. You can even create your own custom versions of the existing characters in the game. Speaking of characters, there are quite a few to choose from, with a nice mixture of returning characters as well as new ones. The down side is that quite a few of these characters are clones of one another with regards to move sets, which is quite a letdown. When you have finished editing your character you can even take them online to battle other characters using the previously mentioned special versus mode, which takes into account all your various stats and equipment, which the standard versus mode ignores. I could quite easily go on about the character creation in this game for ages, but to sum up, it’s a great step forward for fighting games.
Another step forward is with visuals which are nothing short of stunning. All the character models are incredibly highly detailed and the animations are silky smooth. The environments are all just as good, with lots of different movement in the background helping to keep things interesting. There is something quite awesome about knocking your opponent into a line of suits of armour who are marching towards you.
Speaking of awesome, I love the announcer for this game! It is possibly the most over the top and cheesy announcing that you have ever heard, but it works. In fact, all of the sound is really nicely done, with all the weapons sounding believable, along with a nice selection of different grunts and groans from the cast as they get smacked about. The music is also pretty spot on, with appropriate music for all the different stages, none of which have you reaching for the mute button, and most of which really get you pumped up about the fight. The voice acting is pretty weak however, although you can change it to the original Japanese voice acting which is much nicer.
If you like beat ’em ups Soul Calibur IV is a pretty solid pick. It can be frustrating just how far button mashing will get you in this game, but thankfully it doesn’t spoil the game too much. If you’re after an accessible and fun fighter then you should pick this up. If you’re after you’re next hardcore fighter, you may be better off letting this one slide past you.