Of all the new fighting games being released this year, SoulCalibur IV represents, like, half of them. Considering it doesn’t have much competition, SoulCalibur really didn’t need to try very hard to pillage the average fighting game fan’s cash. Instead of just phoning it in like some series do (*cough, Madden, *cough), Namco Bandai Games has hand-delivered a game that makes Street Fighter 3 Turbo Alpha Pro Edition look like Street Fighter 2 Championship Hyper Tournament Edition.
I personally have been of the belief that the time of the fighting game has come and gone. At some point, there was nothing but fighting games, and all I did was sit around at home and bitch with my brother that there were too many fighters and not enough RPG’s. Then the first-person shooter craze took off, and we sat around playing Mortal Kombat II on the SNES complaining that there were too many shooters… and still not enough RPG’s.
Fast-forward ten years and we have an abundance of RPG’s, and shooters managed to survive somehow (damn shooters!), but the fighting genre has all but died. So now with the release of SoulCalibur IV, we have a rarity amongst rarities — a fighting game that is so kick-ass that I, not being a big fan of fighting games, find myself surprisingly entertained.
Some of you die-hards might read that and think that if a non-fan of fighters likes a fighter, that fighter must not be made for the hardcore fighter fans — and you would be wrong. SoulCalibur IV’s combat system is so deep it needs a lifeguard.
At first I thought that perhaps the geek in me is giving this game automatic cool points just for having Star Wars characters in it… but then I remembered how stupid I thought it was that there are Star Wars characters in it. Don’t get me wrong, Yoda is a dyslexic doofus but a pretty fun character to play, and the Apprentice is fairly awesome as well. Vader, however, seems too “animated” for me, not the lumbering super-force he’s supposed to be.
While having these Star Wars dudes in SoulCalibur is kinda dumb, it does give me the distinct impression that a full-on Star Wars fighter in the vein of SoulCalibur could Force Push some ass. Perhaps a LucasArts/Namco Bandai collaboration is already in the works, and this was just a testing ground? Excited by the possibilities I have become.
So while the Star Wars characters are an on-the-fence feature, SoulCalibur IV has plenty of awesomeness to make up for it. The game presents multiple game modes: Story mode gives you a little narrative about your chosen character’s journey and how it relates to the swords Soul Calibur and Soul Edge; Arcade mode is essentially, as you’d imagine, just like playing in the arcade, where you plow through a series of combatants to beat the game with the best score; and the Tower of Lost Souls is basically a survival mode, where you ascend or descend the tower for unique rewards.
All of these modes can also be played with a customized character. Customization is both visual and statistical — the pieces of armor, accessories, and weapon all affect the attack, defense, and hit points of your character. They also may offer points in the different areas of special skill, like Impact, Power, Gauge, etc.
These skill points can be spent on the skills themselves, which can do anything from absorbing HP to increasing the chance you will automatically counter a grapple attempt. It’s quite the balancing act to get your character to not only look cool, but to also have the points available to buy all of the skills you want.
The special skills and stat bonuses don’t apply in Arcade mode, however, because Arcade mode is essentially the pristine ranked version of SoulCalibur IV. If you are planning on competing in Arcade mode, you might as well make an alternate version of your character that focuses mainly on looking like a total douche, just because it’s fun.
See how stupid you can make them look? Oh, wait…
One of the most impressive things I experienced with my created character was the ending cinematic in Story mode. When it first started, I thought to myself “That can’t possibly be in-engine graphics” but it obviously was because there’s no way they could have predicted what my character looked like to make a pre-rendered movie. It was amazing, and it really motivated me to want to unlock more customization parts so that my character in the scene would look that much cooler.
Character customization can be used not only to create your very own combatant, but you can also customize the already-included fighters, with some exceptions. For example, you can put all of Nightmare’s armor pieces on Astaroth and then give him a nice pair of bifocals to complete the outfit. You can’t, however, customize any of the bonus characters, which includes most of the unlockables as well as the Star Wars characters.
I tried to make a custom character right off the bat but found that I had very little options. At first I was pissed and thought the creation tools sucked. I played through the Story mode once, and then went back to the character creator to find that I now had more parts. The moral of the story is that you should play the game first before you start trying to change it.
After managing to make it through the Story mode that first time, I realized that I had very little idea what I was doing. I loaded up Training and looked through the moves list. One of the things I noticed that wasn’t really explained anywhere and didn’t show up in the moves list is that your fighter attacks differently depending on how he/she is standing. My fighter would stand differently after certain attacks, which would cause some future attacks to also be different until I found myself back in my default stance.
Adding to that complexity is the Soul Gauge (Force Gauge for Star Wars characters), which depletes as you block attacks (or use Force powers) and gradually refills over time and as you land successful attacks. If your Soul Gauge is depleted, it flashes red and makes you susceptible to a Soul Crush, which essentially puts you in a Mortal Kombat-style “Finish Him!” sort of defenselessness.
Once you are Soul Crushed, your opponent can destroy you in one ultra-powerful move called a Critical Finish. The Star Wars characters, apparently having no soul, cannot be Soul Crushed and instead become dizzy and uncontrollable if their Force Gauge is depleted.
Critical Finishers are pretty impressive.
One might think that this immunity to being Soul Crushed makes the Star Wars characters kinda cheap fighters, but you’d be wrong. The only way to get Soul Crushed is by blocking a lot, and blocking is for pussies. So basically, don’t be a pussy and you will actually have an advantage over them.
Another advanced technique is the Guard Impact, which stops the attack completely instead of just blocking it. This move is something that a non-blocking non-pussy like myself would never use, and that’s a big reason why I will never enter a SoulCalibur IV tournament. Blocking, dodging, and Guard Impacting are all above the relative button-mashing and special-spamming that I find to be all that I am capable of.
If you do find yourself being a big pussy and deciding to block all the time, Guard Impact is definitely a better option. Not only does it give you an advantage, but it also prevents your soul from getting crushed and your armor from breaking. When your armor breaks, you take more damage if attacked in that area, and you also take shame-over-time damage from having your underoos exposed.
This is a situation where some people might cry “pervert” in addition to the game supposedly being so focused on top-heavy chicks. To be honest, I really didn’t notice the boobage too much while playing since the action is so furious, and if anyone cared enough to look at these girls in the near-nude, they could just take all of their clothes off in the character creation menu and even change what style they were wearing.
Ironically, my unintelligent non-pussy fighting style has won me more games than it has lost. Taking the game online via Xbox Live, I found the battles to be virtually lag-free. Knowing what I know about Xbox Live and myself, however, I kept the headset off just in case I found myself calling some kid a pussy because he repeatedly used that cursed Guard Impact on me.
SoulCalibur IV also features local multiplayer, but there was one thing I didn’t like about it. SoulCalibur IV only loads one save file, so even if a friend brings his memory card with his custom character on it, there is no way we can make him fight against my custom character. This is something that should be a relatively easy thing to accomplish, and it baffles me that we’re unable to do it.
One final thing I want to mention is that SoulCalibur IV has a fairly complex (if a bit convoluted) storyline that stretches back through all of the previous games. It’s surprising the amount of lore involved, and it goes above and beyond the story of pretty much every other fighting game, with the closest competition being Mortal Kombat.
SoulCalibur IV’s Museum menu lets you look at the “Chain of Souls” which shows how all of the characters are connected to each other, and it also lets you view unlocked cinematics, artwork, and your fight statistics.
Overall, SoulCalibur IV is a highly polished fighting game that has surprising depth while still remaining accessible to non-fighters like myself. The lag-free online versus battles give the game the longevity it needs to make it worth the price of games these days, and the character customization keeps the single-player modes relevant and worth revisiting just to unlock more parts.
The only thing really missing is the Weapon Master mode from SoulCalibur 2, but it could arguably be stated that the Tower of Lost Souls and Story mode feature most of what Weapon Master mode used to be. Regardless, SoulCalibur IV stands as one of the best fighting games I’ve ever played, and will likely be the best brawler on a console until Street Fighter IV attempts to dethrone it… which it might not be able to do.