It's no real secret that SoulCalibur III was sort of a disappointment. Aside from the game-ruining glitches, the aggravating method of unlocking parts to create your own characters, and the small fact that the game could erase your PS2's memory card, SC3 wasn't a very good fighting game. I hesitantly approached SoulCalibur IV, partially because of the lackluster PS2 offering and partially because of the previews and buildup, which seemed more focused on the size of the female character's chest and the appearance of bizarre cameos like Yoda than on the gameplay itself. While it doesn't quite live up to the original SoulCalibur, SoulCalibur IV manages to be a fast, frantic and fun fighting game in its own right.
If you've ever played a SoulCalibur game, then SoulCalibur IV is going to feel quite familiar. Not too much has changed from the last entry in the franchise, although a number of balance tweaks and small upgrades have made SC4 a significantly better title than the PS2-exclusive SC3. The basic combat is still the same: Two warriors, armed with various weapons, battle to the death in a 3-D arena. You've got three types of attacks: fast, strong and kick, and the ability to guard against attacks, as well as a wide variety of special moves. Your goal, naturally, is to either hit the enemy enough to empty his or her life bar, or to knock him out of the sides of the arena for a Ring Out victory. It's not quite as technical a game as some fighting titles, but there is a fair amount of strategy involved. SC4 is built heavily around the idea of Guard Impacts, blocking attacks a split second before they hit to knock the enemy back and allow the defender a chance to launch a counterattack. Learning to use Guard Impact is pretty important once you get outside of fighting the CPU or inexperienced friends, although if you're just planning to take on the game in single-player mode, you probably won't have to use Guard Impact once.
The biggest addition to SC4 is the Critical Finish, although it's a fairly useless move. Next to each character's health bar is a glowing orb called the Soul Gauge, which begins as blue and slowly fades to green and red as he or she blocks attacks. Each attack damages the Soul Gauge until it is glowing red and flashing, and if you do enough damage, the Soul Gauge breaks, forcing that character into Soul Break status. At this point, you have the chance to perform a Critical Finish move, which is an instant-kill attack not unlike Obliterations from Guilty Gear. While this sounds annoying, it hardly ever comes up in practice. The only way to really break a Soul Gauge is if you're fighting someone who is turtling down for an extended period of time, and the Soul Gauge slowly recharges as fights progress. It's basically there to encourage people to keep fighting instead of getting into block-fests, and while it's possible to see Critical Finishes, expect them to be rare. I honestly never found a use for it outside of the missions that require it, and most players seemed to see an attempt coming a mile off.
The other notable addition is the ability to break armor off your opponents with repeated attacks. Each character has three armor locations — top, middle and bottom — and repeatedly hitting a spot will eventually break the armor off the character. Not only does the armor shatter off, leaving the character less clad than he was before, but he can also lose the benefits of those armor pieces, even in game modes where it doesn't usually matter. They'll take more damage from attacks, do less damage, and generally be more ineffective in combat. This can be a useful strategy, particularly if an enemy has a noticeably powerful piece of armor equipped, but the odds are that you'll kill an enemy before destroying all of their armor. Armor damage is consistent between rounds, though, so it can be worthwhile to lose a round to cripple an enemy for the following fight. It's a neat addition, but not one that changes the face of the game.
SC4 doesn't exactly add a huge number of unique characters to its cast. There are only two new fighters, the armored Hilde and the final boss Algol, but most of the primary cast returns to ensure that the roster stays packed. In addition to the likes of Mitsurugi and Seung Mi-na, however, SC4 also boasts the largest amount of guest characters in the franchise's history. There's a group of characters created by famous manga artists responsible for series like Gantz and Mai HiME, who show up, including a two-sword-wielding assassin and a Japanese oni demon with a club. These guests don't have their own exclusive move set, relying instead on mimicking a pre-existing SoulCalibur fighter, although each one has his own set of weapons. For example, Shura fights exactly like Cervantes but uses twin katanas instead of Cervantes sword-and-gunsword combo. Also joining the team are "Star Wars" characters Yoda and The Force Unleashed protagonist Starkiller. It's also worth noting that there is an empty space between Yoda and Starkiller on the character select screen that never gets filled in, and the PlayStation 3 version of SC4 includes Darth Vader instead of Yoda.
For those worried about how SoulCalibur treats unlockable characters, fear not. Although the vast majority of the cast remains locked at the start, unlocking them is a piece of cake. Run through the story line mode with a few characters, take Yoda through Arcade mode once, and you'll have unlocked all of the guest characters and earned enough money to buy the locked characters from the game's Create-A-Soul store. It's rather refreshing to have such little difficulty getting the roster unlocked, and even newcomers to the franchise should be able to do it in an hour or two of play, and get back to enjoying the game.
Besides the main cast and guest characters, SC4 also features the return of the Create-A-Soul feature. By using any of the default characters as a template, you can create your own unique custom character who uses a particular fight style and weapon. Sorry, Star Wars fans, but the fighting styles do not include Yoda, Darth Vader or the Secret Apprentice, nor do they include the manga-inspired designs, so you won't have anyone wielding a lightsaber. Only the actual SoulCalibur characters need apply. Once you've chosen a style, you can go all out, equipping that character with anything from a full-body suit of armor to an afro and a jester outfit. Each piece of equipment has its own unique stats that influence how your character turns out. Each piece of equipment adds or subtracts from your character's attack, defense and health scores. Equip certain armor, and your attack may skyrocket to 200 percent of regular attack power, but your character's health will only be 50 percent of a normal health bar. Likewise, you can choose to focus on defense and leave the other stats untouched.
Another important thing about your equipment is that it bestows you with skill points. As you fight, your character's style levels up and you learn new Skills from one of five branches: power, impact, boost, gauge and special. Each branch has its own focus. Power, for example, gives you abilities that help increase your attack strength, such as Shave Damage, which does damage to enemies even when they're blocking. Each skill has a certain Skill Point cost, and the amount of Skill Points you have to use comes from your weapon and equipment. If you want to equip high-level skills, you'll need to keep certain pieces of equipment around, and the more equipment you wear, the more skill points you'll have.
The Create-A-Soul feature is incredibly addictive, but it has a few issues that numb the excitement. When unlocking pieces of equipment, your two choices are farming for Achievements or completing the mind-numbingly tedious objectives in Tower of Lost Souls. Considering that it's possible to unlock every character and weapon in only a couple of hours of gameplay, it's frustrating that you have to spend so long unlocking random pieces of equipment to customize your characters. The second problem is that the equipment influences your stats, which severely takes away from the customization aspect. Anyone who plays MMORPGs is familiar with the concept of mid-level play that involves you wearing a completely goofy mish-mash of equipment for highest stats, and SC4 does the same thing. You can create whoever you want in Create-A-Soul, but it comes at the cost of maybe having terrible stats. It's possible to play fights without these equipment bonuses, but it takes away from the fun of trying to use your Create-A-Soul in the game modes, where removing equipment effects isn't an option.
SoulCalibur has never exactly been a well-balanced game, and while SC4 is a step up from the last game, it still suffers from some noticeable balance issues. Certain characters seem a bit better than others, and while it's nothing that is going to ruin the game for anyone, be prepared to see a lot of Kiliks when playing online. There are two characters worth noting, and both of them are from the Star Wars universe. Yoda, the 360-exclusive "Star Wars" character, is a very strange fellow indeed. He's the shortest character in the game by far — so short that it isn't possible to grab him for a throw, and many attacks fly right over his head. While this is semi-balanced by him being a bit slow and weak, the fact is that if you're not an experienced SoulCalibur player, even a mediocre player with Yoda will have a huge advantage over you. As an example of how awkward Yoda's size is, they actually had to make a completely unique set of Critical Finish animations just for characters finishing him off. The Secret Apprentice Starkiller is also pretty over-the-top, as far as power goes. He's fast, strong, and thanks to his over-the-top Force abilities, is an absolute monster to fight. While it's entirely possible that experienced SoulCalibur players will eventually find a way around Starkiller's strength, at the moment, the Secret Apprentice is a real monster to fight against, and his Force powers only make him more so.
As with most fighting games, SoulCalibur includes a Versus and Arcade mode, which are functionally what you'd expect. Versus allows you to fight a friend, either with or without equipment effects, and Arcade sends you into an eight-round battle against randomly chosen CPU controlled opponents to earn money and unlock characters. Beyond these classic fighting modes, SC4 also includes a Story mode and an Adventure mode. The former is sort of a shorter and more gimmicky version of the Arcade mode. Your chosen character goes through five predesigned levels of enemies, sometimes fighting more than one enemy in the same level. The biggest change from Arcade mode is that you'll occasionally gain a partner with whom you can switch in a tag-team fighting style, although I never found that very useful, even on Hard mode.
SC4's story is basically incoherent. Each characters gets a beginning and ending cinema that do little to explain the story line, and even the inclusion of a relationship chart in the bonus menu does little to make the plot anything but confusing mush. Characters seem to pop in and out of each other's stories without rhyme and reason, you'll fight characters but you won't know why, and by the time the ending rolls around, you'll probably have no idea exactly what happened. In other words, it is the usual fighting game problem of attempting to have a plot but not actually caring enough to have the plot make sense. Still, Story mode is the easiest way to unlock characters and earn money, and the fact that it is shorter than Arcade mode makes it a lot less boring to run through.
Tower of the Lost Souls is SC4's Adventure mode, and it is easily the worst in the franchise's history. Compared to even SC3's halfhearted RTS mode, Tower of the Lost Souls is the definition of unfun gameplay. There's really not much to it. You fight a series of increasingly difficult battles as you battle your way up the Tower of Lost Souls, having to conserve your health between rounds. The title utilizes the Switch Character feature found in some parts of the Story Mode, allowing you to use more than one fighter at a time and switch when your health gets low. Despite this feature, it's not really any more fun or exciting than the single-player modes. The big reason to play Tower of Lost Souls is for the hidden objectives.
Each level, besides asking you to defeat your foes, also encourages you to complete a secondary objective. This can be anything from winning the fight with a Ring Out to blocking against 10 attacks in a row, to defeating all the enemies without missing a single attack. Doing so rewards you with new Create-A-Soul equipment. The problem? The Tower of Lost Souls doesn't actually tell you what you have to do to get the secondary objective. You may get an obscure hint at the beginning of a stage, but they're rarely helpful, and the only way you find out the actual objective is to complete it. This means that you'll be doing a lot of flailing around, repeating levels and otherwise not having a lot of fun unless you consult an FAQ or have the guide. There's absolutely no reason to go to this frustration when unlocking equipment via Achievements is so much easier and faster.
SC4 is the first game in the series to allow online play, and like may other fighting games, it is a hit-or-miss situation with how well you can enjoy the online play. In theory, it's quite good: You can use a wide variety of characters, choose to use equipment modifiers, and it's fairly easy to set up. Lag can be killer, though. While most of my time with SC4 online was lag-free, it's worth noting that when lag got bad, the game became a real mess. All of the more subtle features, such as Guard Impact, flew out the window, and battles felt more like button-mashing fests than actual tests of skill. When combined with the fact that every other fight was against the tiny titan Yoda, it got kind of frustrating. Thankfully, these incidents didn't occur overly often, and I was able to enjoy myself otherwise. There were also a few times when trying to find someone to fight with was like pulling teeth; the game continually took forever to find an opponent, and once I did find one, the game would only inform me that the match was full. They're minor problems, and they shouldn't be enough to sully your enjoyment of SC4's online play unless you're someone who prefers the subtleties of the game, as even at the very best lag, Guard Impacting can be a major chore to pull off.
SC4 is a pretty good-looking title. It isn't a gigantic leap forward in graphics, but it looks good, with lots of smooth and fluid animations and gorgeous backgrounds. My sole complaint about the graphics is almost more of a personal matter, insomuch as SC4 places a much higher emphasis on the … err … assets of its female characters. It's hard to take Ivy seriously as a fighter when she has what appear to be twin watermelons strapped to her chest under extremely skimpy strips of leather. Some of the outfits are honestly embarrassing to view in motion, and if you're the kind of gamer who feels uncomfortable with your friends or significant other walking in on awkward moments in Dead or Alive, you'll probably feel the same way here. Since you can customize the character's equipment in any way you want, as long as you're willing to spend a few moments fooling around with the Create-A-Soul feature, you can have Sophitia fighting in something a bit more sensible … or, if you'd prefer, have her fighting in a bikini while wearing a witch hat. It's nice to have options.
The first thing you should do when you pop SC4 into your system is change the voices from English to Japanese. The English dub is absolutely atrocious, with the only good voices coming from Yoda and The Secret Apprentice. Most of the voices range from simply mediocre, such as Siegfried or Kilik, to the unbelievably awful, such as Tira. The Japanese voices are not perfect, but after you've heard Tira's dub, it's not a difficult decision. The soundtrack is the usual high-quality SoulCalibur fare, with lots of epic sweeping tunes that provide a solid backdrop from the fights. SC4 support new songs as DLC, although whether or not new music is worth paying for is a decision that needs to be made by individual players.
SoulCalibur IV is a fun 3-D fighting title. It's not going to re-invent the genre, and it has its own set of issues, including rather questionable balance between fighters and a massive amount of clone fighters even before you get into the Create-A-Soul feature. Additionally, unlocking the pieces for your Create-A-Soul character is quite tedious, even if you use the methods not involving the hellishly tedious Tower of Lost Souls. Even with those downsides, the addition of the Soul Gauge helps to keep fights from turning into turtling fests, the online play means you'll always have opponents available, and the Create-A-Soul feature is addictive enough to spend hours on trying to create the perfect character. Is SoulCalibur IV perfect? No, and die-hard fighting game fans are probably not going to be leaping on it over Street Fighter 4 or other upcoming games, but for those of us who just want to have a sword duel, it's a good time indeed. Now if only the story made any sense …
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