Review by Larcen Tyler
"The soul grows a little darker, but still shines bright."
With the release of Soulcalibur 3 on the PlayStation 2, a new era of Soulcalibur games was formed. Being one of the first direct-to-console games as opposed to being an arcade port, it took a whole new story-driven style of gameplay with more in-depth story lines for each character, multiple plot branches, and new modes of gameplay like the Action-Strategy 'Chronicles of the Sword' mode, and the ability to create your own characters. While it suffered from a few flaws, it was still an excellent game, and showed that the series had a potential for a whole new direction of gameplay as a console exclusive series now. Fast-forward to 2008, with the release of Soulcalibur 4, which boasts a lot of new updates and enhancements from the previous game. Unfortunately, though, it seems like the developers focused a bit too much on new stuff and forgot to focus on some of the other stuff that we enjoyed. But is the soul really burned out or is there still light within? Read on and find out.
First off, one thing the Soulcalibur series has been noted for is always presenting each game in a very well rendered style with a lot of attention paid to details. And Soulcalibur 4 is no exception to that rule. Each of the fighting arenas are rendered to look very lifelike and colored to match the atmosphere, meaning that you actually feel like you're playing in a real place instead of just some computer-generated stage (wait, isn't that what they're supposed to be? Oh well.) One arena, returning from Soulcalibur 3, has you riding on a large raft outside of a castle. On this one, the camera moves along with the movements of the raft to make it feel like you're on the raft as it tilts from side to side while it floats along, and you even pass underneath a bridge at one point, which causes things to darken slightly as you pass underneath it. When a player is knocked into the water, they actually fall in with a splash, rather than just disappear underneath it.
As for the player models themselves, they're beautifully rendered, and all of your favorite characters, along with the new ones, look just as well rendered as they did before. Each character handles their weapon in a fluid lifelike manner, with sparks flying when weapons clash, and the famous 'light effects' that occur when a fighter is hit are still intact (no blood, sorry.) Each of their costume parts are well detailed as well, with things like garments blowing in the breeze and lights reflecting off of armor. The only gripe I have really is in regards to the new system that causes them to lose sections of their armor after taking too much damage to a certain location. While it is a nice addition, there really isn't that much noticeable difference between before and after. Other than that, the game looks just as wonderful as you'd expect it to look.
The sound department really hasn't improved much over the previous incarnation of the game. One of the glaring problems within the sound department of Soulcalibur 3 was the quality of the voice acting. It was a bit less quality than Soulcalibur 2's English voice acting. And it really hasn't improved much since the previous game. While they do have some feeling and emotion to them, they're not as good in quality as they could've been. However, some voices get a real eyebrow raised at how poor they are. Most notably Tira, who sounds like she's inhaled too much helium. Seriously, what's the story here? You'll be glad to know that the ability to have the voices in Japanese is retained, as well as Yoda's voice is still the same as you knew it as, which may not sound like much, but for Star Wars fans, it's quite a plus. On a slightly similar note, what is up with the announcer's emphasis on the letter 's' in some cases (for example, 'Ssstage Ssstart?')
On a positive note, though, the music, remains well composed and adds to the atmosphere of each stage very well. And naturally, for the Star Wars levels, you can expect to hear the classic John Williams theme that you know and love. Weapons clash and clang with full clarity, and that unique sound that a weapon makes when it hits is still retained. It's more in the voice section that the game needs a bit more work.
The control scheme is the same as previous Soulcalibur games, meaning you won't find anything major to adapt to for the most part. Big emphasis on 'for the most part.' In the fourth chapter of Soul Calibur, the developers have opted to punish people who block too much, by adding a Soul Gauge. If a player blocks too much, their gauge will go down untill it starts flashing red. At this point, if they block again, then the player can unleash a 'Critical Finish' which will cause your fighter to unleash a swift attack sequence on your opponent, finishing them off instantly. No blood or dismemberment here, but it's an automatic loss for your opponent. Designed to make those who 'turtle' too much think twice about their tactics. Unfortunately, knowing when you can actually use it isn't always easy, so you may find yourself attempting to do it only to find you can't, or realizing you had a chance to do so but missed it.
While it requires several buttons to be pressed at once, which can be hard with the tight button layout on the controller, the developers were nice enough to have it assigned to one of the bumper buttons by default, making things a tad bit easier for players. Other than that, the rest of the game's controls are rather easy to figure out, but there are some moves where you find yourself pulling off some finger gymnastics and wondering if you actually did the move or not.
One of the most notable additions to the game is the way that they included a Star Wars Jedi Apprentice for the game, as well as a different Jedi Master for the PS3 and XBox 360 versions of the game. While the PS3 owners got Darth Vader, the XBox 360 owners got Yoda. In addition, they also gave the create a character mode more depth and options for customization. Not only are there more attires and weapons to choose from, but depending on what you equip can give your characters more defensive skill, more attacking power, and/or more health, plus special skills in the battle like the ability to land better attacks, avoid ring outs, and so forth. These abilities and skills don't have to be used all the time, so you can customize for cosmetic appearances too, but if you're planning to play in the special versus modes, you'd better know how to customize right. Unfortunately, this can be a real pain in the neck at times, since knowing the right costumes to use to get maximum fighting potential can be rather limiting.
Another downside about the create a fighter mode is the lack of customization for fighting styles and voices. There are only a few voice types for each character, and while you can change the pitch for each kind, with each one having a different attitude, it feels kind of repetitive once you've been creating characters for awhile. Another is, unlike the first game, where you could choose fighting classes, you simply pick one of the main characters and use their fighting style when creating your character. That is, as in every move from their repetoire, meaning that your created characters sometimes may seem like clones of your favorite characters. Yet another downside is that you can't create any characters that use the lightsaber or Jedi powers. While the ability to level up each fighter's style is neat, the fact that you can do it by playing as that character and a created character with that style to work towards it (e.g. playing as Taki to get to level 3, then playing as a created character with Taki's style and going from 3 to 5) seems a little unusual. But stilll a nice touch.
Soulcalibur 4 comes loaded with content, but that doesn't mean it's all good. For one thing, the story mode, which was very deep and involved in the third game, is a lot simpler now with very little in terms of cinematics and almost no story for each character whatsoever, except for a brief introduction in the story mode. On that note, did I mention the story mode only has five levels? Yes, _five_ levels. Another note is favorite modes like survival, time attack, and team battle are missing too. There is arcade mode where you try to get the highest score against eight opponents, and there's the Tower of Lost Souls which is similar to survival mode, except you fight against specific opponents with one or more characters of your choice, with the ability to switch at the press of a button. Hints are given as to how to unlock new equipment and weapons while in this mode. But perhaps the most notable addition is (finally!) the ability to take the fight online via XBox Live. You can play in regular matches or in ranked matches, where you earn experience as you fight and increase your levels. There are two styles of online, Standard, which lets you play the standard Soulcalibur 4 game, and Special, which utilizes character skills and weapon and armor effects. A bit lacking, but makes up in some areas too.
Soulcalibur 4 may have taken a step backwards since the last game, but it works its way forwards at the same time as well. It's lacking in some areas, which may be a bit of a disappointment, and the voices may need work, but it's still the same Soulcalibur you know and love. Just like the Force wielded by its special guest character, the soul still burns bright.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 08/11/08, Updated 08/15/08
Game Release: SoulCalibur IV (Limited Edition) (US, 07/29/08)
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