Soul Calibur IV: Time to Fight!

July 31, 2008


The Soul Calibur series was one of the first 3D fighters to nail weapon-based combat. Since then it’s built its name on incredibly balanced gameplay and an announcer that makes little to no sense. Soul Calibur 4 has arrived and it’s tempering its proven formula with Star Wars cameos, online play, and a ton of bonus content, but does the soul still burn?

With Soul Calibur 4, the series continues to emphasize content and a numerous selection of modes. The game honors its convoluted plot with a story mode, although the actual amount of story conveyed is minimal.

The most substantial single-player addition is the tower of souls mode. Players can choose to ascend through a successively difficult series of challenges, which yield bonus treasure chests containing new equipment. Or they can descend--battling an endless series of opponents in tag-team battles. It takes serious dedication, adept character management, and plenty of time to completely master it.

The character-switching, team-battle mechanic heavily featured in the tower of souls is conspicuously unavailable in versus, but two multiplayer options are available offline, or online through ranked or unranked matches. Standard versus mode sets the stage for straightforward, one-on-one battles, while special versus lets players utilize equipment and skills available through the impressively full-featured character creation mode.

Arcade mode awards points and gives you the chance to fight and unlock guest characters including barely justified appearances by Star Wars icons. Yoda’s on the 360, Vader’s on the PS3, and the star of the upcoming Force Unleashed video game appears on both. They represent the lone character balancing issues. The total list of fighters is huge. Old favorites return with some updates, though the number of clones is on the high side.

That’s all right because you can tweak existing characters or create an original based on one of the game’s numerous fighting styles. You unlock gear as you go, which can lead to some impressively cool or ridiculous fighters that you can showcase online.

There are many ways to play Soul Calibur 4, but like most fighting games, they amount to little more than fighting ladder after ladder of opponents. The roster of fighters is robust, and molding your created character can become addictive. The online play puts it near the top shelf for fighting game content.

The fighting itself is still focused on the balance between horizontal and vertical attacks, throws, and power moves. Advanced guard techniques have been refined, and then there are the new critical finishers, but they’re almost impossible to pull off due to the requisite conditions. Yet, land one, and it can instantly decide a round.

Soul Calibur 4 is all about memorizing the useful strings out of hundreds of attack commands, anticipating your opponent’s moves, and laying on the pain at the right time and distance.

Because many of the game’s moves involve pressing several buttons simultaneously, mapping your own button shortcuts is practically necessary to access every move. The control scheme is still based on an arcade blueprint.

When you have the moves under your command fighting flows fast, looks fierce, and feels good. It’s not a system that lends itself well to tournament fighting, but if you’re just looking to throw down with friends it has a nice casual balance. It’s still a button-masher to a certain extent.

There’s no question that being able to fight online is a great feature, but like most brawlers where every frame counts, lag is definitely an issue. Be prepared for the typical responses from opponents. When they win it’s lag-free. When they lose it’s not. There’s about as much frustration as there is fun, with your win/loss ratio skewing the balance one way or the other. Offline you’ll feel like you had a fair fight more often than not, and at the end of the day it’s just fun.

One of the strongest aspects of Soul Calibur 4 is its sense of style. Meticulously detailed mechanical gnomes, lizard-people wielding oversized tableware, and titanic, lasciviously rendered breasts may not be to everyone’s liking, but there’s no denying it all makes an impact. Swings are fluid and strikes look and feel powerful, but the critical finishers are rarely worth the price tag. Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions run great and look basically identical, so your choice should depend on your favorite controller.

English voices--including the now-classic, terribly overdramatic narrator--live up to what fans expect from the series. The soundtrack falls right in line with grand pieces like “Gigantesque,” making the indulgence in big fights, big sounds, and big assets truly complete.

Soul Calibur 4 offers an incredible volume of characters, modes, and extras. With every worthwhile addition there is some filler, but online play—lag or not—is a nice step forward. Though the best player may not always win, pop this game in at a party and everyone will want to play. It may not set your soul on fire, but it should keep it warm until the next installment.