Soul Calibur II
The golden age of one-on-one fighting games has long since past. No longer are arcades filled with hordes of prepubescent teens looking for a small taste of fame and glory with classic games like Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Mortal Kombat and Killer Instinct. Heated arguments over character superiority, cheapness and sex appeal (you ex-Chun Li worshipers know who you are) do not clutter forums across the internet like they once did, and the once steady flow of fighters released on the market has slowed to a mere trickle. Despite all this, the fine folks over at Namco are determined to keep the fighting genre alive and kicking, most notably with their recent release of Soul Calibur II on all next generation systems. A stellar mixture of both single and multiplayer depth, responsive gameplay and gorgeous visuals, the third game in Namco’s Soul series is an absolute must-own title for anyone even remotely interested in the fighting genre.
Just as with its predecessors, Soul Blade on the PlayStation and Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast, Soul Calibur II shows its impressive polish right from the start. As has become the norm with Namco fighting games, the opening cinema is completely stunning. Combining beautifully rendered computer graphics with an intense, majestic score, the intro movie simultaneously familiarizes you with the large cast of fighters and gets you pumped up for some seriously electrifying weapons based combat. And that is only the beginning. Nearly every single aspect of the game exudes the same meticulous attention to detail that is present in the opening movie.
Take the game modes for example. Most fighters have the obligatory Arcade and Versus modes, with maybe a Survival option thrown in for good measure. Not Soul Calibur II. On top of those basic options you can find Time Attack, Team Battle, Versus Team Battle, Practice and the awesome Weapon Master mode. Those who have played the original Soul Calibur should be very familiar with Weapon Master. Essentially, it is a single player quest where you must follow a story, defeat opponents and earn gold, which can then be used to unlock secrets. Namco was deliciously creative when designing some of the situational fights in Weapons Master, so you’ll get to tackle challenging obstacles like quicksand, high winds, cages, landmines, hot coals, and much, much more during your numerous matches. There are even dungeons, temples and caverns that can be plundered, though this is done with simplistic 2D maps (where each square represents a separate match) instead of actual three-dimensional exploration.
The sheer number of unlockable goodies is what truly makes the Weapons Master mode so insanely addictive. You can’t help but keep playing into the wee hours of the morning trying to purchase or uncover that extra outfit, stage, art gallery or weapons demonstration (where a fighter displays their weapons skills in a choreographed performance). And then there are the actual weapons themselves – all 200+ of them. Every individual fighter has a hefty eleven different weapons they can collect, with each one having a different shape and size, along with varying offensive and defensive capabilities. Some even have special abilities like health regeneration, or even improved damage at the expense of energy loss to the wielder. The wide range of weapons available adds a great deal of strategy to the game, as you not only have to choose a fighter before every match, but also the unique weapon they will carry.
If there is one negative aspect of the Weapons Master mode, it is the questionable storyline. Though the writing is actually quite good (I only found one spelling error in my many hours of playing), the text narrative before each of the chapters fails to draw you in and drive you forward. The only reason you play is to open up secrets and buy items, not to find out what happens next. Such is the problem with all fighting game storylines since the dawn of time, but with such a deep quest mode it would have been nice to see more effort spent in developing the plot. Maybe if Namco creates a full-blown quest mode like in Tobal 2 (where you actually run around towns in a third person perspective) we will see a better story. But, I won’t keep my fingers crossed too long waiting for that to happen…
The actual fighting in Soul Calibur II is very responsive and quite over-the-top in an anime sort of way. Button mashing newbies can definitely produce some great looking combos with their furious controller pummeling, but any self-respecting veteran shouldn’t have much trouble putting them quickly in their place. Unlike many fighters, Soul Calibur II rewards the player more for keen intuition and timing than with combo memorization. You can have the entire move list for any given character totally committed to memory, but if you can’t feel out on the fly which move is right for when – it’s lights out sweetheart. Advanced techniques like Guard Impacts (parries), Reverse Guard Impacts (parry reversals), Quick Rolls, side stepping, Soul Charges and more take a good deal of practice to master, so you will have plenty to do long after you complete the lengthy Weapons Master mode.
There are quite a few returning combatants in Soul Calibur II. Favorites like the badass samurai Mitsurugi, busty female ninja Taki, evil pirate Cervantes, muscle-bound mammoth Astaroth and nunchucku wielding/Elvis impersonator Maxi are just as effective, balanced and fun to play with as they were on the PS and DC. On top of the excellent returning cast, Namco added several intriguing new fighters to the mix. Whether it is the small (but quick and deadly) Talim, powerful and unpredictable Necrid or well-rounded Raphael, the new fighters are all finely tuned and excellent additions to the Soul Calibur legacy. Of course, one of the most talked about features of the home version is the inclusion of console specific exclusive characters. Well Xbox owners, consider yourselves lucky because you have arguably the best of the three exclusive fighters – Todd McFarlane’s dark anti-hero, Spawn. With a deadly combination of speed and strength (and great reach to boot), the decidedly pissed off, axe wielding Spawn can more than hold his own against the rest of Namco’s skilled pugilists.
When the original Soul Calibur was released on the Dreamcast, its unprecedented visual quality completely blew everyone away. There was nothing else that even came close to challenging its stellar graphics, and to this day it is prettier than a significant portion of PlayStation 2 titles available. Soul Calibur II isn’t as shockingly gorgeous as its predecessor was due to increased competition from titles like Halo and Metroid Prime, nevertheless, it still stands as one of the preeminent graphical masterpieces on the current generation of consoles.
The amazingly rendered polygonal character models represent the core of the game’s visual appeal. Skin flexes realistically with movement, hair blows convincingly in the wind and cloth ripples and bends dynamically. What’s really amazing are the great pains Namco took to get all the details right. Look closely and you’ll notice how the characters blink naturally throughout the fight, lips perfectly sync to speech (for both Japanese and English dialogue) and fingers grip weapons with nary a sign of polygonal clipping. Namco even added some Dead or Alive-like physics for the ladies, though (thankfully) it’s not nearly as over-the-top as in Tecmo’s famous fighter. And whether it is a character’s taunt, death throes or simple attack maneuver, the silky smooth, glitch free animations make the game look just as stunning in motion as it does in screen shots.
The visual splendor doesn’t stop with the character models either. The fighting environments all feature excellent texture work, plenty of detail and dynamic elements like falling cherry blossoms, flickering torches, prowling sharks and roaring waterfalls. Though only hi resolution paintings, most of the backdrops are so stunningly drawn and believable, you constantly find yourself wanting to stop the fight to go out exploring. You would think that with all the polygons, particle effects, background elements, etc that must be processed during the hectic matches the framerate would suffer, but, amazingly, it doesn’t. Even in Inferno’s graphically intensive, flame covered stage the game never skips a beat. And to think, this is actually a multiplatform game! The only negative I could possibly bring up is the incredibly weak looking splash that results from a ring out into water. It looks so bad, in fact, Namco would have been better off just removing that particular effect entirely from the game.
Fighting games developed by Japanese companies have a long history of having horrendously bad voice acting. Thankfully, Soul Calibur II bucks this trend in two ways. First, you are given the option to use the game’s original Japanese voice acting (my personal preference), and second, the English voice work is actually pretty good. I give major kudos to Namco for taking the time to solve this issue on two separate fronts. As for the rest of the audio – all of the clings, clangs, thuds, smacks and other general sound effects fit the on-screen action perfectly and feature the same incredible attention to detail found throughout the rest of the game.
Games in the Soul series have always had epic scores when compared to the pounding 80’s guitar riffs found in many other fighters, and Soul Calibur II is no different. Sure, there is something to be said for aggressive Guilty Gear X type tunes, but the clean, stately music found in Soul Calibur II suits the overall atmosphere and historic theme well. Especially worth mentioning is the superbly composed Spanish (and quite Castlevania-esque) sounding melody that plays on Raphael’s stage. The only oddity is Raphael is a Frenchman. Ah well, I forgive you Namco – it is still a great piece. My only complaint is a few of the songs sound a bit too similar, but that is only a minor nitpick against an overall magnificent soundtrack.
In a time when one-on-one fighting games are few and far between, Soul Calibur II is there to breathe fresh life into the fading genre by offering an immense wealth of options, exquisite presentation and addictive gameplay. Games like Tekken 4, Dead or Alive 3 and Virtua Fighter 4 are great, but none of them offer the entire package like Namco’s stellar weapon’s based fighter does. Soul Calibur II may not single handedly revive the genre, but it will allow you to transport yourself back to the golden age of fighters, if only temporarily. I salute you Namco for keeping fighters alive, and with such style.