Soul Calibur IV
Fighting games have had a colorful history on consoles. Ever since video gaming migrated from the arcades to the living-room television, ports of classic fighters have made the rounds on nearly every home entertainment system imaginable - with varying degrees of success. The Soul franchise, beginning on the PlayStation as a port of an arcade game called Soul Edge, traded traditional martial-arts fisticuffs for armed scuffles. Throughout the series, collecting different weapons for all of the characters on the roster has been a clever and addictive way to add to the otherwise shallow experience a fighting game offers. In an arcade, you pop in a quarter and fight against an opponent; on a console, you pay fifty dollars and fight against your friends or the computer for as long as you like. How long that is depends on how interesting the game is (or your friends are). Thankfully, Soul Calibur has always offered entertaining extras that the arcades can’t brag about - and Soul Calibur IV is no different. With a plethora of extra modes and unlocks, Soul Calibur IV is definitely a game thumb jockeys can sink their teeth into.
Soul Calibur IV carries on the bizzarre, convoluted, and oftentimes downright silly story woven through the past few games. While the game contains enough text to fill a novella, all you really need to know is that a long time ago, there were two swords that represented good and evil, and ate souls. Or stole souls. Or fired soul beams out of them. Or maybe grilled soul sandwiches. It’s about as much motivation as any fighting game really needs; good characters and bad characters duking it out for justice or power respectively. The plot basically serves to those who really care about their Soul Calibur; for most of us, it provides an excuse to fight in cool Victorian-Gothic settings. The game itself is built like a standard one-on-one fighting game, ala Tekken and Virtua Fighter, except for the fact that all of the moves revolve around melee weapons and not furious fists and feet. A large character roster is available, with most of the Soul Calibur favorites in tow. There is also a robust character creator - more on that later - and a brand new online multiplayer mode. It’s definitely a sequel that’s earned its right to exist; Madden or Dynasty Warriors this ain’t.
The fighting is quite easy to get into. Face buttons control high, middle, and low attacks, as well as blocks and kicks - all of which are easily strung into combos depending on what direction the player is holding with the analog stick or d-pad, and the order buttons are pressed. Unlike some fighting games, Soul Calibur IV doesn’t really feature any massive button-input combos; instead, the easy controls allow for smooth transitions between basic hit patterns. If your video-game-inept cousin wants to bash on the controller a bit, they’ll pick up on the controls fairly swiftly. On the other hand, however, the game provides plenty of room for technical trickery. Specific timing can result in powerful blocks, counters, and other moves that can raise the skilled over the uninitiated. You get what you put into Soul Calibur IV - a PhD in frame counting isn’t required, but it’s not like you’re wasting your time if you do want to devote more time to it. The online multiplayer provides a fantastic new outlet for players to show off their skill - and promptly weep at how much better everyone else in the universe seems to be. Local multiplayer is, of course, a major attraction. Nothing beats trash talking someone in the same room as you.
A much touted feature this time around is the revamped Create-a-Soul mode. Soul Calibur III allowed people to create their own characters based on generic preset weapon stances - katana, nunchucks, axes, etc. - but aside from changing the looks of these generics, there wasn’t really much point in laboring over one. Now, however, the weapons and armor available all have statistics attached to them that can make or break a character depending on the playstyle you’re after. Also, the generic movesets are gone; we can now build our perfect fighter and not have to wrestle with new controls, because all of the movesets are based on the actual Soul Calibur IV characters. The range of clothing, armor, and weapons is really quite something. When you unlock an achievement for purchasing over 350 pieces of equipment, and then realize there’s still more available, the sheer depth of the mode really hits you. However, this creation mode backfires the whole game in some ways. For all of the effort put into the overly elaborate backstory of the Soul universe, the customization is just too good to pass up. Why care about Voldo when you can create Devil May Cry’s Dante or Dr. Doom from the Fantastic Four? Likewise, the bonus Star Wars characters are more than a little stupid. It’s hard to take it seriously already, let alone when Yoda is flying all around a Victorian mansion kicking the crap out of a Korean pirate.
It goes without saying that Soul Calibur IV is a pretty game. Character models are a benchmark for current gen consoles - just as they were back on the Dreamcast, Xbox, GameCube, etc. The animation is fluid and exciting, and some of the lighting effects are absolutely gorgeous. The arenas are less impressive than the highly detailed characters, but they’re still very well designed and rendered. For what it’s worth, Soul Calibur has boarded the train to Boobville along with Dead or Alive, with flesh jiggling every which way on some characters. It’s detail, I suppose, but the extent which Ivy’s jugs flap about raises the question “Why is a woman fighting in a skimpy leather catsuit and not a suit of armor?” But then, of course, you realize she’s fighting a two foot tall frog man with a laser sword, and it all makes sense. Or not.
Soul Calibur IV provides a great arcade experience for home consoles. It’s shockingly pretty, and has the gameplay to back it up - especially when gaming with friends. The custom characters are also a great motivation to slog through the single player modes, earning money to buy more parts. Finally, the new online mode adds a solid multiplayer component to a genre that’s traditionally stuck to local play. It’s no revolution, but Soul Calibur IV adds enough to an old franchise to make it worthwhile.
Eight out of ten