Note: The Japanese import version of Soul Calibur 2 was used for this review.
When the original Soul Calibur came out for the Dreamcast, it was, without argument, THE game to play on the console. Some have suggested, and that is my opinion too, that if there was no Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast, the system would possibly have not taken off as much as it did; or if it did, it would be later, depending on the titles, and so forth. Of course, it is pure speculation, but as far as my own personal experience goes, I can say this: I bought the Dreamcast at launch, Soul Calibur was the only game I bought at launch, and if there was no Soul Calibur, I wouldn’t have bought the Dreamcast at launch (if ever).
That having been said, it is only natural that everybody has been most anxiously expecting Soul Calibur II. Released in the arcades in Japan on July 10th, 2002, it quickly drew a following of hardcore Japanese arcade players. It was interesting to note, since I always hunted for SC1 machines in Japan, and only knew ONE arcade with it - and there were three guys who ever played it: there was me, my friend, and this Japanese salaryman who was simply incredible. I think I beat him once in all of the times I've played, and I don't consider myself half bad at the game. An interesting situation happened once - I was playing him with my friend watching, and he kept picking Sigfried with the transparent skin. So, after losing for the ‘nth time, I complained to my friend (in english), "damn that guy, he keeps picking the transparent skin, I can't see what he's doing, this isn't fair!" So what did the guy do the next battle? He picked Sigfried without the transparent skin, and whooped my ass. I was shamed.
But that is an aside. When SC2 came out, it was swamped with players - my arcade got two sets of two cabinets (in the traditional Japanese versus style, where you have your own screen and do not see the opponent), and we kept hovering around the guys assembling it. It was fun, though taking much too long, so that's when I had my first exposure to Kengo 2 (by wandering around random computer stores and playing games there) - but, again, that is the subject of another review. With the machine finally assembled we set out to play, and, at first, I didn't like what I saw at ALL. Somehow the movement fluidity present in Soul Calibur for Dreamcast (and even the original arcade version) was simply not there, and the character moves were all strange, not to mention that moves were somewhat altered and so forth, and I couldn't even find some of the moves that I was so used to with Mitsurugi (the arcade difficulty was also set too low, but that was fine, since I got a top 5 score, and then the difficulty was changed, so it's now forever frozen). It seemed to me that not too many characters were available, as well.
Then, after a few weeks, things started getting unlocked. That's when Time Attack, Survival, Conquest and all the extra characters came. I was disappointed to see that Inferno wasn't making an appearance, with the multi-weaponed character now being called "Charade". Several other characters from SC1 didn't make an appearance (like Rock, which made my friend sad - but then again, I suppose Namco figured two big-axed guys is bad, and I agree). Some other characters returned in alter egos - whether they were brothers, siblings or relatives. As such, Sophitia is back as Cassandra, her sister; Hwang is back as Yun Sung, and some others. A disclaimer for the hardcore players: yes, I do realize these are NOT the same characters, but they look and behave in exactly the same fashion, as well as having a similar, though, admittedly, not identical technique, so I treat them as extensions of the old characters, rather than completely new ones.
The new characters to the game include Talim, a quick, catlike girl fighter who all the lonely guys in the arcades seem to pick, and the above-mentioned Charade. The PlayStation 2 version has two additional characters: Necroid and Heihachi. Heihachi is the special character for the PS2 platform (as opposed to Link from Zelda on the GameCube and Spawn on the Xbox), and, frankly, I am happy beyond any description: Heihachi is a deity of Tekken fighting, and I'm glad he makes an appearance here. I never liked Tekken that much, but I do respect Heihachi, to put it simply.
To avoid confusion, let me say what happened with the characters. In the arcade version, the following characters were dropped:
The following characters were added:
In the PlayStation 2 version, there are yet some more changes. Here is a full list of characters that I’ve unlocked so far, after one day of playing:
Notice that Sophitia is back again, and so is Seung Mina. As well, there is still one character left to unlock in my game, and my bets are on Lizardman, since I've fought against him and with him a few times (where he randomly replaces your character in battle), so I have my bets on him, and not on Inferno, which is too bad, I kind of liked how the Dreamcast sometimes slowed down when two Infernos played against each other. I will also forgo the descriptions of all the characters, since there are plenty of sites that do that already; I will just mention that new costumes are available in addition to the two traditional ones (that you purchase with coins gained through playing Weapon Master mode), and that Necrid is a cool character. He kind of summons weapons out of nowhere, and makes cool microphone feedback sounds when you hit him. Makes me think of the lightsaber sounds in Star Wars, which they actually said they created using some low-tech trick, like causing feedback to the speakers, so I'm pretty sure Necrid uses the same effects. He looks angry, too.
Compared to Soul Calibur I and the arcade version of Soul Calibur II, there are a LOT more modes of play available for added fun. So far, the modes I have unlocked are:
Time Attack [Normal/Alt/Extreme]
There is also an "Extra" mode with all of the above modes repeated for Extra: the only difference is that you can choose the weapon you fight with. In Soul Calibur 2, your character is no longer limited to the weapon that he comes bundled with when you first pick him. As you play Weapon Master mode, you will gain money, and with that money you can purchase things in The Shop - one of which are weapons for your character(s). Weapons come in a variety of stats: some have a longer reach but lower force of impact, others are the reverse, and others have special attributes, like, for instance, Mitsurugi has a weapon that speeds him up significantly if he performs a Soul Charge. You can change the weapon depending on the combat you have coming up, so if you think that a longer-reach weapon is likely to help you win it, you can use it; or, if you have a limited time and you just need to slaughter the opponent, short reach/high damage might work well, too.
Going back to the modes, though. The most interesting mode, perhaps, is the Weapon Master mode, which makes a re-appearance on the console as a re-creation of the Conquest Mode in the arcades. Of course, Conquest would be impossible on the home version, since it would basically be a never-ending "bash-the-stupid-computer-players" mode, and it would get boring fairly quickly. Perhaps Namco could have implemented some sort of an online play Conquest, but that would involve complicated logistics, and they went with a much more low-tech solution. They basically brought back the Story Mode from Soul Calibur I, and just added elements of Conquest mode to it. I shall elaborate. Again, like in SC1, you have a world map, and you go on "missions" around the map to gain experience points and money. As you pass missions, you will unlock characters, costumes, stages and so forth. The money earned can buy you costumes, weapons (as mentioned above) and other little things (like Exhibition Theatres, for instance). Couple of comments about the Weapon Master mode. First off, it is way too short. Yes, the purists will say "but once you finish it, the missions get harder and you have to play again". That's nice. I've played through it twice so far, and this is what I found: on your first pass, you unlock, perhaps, 60 - 70% of the missions. You also unlock characters, weapons and so forth. Once you finish it, you can play through it again, and this time, some of the areas you didn't know about become available, so you can play through them and unlock about 20% more missions. I’m expecting that once I play through it a third time, additional (even harder) missions will be unlocked.
But my major complaint is this: I want a story mode that I don't have to replay to have it be harder. I was also a bit disappointed at the variety of missions, or, rather, the lack thereof. In Soul Calibur I, there were a couple of really interesting missions, like "ippon-shobu" (one point, as they call it in kendo) matches - essentially, sudden death. Those were fun, particularly when the opponents were very good. In SC2, these are the missions I found:
fight one character (rare; usually against very good characters, or with special modifiers: for instance, you can ONLY defeat them by performing Impact Guard, or by flipping them in the air, or by smashing them against the wall);
fight two or three characters (usually for story-based combat, such as fighting Cassandra and Sophitia, or whatever), or non-recovering life combat;
fight four or five characters (frequent: "strength in numbers")
The missions were broken down like this: First off, there's the traditional combat, against any group of characters mentioned above. Sometimes there are modifiers. For instance, every time you win, your prize money doubles, and you can try playing the next battle at the risk of losing everything or winning double. Alternatively, one mission had you start with 15 seconds on the timer, and you had to defeat 5 people: each round, you received 15 bonus seconds, so it was in your best interest to ring people out. Others have been the traditional type: you fight LOTS of people and recover about 40% of your life in between rounds, sort of like Survival mode in the arcades. There are also quite a few "dungeon" missions. In those, you enter a labyrinth, and you advance square by square, fighting enemies on each displacement, until you reach the boss. Not sure if that explanation makes sense, so let me elaborate: when you enter the labyrinth, you get a map, let's say, 10 x 10 squares. You have your entry point marked on it, and a gray square beside it. You select the gray square, fight the combat in it, then another grey square opens up beside it, and the one you just fought turns orange, signifying completion of that segment. So you go to the next square, and so on, until you reach the boss. Generally speaking, there are few branches along the path, so you don't exactly spend hours wandering around in the labyrinth, making it a bit less of a pain, but, at the same time, it's rather tedious, due to the fact that MOST labyrinth enemies are idiots and are susceptible to EXTREMELY quick ring-outs, so you spend roughly 3 seconds in combat, and roughly 10 - 15 seconds for the loading and the unloading time of the dungeon. Some enemies are tough as hell, but very few. On the upside, if there are branches, then, if you can remember the path, when you have to redo that mission on a harder difficulty, the path stays the same. Dungeon missions attempt to be fun by varying the stage you fight on: frequently, you will encounter ice stages (where you kick the enemy and they slide to a ring-out), fire stages (where the arena is framed by a fire ring, so you kick the enemy and they burn down), and quicksand (which I never figured out, because, even though your character sinks, I generally ended up ringing people out before anything serious happens). And, to top all the missions off, of course, there is the mandatory Inferno fight. The level 1 one (i.e. first time you play) is trivial, but the level 2 one is tough as hell, and it's just downhill from there.
In my description of the Weapon Master mode, notice that one thing is blatantly absent: the story. This is one place where I’m shamed as a reviewer and as a learner of Japanese - the level of Japanese used in the game baffled me and destroyed any of my initial ambitions to grasp at least the basics from the game. Generally, I can play many Japanese games with an acceptable idea of what's going on (for instance, Final Fantasy is always workable). In Soul Calibur though, the first mean thing that Konami did was use pseudo-handwritten kanji, which, like handwritten characters for an OCR program, destroyed any hope for me to figure out what's going on (I have very little pattern recognition in handwritten kanji: I can often figure out printed ones, but handwritten ones are next to hopeless). The second mean thing was that the level of kanji was fairly advanced, so that messed with my mind, too. This led to two things: (1) I have NO idea what the story is [but if SC1 is any indications, bad people fought, the sword Soul Edge was forever lost, reincarnated itself, and now you, as a warrior, are looking for it and fight many bad people who look strangely like the 12 selectable characters (though they have different names and titles) to find it, retrieve it, and then turn either super-bad or super-good yourself], and (2) I had (frequently) NO idea of what the missions required from me from the first go - I had to try some techniques to see what worked. The game is definitely playable in Japanese, but this is probably the most actual language that I've seen in a fighting game (Guilty Gear XX or Tekken 4 sure as hell weren't so verbose). Of course, what that says is that I will definitely play the English version of the game one more time to really figure out what's up.
The other modes are relatively self-explanatory. Arcade has you fight 8 battles, of which 6 are random, one is against your destined enemy, and one is against Inferno. In Inferno's battle, there is only one stage, during which he changes weapons twice (i.e. he will fight with 3 different weapons) as his health goes down, while you recover none. In Time Attack, you have a predefined set of opponents which never changes, and you fight those; as you choose Alternative or Extreme, the difficulty skyrockets, and, at least in the arcades here, nobody has yet finished the Extreme mode. Versus is, well, versus, and Team Versus is, well, team versus.
That should pretty much cover the gameplay, but there's a few remaining topics to cover, like graphics and sound.
The sound in the game is on par with SC1, with the typical epic music scores and taunts and insults in Japanese by the characters, which are usually cliche, but still add some atmosphere [like Mitsurugi saying "Mitsurugi da!!! Oboete oke!!" (I am Mitsurugi! Remember that!) or ":Tsumaranne!" (Boring! - with a strange Tokyo dialect. I would've figured Mitsurugi was more from Kyoto? I was under the impression they had more samurai in that era... guess I could be wrong, though, I didn't read his bio)]. The announcer has not changed from SC1, which is great, because he has an excellent voice for churning out corny SC oneliners ("A hero desires a sword, and a sword desires truth!" is a good example), but they all set a great atmosphere. Some of the character voices don't make sense (why does Cervantes speak Japanese?), but overall, they all come together for a very coherent and enjoyable experience. I’m strongly worried that the English version will have dubbed voices, like the arcade version, and that will be TERRIBLE, since nothing sounds worse than Mitsurugi talking with a strong American accent - that's like hearing a North American speak Japanese (and I know what that feels like).
The graphics are quite good, though, subjectively, they are not as groundbreaking as the SC1 graphichs were at the time. SC1 was a few years ahead of its time; SC2 is on mark. They are not any worse than any other games out there, but they lack a few things that blew my mind in other games, like the snow levels of Virtua Fighter 4 - those are simply incredible.
So what do I think about Soul Calibur 2? Well, it is definitely not as "out of this world" as SC1 was; I'm sure you've picked up that feeling from my review. On the other hand, it is by NO means a bad game - it is an excellent game. It has many new features, lots of play modes, and a few new characters, which is great. It also doesn't have the slowness and sluggishness of Tekken (okay, that was purely subjective), so it makes for a great party game. I wish I could play Inferno, and I wish they had better titles in the Weapon Master mode - in the arcades, once you pass Infantryman/Soldier level, you start getting cool titles, like Platinum General of the Manticore, or Gold Knight of the Furies and so forth; in SC2 for PS2, you just get (and yes, I missed a few), which is not as fun. Last, Namco dropped the four-tier rating for your character that you got in fighting enemies - your skill in Soul/Wisdom/Technique/Strength that determined how well your character fought against enemies; now you just have experience, and I'm not certain whether it affects your stats at all or not (i.e. whether your speed or strength improves with experience; I do not seem to notice a difference, but maybe that's because all the enemies are so ridiculously susceptible to ring-outs).
But the gripes aside, I love this game. That's one (fault? feature?) of my reviews: the more I like the game, the more faults I try to find with it, because, the way I see it, if the game is excellent, there's not much point praising it, because everybody knows it, and the score says it. At that time, I try to find things that would make others disagree with my rating and make an informed decision for themselves. That said, Soul Calibur II is an excellent game and I wholeheartedly recommend you get the English version (because, unless you have level 1 proficiency in Japanese, you are likely to find yourself in the same predicament as me in terms of understanding why the characters do what they do). All I dare hope is that the voices are left Japanese in the English version, like the Dreamcast version was.