Soulcalibur is somewhat of a landmark title. While there have been many fighting game franchises that have come and gone, few are regarded with as much nostalgic esteem as this weapon-based brawl-a-thon from Namco. When the first Soulcalibur was released on the Dreamcast in 1999, it became the title to own for the new console generation, and even earned itself the distinction of being somewhat of a crossover title. Yes, Soulcalibur even managed to generate interest from those who would not normally be near a videogame, much less a kung-fu style fighter. It was considered the benchmark of what gamers could expect from the new generation of machines, and even to this day there are many people keeping their Dreamcasts running simply to play it. Nine years and a few sequels later, Namco has released Soulcalibur IV for the Xbox 360 and PS3. Can lightning strike twice across the “stage of history” and two console generations? Does the soul still burn? The short answer is yes, albeit not quite as brightly.
The previous two sequels felt tepidly designed, as if they were the original game with new coats of paint. Soulcalibur IV, being the first of the new generation, takes the franchise to a new level. The offerings are strong yet familiar, but a few of the design decisions may leave fans scratching their heads. For instance, why the inclusion of Star Wars characters? Setting aside the obvious reason (money), the inclusion of Yoda (360), Darth Vader (PS3) and the new “Vader’s Apprentice” character (both versions) seem awfully out of place here. The irony of it all is that when attempting to play any online game of Soulcalibur IV (more on that in a moment), you are going to meet hordes of these three characters. Bizarrely placed or not, they seem to be the most popular online choices for the game. Great shock, that.
The list of characters tops at about thirty, and, keeping true to the Soulcalibur legacy, players will have to “unlock” a great deal of them by playing through the game. Defeating characters in the story or arcade mode enables you to unlock them, but you can also buy your way to a full roster with the in-game currency system. Defeating opponents and progressing through the game earns you money. That money can then be used to unlock hidden characters, which turns out to be a great deal if you are one of those impatient types. It is not unheard of to have the entire roster unlocked in a single day’s play.
The gameplay in general hasn’t changed much since the first title. There have been a few moves for each character tweaked, and occasionally players will find out that a certain controller routine yields actions completely differently than it used to. That is not a bad thing by any means, and it forces skilled players to “re-learn” certain combinations for their characters. The title could have used a bit more tweaking time in the balance department, as the characters that yield swords and weaponry the size of a Cadillac tend to get the upper hand a bit too easily.
There are several single player modes to choose from including Story (lots o’ reading), Tower of Lost Souls (players traverse many floors of the tower with up to three characters and one health bar), Arcade and Training. There’s also the classic versus modes that everyone remembers from the original Soulcalibur, with many nights on the couch spent flailing and howling with friends and family.
Wait! What’s this?! Could it be?! Yes, fans, those who have lamented over the previous installment’s lack of an online mode can now take their game across the world. Special and Standard Versus modes are here on Xbox Live as well as the requisite leaderboards. Playing over Xbox Live proved to be a smooth experience, with none of the notorious “fighting game lag” that plagues other titles of this ilk. The downside of the online mode tends to be timing, and by timing we mean being lucky enough to be able to join a match without waiting a long time. Not to mention there seems to be a preponderance of players obsessed with the Star Wars characters, so after a while it can feel less and less like Soulcalibur and more like a really, really improved version of “Masters of Teras Kasi”. (Remember that one?!)
In terms of visuals, the game is truly stunning. The original game on the Dreamcast was universally applauded for its gorgeous visuals (even today) and this title doesn’t disappoint in this area, either. Since gamers these days have grown accustomed to games sporting breathtaking visuals, Soulcalibur IV is not likely to have the same impact, but the character models and environments are beautiful nonetheless. Another excellent addition to the character models is the ability to design your character from the ground up. You can either create something personal or edit the attributes of the standard characters. Every design decision has an effect, however, so each and every accessory or bit of armor will somehow play into the strengths and weaknesses of your character during the matches. Equipped armor and accessories can also be destroyed while fighting, so this plays into the strategy quite a bit as well. This is an excellent feature addition to the franchise.
The game also contains all of the Dolby Digital 5.1 goodness you would expect. Yes, the “announcer” is back and you can set your characters to speak in Japanese if you like (subtitled, for old time’s sake). The music is the same type of “anthem epic” orchestrations the series is known for, and it fits perfectly.
Soulcalibur IV is exactly what the fans expected it to be, and a bit more. The same weapon-based, circle dance fighting and ring-outs are all present, and just as fun as you remember them. Despite some minor flaws in the character balancing and an online mode that can keep you doing more waiting than playing, the title shines quite brightly and yes, the soul still burns.