SoulCalibur IV

Year: 2008
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Publisher: Bandai-Namco
Genre: 3D fighter
Review Date: 6/12/09
Rating: ****

A definite improvement from "SoulCalibur II" (2003) and "SoulCalibur III" (2005), but still full of oddities and disappointments. For starters, since Namco merged with Bandai, you no longer get the announcer saying "NAMCO!" when the game starts up. I miss that. "SoulCalibur IV" continues the tale of the cursed blade, Soul Edge, but it's become so absurd and convoluted that I can't even bother to read the long-winded expositions anymore. The character roster is huge and contains nearly all of the classic characters as well as a number of newcomers. The cast also boasts at least fifteen female characters, which is delightful for femme fighter fans, such as myself. Newcomer Amy is an adorable gothic-lolita version of Raphael and one of my new favorites. Her story is hilarious and her final punchline made me laugh out loud. She's also one of the very few female characters in the SoulCalibur universe who doesn't have an enormous chest. Taki's torpedo boobs are still embarrassing and Ivy's breasts continue to be an abomination. It literally looks like her ass is on her chest. Fortunately, the character design and costumes aren't nearly as absurd and offensive as they were in SC2 and SC3, and some of the outfits are actually decent looking. The character faces have also been upgraded so they don't look as hideous, but they're still not as appealing as they were in the original "SoulCalibur" (1999).

The gameplay and presentation are more or less identical to previous versions, with the biggest difference being that the auto-guard feature has been removed. It used to be that you could defend by pressing the opposite direction that you're facing (which is what most fighting games support), but that no longer works. Now you have to actively use the guard button to block and parry, which drastically changes the playing field and forces a more thoughtful and active defense strategy. Either that, or go on a button mashing offensive and never let up. Ever since "SoulCalibur II" I've complained that the characters and controls feel sluggish and unresponsive, and this game feels no different. I wonder if that's really the case, or if my perceptions have been tainted by other games?

The game maintains extremely high production values and looks and sounds great. The rich and emotionally resonant soundtrack is superb and quite possibly the best in the entire series. The graphics are beautiful but the stages are bland and uninteresting. The most annoying one is the Egyptian stage where you're inside of a cage that's swinging back and forth. It's ugly and pointless, and it would be much better if you could actually SEE the beautiful scenery behind it. The stage introductions are also baffling and WAY too long. Most of the time the announcer rambles on about someone or something that doesn't relate to either of the players on the screen, which is just weird. Fortunately, you can skip past them with the START button. It's also unfortunate that there are no character call-outs and no mention of "the soul still burning." Playing the original game, we would always chuckle over that, along with the ever popular "Lizardman wins!"

One of the most baffling and ridiculous aspects of the game is the inclusion of two guest characters: Darth Vader and Yoda from the "Star Wars" universe. What the hell are they doing in this game and how do lightsabers and steel weapons interact with each other? Just like the inclusion of Master Chief in "Dead Or Alive 4" (2005), it just doesn't make any sense within the construct of the game universe and cheapens the overall experience. While Yoda is exclusive to the Xbox 360 and Darth Vader is exclusive to the PS3, you can purchase either character online for $5 if you really want to.

As with most fighting game franchises, the difficulty increases with each iteration, and the inclusion of online play has eliminated the "easy" options that most games used to have. Now you just have "normal" and "hard", which are usually too difficult for me and cause frustration to set in that much quicker. However, the game's single greatest feature is the new and improved custom character editor, which I gleefully lost myself in for about six hours. This time around, you can actually choose any of the existing core fighting styles and build a character around that. You can have a schoolgirl version of Astaroth if you really want, which is very satisfying. The number of outfits and accessories are limited, but you can unlock and purchase more as you play through the "Tower Of Lost Souls" missions. They start out fairly easy, but quickly get really hard. SC4 also introduces the annoying system of fighting multiple characters in succession with a single life bar that starts at about 60%, which adds even more difficulty to the proceedings. Why don't you start with a full life bar? Very frustrating. Custom outfits and accessories also add a level of strategy to the game because they each contain offensive or defensive effects. Like previous versions, SC4 also supports weapon variations and upgrades, but for a player like me, none of these tailored effects make any difference.

Another thing that's really cool about the character creator is that you have the option to "purchase" playable characters at the beginning of the game, without having to unlock them by running through impossible missions. Right from the start you can purchase Seung Mina, Sophitia, Talim, Amy, Setsuka, and Lizardman, and grinding through story mode a couple of times earns you more gold and unlockable characters. One amusing feature about the character editor is that you can strip your character down to their skivvies if you want, adding some pervy cheesecake appeal to the already fetishistic game and turning it into a tournament of blades and bathing suits. What's more amusing is that clothing takes damage, and if you beat on someone long enough, their clothes will disintegrate and vanish into thin air. I had to watch this very closely about a dozen times to see what was actually happening, since the "now you see, now you don't" effect was so baffling and disconcerting. While the soul no longer burns, "SoulCalibur IV" is a fun diversion and a step in the right direction for a franchise that was seriously beginning to lose its way.