“The Legend will never die,” proclaimed the famous narrator voice in the original Soulcalibur each time the player completed the Arcade mode. Nearly ten years after the American release, Namco Bandai and Project Soul have released the fourth in the critically acclaimed series. Considered by many as the greatest fighting series ever, Soulcalibur IV (SCIV) looks to take the series to new heights with all of the next-gen bells and whistles you’d expect, along with dozens of new challenges and experiences. The expectations for this fourth title in the saga are very high, as the series raises the bar with every release (okay, you can’t count Soulcalibur Legends). I’ve had a ton of fun with SCIV, as I’ve had with the previous three in the series, and I’m very happy to say that SCIV is a fantastic addition to the series.
SCIV impressed me from the very start. The opening cutscene, just like in the previous three of the series, showed off a variety of the characters in the game, including of course Yoda as an exclusive to this 360 version (Darth Vader is confirmed to be available via DLC at some point). Heck, even the game’s menu is slick. When you first start, you will see that you have 20k gold, which you can use immediately towards unlocking playable characters (these are 4k each), or artwork (around 1k per image). Yoda, by the way, is ready to rumble right from the get-go, no purchase necessary. That said, I dove right into the Arcade mode with Maxi, one of my favorites, after looking over the Single Player choices, which include: Story Mode, Tower of Lost Souls, Training, and Museum.
The Arcade mode is almost exactly what you would expect if you’ve played the other games in the series. You will face eight fighters, most of these are random but in SCIV’s case, the final three fights seem to be hard set, at least in the three times I have played through Arcade mode (with different characters). These final boss fights include Siegfried, The Apprentice, and the new final boss Algol. Siegfried is a character from the original Soulcalibur, and actually quite a pushover, but The Apprentice is really cool. The Apprentice is actually short for “Darth Vader’s Apprentice,” according to the back of the box, and he is a featured character in Lucasarts’ upcoming Force Unleashed game. While looking like a fairly generic Jedi who wields a red lightsaber, he can kick a lot of ass. “Duel of the Fates,” made famous from the Obi Wan vs Darth Maul fight in Episode I, plays with a space station background as you tango with this very fast, very “blocks-everything,” and very punishing character; he can be frustrating, especially when you cruise through the first six battles every time, but he’s a blast to fight because he’s a real challenge. He’s also unlockable if you defeat him with either Yoda or Vader, but I have yet to do this. Algol, on the other hand, is a fairly typical lumbering character, kind of like Astaroth, but with some slow projectiles, and overall a bit quicker. Upon completion of the Arcade mode, you will earn 10k in Gold, but no endings.
To see player endings, and get a more satisfying experience from the single player game if just combat isn’t enough for you, you’ll want to check out the Story mode. I was a little disappointed in this mode in that it’s very short, but it is nonetheless very fun. You can choose any character you have unlocked, as well as choosing whether or not you want a Normal or Hard challenge. The Story mode begins with a text introduction of what your chosen character is after, kind of like the Chronicle of Swords in SCIII. In fact, this mode is more or less a replacement for the Chronicle of the Swords found in SCIII, being both more direct (less interactivity as you cannot make any path decisions), and with fewer load times and less reading. That said, I chose Yoda for my first run though, and his reason for pursuing the Soul Edge was cool, it involves the Empire, but I will refrain from saying anything more about that. All characters battle through five stages to get to the final fight, which will vary slightly depending on your characters quest, i.e., which sword they’re after (Soul Calibur or Soul Edge), more on that in a second. These stages are going to be somewhat similar for each character. The first battle will be an introduction, generally short and sweet and easy, while the second battle is usually about the character’s journey to the city where the Soul Edge is rumored to be. Different characters will face different enemies as their stories differ. Using Maxi, for example, forced me to face off against Kilik and Xianghua on the fourth stage, friends of Maxi who were trying to keep him from getting the Soul Edge from Nightmare in Stage 5 and being turned by its demonic power. In Raphael’s case, the final battle was against Siegfried, due to Raphael’s quest for the Soul Calibur.
Story mode was the first taste of tag-battle that I got in the Soulcalibur series, too. That’s right, SCIV features tag-team action for the first time in the series’ history. Sometimes you will defeat and then pick up some random fighters, but normally it’s you versus up to four CPU characters (although it seemed like the difficulty was lowered seamlessly by the game during these times). These tag-battles are nicely done, you can’t get as wild and creative as say Marvel Vs Capcom from years past, but the tag system does work very well. You cannot tag out when down, jumping, or taking a hit, but other than that the switch is seamless. While playing as one character, you can glance at the bottom of the screen to see your other character(s) status, including health and Soul Gauge, which is another new element to the Soulcalibur series.
Soul Gauge is displayed on the HUD via a meter underneath your health meter. In a nutshell, the Soul Gauge represents flow of the match. Fighters who are in Guard stance and taking hits will see their Soul Gauge decrease, while offensive fighters will increase the Soul Gauge meter. When the Soul Gauge empties, the offensive fighter has a small window of time to deliver a blow that will destroy their opponents’ armor in the affected area – be it the torso or head, or legs for example. The armor meter is below the Soul Gauge meter, it’s the vertical meter with three spaces in it, indicating the state of a fighters’ armor. Obviously, once the armor is gone, not only does the character’s appearance change, but the amount of damage they’ll sustain goes up. The other important point about the Soul Gauge is that it does refill during the match, but if you’re able to empty your opponent’s gauge again, you can execute a Critical Finish move that will instantly end the match. This movie isn’t hard to do, you just have to press the four face buttons; this new feature will keep those players who constantly hold a Guard stance in check.
The Force And the Tower of Lost Souls
Yoda’s Force abilities, and those of The Apprentice, are kept in balance by another meter. These characters can use their Force abilities while this meter has some juice, but if they use their abilities when the meter is out, they’ll take damage, and in The Apprentice’s case at least, causes him to reel back in a brief moment of pain. Yoda’s abilities are primarily about creating extra height for some quick lightsaber slashing action, while The Apprentice will use his abilities to slam you up, down, and sideways, as well as pull you in towards him for some quick lightsaber slashing. The developers made a really wise decision here, I think, on both the Soul Gauge and the Force meters; they allow players to play in ways they may be used to or prefer, but are arguably a little questionable or unwanted as they taint the flow of the game – but should they decide to play in these ways (i.e. Guard constantly or use the Force excessively), it’s good to know that there is a (new) checks and balance system in place.
Moving right along, after completing the Arcade mode and the Story Mode a few times, I decided to dive into what I knew was going to be a much longer portion of the SCIV single player experience, the Tower of Lost Souls. This new mode is referencing a large tower that is part of the story, and the journey you character(s) will go on as they Ascend and Descend the floors. To begin with, you can only Ascend the tower (twenty floors I believe), with each floor or set of floors culminating in some type of boss fight. Sometimes you will tackle just one floor at a time, giving you the ability to change characters or at the very least replenish your health, but it’s just as common if not more when you have to take on three floors at once. In these cases you will have a second, sometimes even a third character to tag-team with, but these fights are still challenging. The CPU side will feature more random, non-standard fighters (kind of like Bots from FPS games), as well as established characters like Cervantes, who is the boss on the eleventh floor. During these floor battles, you might accidentally stumble upon a treasure chest, and by that I mean execute some unknown condition to unlock a new item, usually a weapon or new armor of some kind. You can tell from the Floor Selection screen which floors have how much treasure, but you don’t know what it takes to unlock that treasure until you do it; for example, on one floor all I had to do was throw an enemy and bam, I got an unlockable which was cool. The Tower of the Lost Souls mode is a deep, engaging, and important mode for SCIV. It’s here that you will earn lots of weapons and abilities that you can put towards your custom character. Speaking of which, the Character Creation option is back and as deep as ever from what I have explored of it so far. That said, I haven’t made a full character yet, just tinkered briefly with the options; I’ve spent most of my time with this game going through the other single player modes.
Online multiplayer action on Live is one of those next-gen bells and whistles I was referring to earlier in this review. Given the fact that this title comes out today, and my focus today was playing the single player modes, I wasn’t able to test multiplayer out much. It is pretty basic however, but you can use your altered/created characters in battle, something that will bring plenty of extra hours of depth to many gamers.
Drawbacks? Few, Few Indeed.
I haven’t spent a month or even a week with SCIV yet, as we only recently got it in from Namco. However, during that time I have pushed all things aside and played a whole heck of a lot of SCIV. I struggle to find any major flaws to present to you, but here are at least a couple of minor points I will mention. For one, I found it rather easy as Yoda to Ring Out, due to his acrobatic moves; this isn’t as much a problem with the game as me getting too acrobatic around the edges of stages. Speaking of stages, I didn’t think there were all that many of them, but that goes for the older games in the series too. I would estimate about a dozen different backgrounds in SCIV, my favorite probably being the one with hippos eating grass, hah; they’re all nice, however. Lastly, and probably my biggest concern, is that sometimes your character won’t face the right way for brief amounts of time. This usually happens either when you get knocked down and your opponent quickly gets to the other side of you, but I have had moments, just a few seconds, where it seemed impossible to get my character to turn around. A few seconds might not seem like much, but it’s plenty long enough to lose a battle to The Apprentice or Algol on that note. I wish I could say more about this small complaint, but it’s very rare and inconsistent, so it’s difficult to say much more concrete about it.
Other Thoughts And Conclusions
I’ve spent a lot of time with the entire Soul Calibur series lately. Going from the original Dreamcast version straight through to the shiny new SCIV, there’s an awful lot to love about this series. One thing that I kept noticing as I played from SC to SCII, and from SCII to SCIII, was that the developers kept improving, kept adding, and rarely did anything wrong, quite frankly. Small, but very important details like quick load times and especially quick “retry” options when you lose a match are so key in making the whole experience that much more addictive, enjoyable, and satisfying. The cast of characters, the controls, the depth of the single player modes, the polished presentation, the AI– all have been staple and consistent elements to the series and it’s so good to see them carry over to this generation with SCIV.
SCIV offers those of us who are long time fans of the series a beautifully familiar yet excitingly new installment, while simultaneously being the brightest fighting-game star in this current hardware generation.