Review – Soul Calibur IV

Ever since Soul Calibur 2, it has been clear that Namco decided that their once experimental, more serious fighting game series could be another cash cow, if only they made a few tweaks. Thus we have been getting sequels that continuously emphasize style over substance, chock full of nerd bait for people on both shores.

True, the classic combat engine has always been there, but without any real dedication to the arcade scene it has become increasingly useless to the veteran fighting game fan. By the time Soul Calibur 4 was coming ’round the bend, the series was facing bugs, confused single player modes, and balance issues. When the early screenshots indicated an increasing focus on titillation, I was ready to write off the series.

But old habits die hard, and the allure of online play was strong. So here I am with yet another Soul Calibur, and I can safely say this is best one since SC1 (though that is a bit like saying Revenge of the Sith was the best of the Star Wars prequels). The title is the same, but the last three games have had a clearly different focus, and none of them capture the old magic that the original (as well as Soul Blade) had bottled. SC4 just happens to implement its schlock better than 2 or 3, and the result is a game that is better than it should be, considering it comes from the modern day (read incredibly lazy) Namco Bandai.

The Star Wars characters feel out of place, but Namco was at least smart enough to make them all relatively cheap, as opposed to SC2, where only The Legend of Zelda’s Link was interesting to play and frustrating to play against. I’d rather not have Vader and Yoda here, but I’m enough of a Star Wars fan to enjoy them.

Beyond the Jedi, there are the smattering of secret female characters designed by various manga artists. These gals looked like icing on the giant stripper cake that the game appeared to be transforming into. Instead they are all reskinned versions of standard characters, and are hardly crammed down your throat. Silly yes, but largely avoidable.

In fact, that is the overarching theme of SC4. All the features and changes that seemed tacky and that miss the point are far less prevalent than I imagined. The armor breaking feature seems random, but in a fast paced match there isn’t much, if any, of an opportunity for the more desperate players out there to ogle (the same can be said about increasingly pandering characters like Taki and Ivy). The new finishing moves certainly exist, but aren’t worth using except as a highlight in a particularly humiliating match. I don’t want to ignore all the silly shit, but it’s hard to argue how easy it is to do so. Amazingly enough, SC4 seems toned down next to SC3, what with its chesty item shop maids, lime green board shorts, and lightning bolts spewing forth out of every strong move. The single player offerings are simplified in a way that you can quickly unlock the roster and a slew of custom character parts in a night’s play. It is a strange feeling, but SC4 wants you to get back to actually playing.

I appreciate the sentiment, but the game’s surprising lack of bombast comes at a price. SC4 was developed on two consoles in the span of a year, using a middleware graphics engine. It definitely shows. The game looks fine, but try as I might, I struggle to find ways in which it looks decidedly better than 3 (the comparison is easy when they both share some shockingly similar stages). In fact, often times the backgrounds are more lifeless.

The single player modes do their best not to waste time, but that is a far cry from the constantly engaging Mission Mode of yore. The art gallery is so small it probably could have been condensed into one section. And I might be the only one who looks at the custom character creation and scoffs at the idea that it is deep. Wrestling games from the N64 had equivalent modes, and EA’s golf games made face creation viable years ago. Worst of all is that SC3’s extra fighting styles are stripped away, meaning you can only create a clones of existing characters.

Everything in this game is in place, but none of it seems to have any spark. A quick and dirty development cycle happens is the norm for dozens of other games, but this is the series in which Namco once took a fighter running on Playstation quality arcade hardware and rewrote it into one of the Dreamcast’s best looking games, and stuffed it to the gills with features that the competition still lacked years later. Is it that Soul Calibur had an excessive amount of craftsmanship, or that SC4 is an easy way to make a quick buck?

A little bit of both I suppose. The older Soul Calibur gets, the less likely it seems that another game will get the attention the original did. Instead, today’s Namco Bandai is a company that tries to charge absurd prices for Ace Combat plane skins already on the disc. They assume that the buying habits of Japanese otaku obsessed with The Idolm@ster are a template for how the rest of the gaming market buys content, and so they will take every opportunity to fleece you.

You can be assured that they’ve already begun with SC4, charging silly monies for custom character parts, and more money for Soul Calibur 1 music than the game itself costs on Xbox Live Arcade. As time goes on, it will only get worse. If the game is missing a soul, it is probably because Namco plans on offering it to you for $15 dollars.

After the initial honeymoon, I find myself playing Soul Calibur 4 alone in order to practice, and online with only trusted internet acquaintances. We try to improve each other, and enjoy comparing custom fighters. It is fun, but it serves a different purpose than SC1 (which I still play). It cannot replace it, which is concerning for a third sequel.

If you can muster some good online competition out of it, this may be worth your time. Or you can do the frugal thing and wait for Street Fighter 4.

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