Review: Soul Calibur 4 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Soul Calibur 4
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Project Soul
Publisher: Namco
Release Date: 07/29/08


Synchronicity is a beautiful thing.

Long-time readers will perhaps remember how, a little less than three years ago, I reviewed Soul Calibur 3 as my fourth review for what was then called IP Games. Nearly three years and one hundred and ten reviews later, here we are with Soul Calibur 4, which (assuming things are published properly) will be my one hundred and fourteenth review, thus giving us a nice, fairly round number between releases.

I can’t possibly imagine that you care, of course, but it amused me in any case.

So here we are, on the stage of history for the fifth time, looking at the second Namco fighting game to not see an arcade release before the home port in Soul Calibur 4. Like its predecessor, it features a large roster of characters and character creation. Unlike its predecessor, it features online gameplay on an updated system. But online gameplay and an updated visual palette can only do so much for a game, and Soul Calibur 3 was generally a bunch of neat ideas stuck into a game that felt like a rehash of the prior games, and not a particularly exciting one at that. But with new modes, new characters, improved CAC options and online play, one would expect Soul Calibur 4 to be significantly better, right?

Well, you’re in luck, then. It is.

The story of Soul Calibur 4 more or less continues where the prior story left off, with Nightmare and Siegfried in control of the two sacred blades (Nightmare wields Soul Edge, the evil sword, while Siegfried wields Soul Calibur, the good sword), and each is gunning for the other in hopes of killing them, while everyone else in the world is aiming to take out one or both of them in hopes of doing, well, whatever it is they want to do, be it gain revenge, prove themselves, save their own life, or whatever the motivation happens to be at the time. The various character storylines in the Soul Calibur universe generally tend to be pretty solid, and that’s no exception this time around, as it feels like things are beginning to come to some sort of conclusion in the game universe, and all of the various plot threads are beginning to tie themselves up somewhat neatly, what with many of the characters being miserable and/or near death and all. Insofar as the game modes go, well, you’ve got your standard Arcade and Story Modes from the prior game as well as your normal Versus and Training options, as well as The Tower of Lost Souls, a challenge mode that seems to have taken the place of both the Soul Arena and Chronicles of the Sword from the prior game, and Online Versus play. Versus modes, online and off, can be played under Standard or Special Rules, which introduce some interesting modifications we’ll discuss in a bit. Character Creation makes a return in SC4 as well, with new elements we’ll discuss later, as does the Museum, which features the usual Art Galleries, Event Viewer and Battle Records, as well as a neat “Chain of Souls” that shows the connection of every character in the Soul Calibur universe. While the Chronicles of the Sword mode and the nifty interactive tutorial from SC3 are absent, and missed, there’s still a ton of stuff to do here, and the large amount of plot in a fighting game is certainly appreciated… and, in the cases of Yoda and The Apprentice, amusing if nothing else.

Visually, SC4 is one of those games where, and I know it’s a fairly tired cliché, you really SHOULD see it in Hi-Def to appreciate how clean and pretty it looks. Either way, the characters are top-notch and animate as well as they ever have, the backgrounds are lively and vibrant, and the special effects and such are awesome across the board. There’s really only one significant knock to make against the game: clipping is noticeable and not infrequent, though this is a problem that seems to plague most games where character models have to use default animations and such. Aurally, the music is typically fantastic, as the orchestrated score adds to the experience as much as it ever has, and the sound effects are generally top-notch and bring the battle to life. Of note here, however, is the voice acting; the Japanese voice acting is as good as ever, but the American voices are generally quite good across the board and actually make a compelling argument to be used instead of the Japanese samples. Also, unlike in SC3 where occasionally intro and ending animations would end before the dialogue finished, this does not happen this time around, which is good to see.

Now, gameplay-wise, for those of you who’ve not played a Soul Calibur game before, here’s a brief explanation as it related to the series in general:

“Your character has two weapon strikes, a kick, and a block button mapped to the face buttons, and grabs can be executed by pressing the block button and one of the two strike buttons simultaneously. You can also counter strikes by pressing the block button and either forward, backward, down-forward or down-backward, depending on the height your opponent strikes at. Every battle takes place in a ring of varying size, and most rings allow you to knock opponents out of them, which is helpfully called a “Ring Out”. This can be used to your advantage in difficult fights, but it can also obviously be used against you.”

Okay, so, that’s the gist of the combat system, though there’s a good deal more to it than that. First off, on counters: forward/down-forward and block, or as the franchise calls it, guard, will “repel” the attack, which leaves the opponent standing and neutralizes their attack, allowing you to counter them immediately, while back/down-back and block “parries” the attack, which sends your opponent to the ground, leaving them open to downward strikes and such. Grapples can still be countered by pressing the attack button used to start them as the opponent starts them, and appear to be able to be countered further into them as in SC3. Just Impact (more powerful counters that require greater timing) are back and as tricky, but powerful, as ever, as is Ukemi recovery (quick throw recovery). In short, most of the gameplay is largely identical to the last iteration in the series.

So let’s talk differences.

The biggest difference that people will notice is most likely the Soul Gauge, which is a colored gem on the end of your life bar. Basically, this indicates how likely your character is to have their guard broken, and as with most Guard Break systems (called Soul Crush here), the more you block, the more it deprecates, while going on the offensive replenishes it. Soul Crush occurs when the gem “breaks”, IE makes a shattering noise and turns completely black, leaving the character in a stunned state and prone to attack. However, in an interesting twist, when this happens, the opponent can also press all four buttons (or the L Bumper) to initiate a Critical Finish, which is basically an impressive instant-kill technique that ends the battle instantly. This isn’t too likely to happen all the time unless your opponent blocks constantly, but it’s impressive and it’s a good way to punish players who like to turtle if nothing else. Also, as an interesting aside, you can actually destroy an opponent’s gear in battle in one of three areas (top, middle, and bottom) based on where your attacks are focused and such; in normal battles this simply means those areas will receive added damage when hit again, which is also a neat mechanic that makes sense (hitting something with an axe SHOULD eventually break it, even if it’s silly for a vest to break so to say). These are your most notable mechanical changes, but interestingly, they’re far from the only ones.

See, characters now have special abilities (passive ones, as it goes) that they can use in battle to aid them in various ways. These sorts of abilities don’t come up as any sort of an issue in normal battle modes like Arcade or Standard Versus modes, but in Story, Special Versus and Tower of Lost Souls modes, these abilities mean everything, as they dictate what bonuses your character has at their disposal to help them survive to the next round of combat. This might sound like an unfair advantage, but hey, your opponents have them too, so don’t feel bad. By default, all characters have a few of these sorts of skills available for use, so everyone has something to help them out in battle.

Now, if you don’t happen to LIKE the skills a character has, you can always visit Character Creation mode to either change that up or, even better, make your own character. Basically, when you jump into Creation mode, you’re offered the option to either edit the existing characters on the roster or make brand new characters of your choosing, as you see fit. Editing characters either allows you to edit a default, base-line template of a character with the various clothing options you’d normally have, as well as changing their default weapon around (as each character has about eight different weapons to choose from… well, six and the default 1P/2P weapons, anyway), or you can simply take one of the two templates and change it up a bit with some added special equipment and said weaponry. Either way, you can fully edit the color palette of the chosen characters and change their skills around as you see fit, so long as they have the stats for them. Skills fall into one or more of five categories (Power, Impact, Boost, Gauge and Special), with each requiring both a certain amount of points from said categories as well as the appropriate Style Level (basically an experience level for the fighting style, which can be increased simply by playing as the character more frequently); if you can’t meet the requirements, you can’t use the skill. Building your custom characters works in much the same way; you choose a gender and a fighting style (only the default fighting styles are available for use, which is probably for the best considering that the more limited styles from SC3 were not very good), then go in and tweak the character as needed. In either case, you have to pay attention to how your character is equipped, as weapons and equipment all have inherent stats built into them that, aside from influencing the five listed skill stats, also change your Health, Attack and Defense depending on the items equipped. In theory this sounds like a colossal pain in the ass, but in practice it’s pretty neat, as depending on how you equip your character you could have insane damage capabilities and low health and defense, or good all around stats, or whatever you want, really. Equipment is generally balanced out, meaning that equipment with high skill additions will provide few stat improvements and vice-versa, and with the various options available in clothing choices (a significant amount more than in SC3), you should have plenty of options available to make your characters, though you’ll have to unlock the best options (either by playing Tower of Lost Souls mode or earning achievements).

And speaking of the Tower of Lost Souls, let’s discuss the gameplay mode options a bit. Tower of Lost Souls mode is essentially similar to the mission modes from prior games: you go up or down the tower and beat the crap out of opponents, fighting under different sorts of conditions as you go, in hopes of completing the mode and unlocking everything that is available. Completing the various floors on its own will unlock plenty of cash and goodies, of course, but there are also Treasure Chests (every floor going up) that you can unlock as you progress up the tower by doing special things (say, performing a Ring Out, completing the fight Perfect, changing partners several times, etc) to unlock them. Aside from making strong use of Skills (as your opponents will definitely do so, as that’s part of the challenge), the tower also offers a second interesting mechanic in the form of teams; basically several floors will allow you to assemble teams of two or three characters to fight through the floor of whoever you want. You can tag them in and out by pressing the Right Bumper, and if one teammate bites it, the next one steps up to fight. The enemy can also do these things (most battles are based on that idea, in fact), so making good use of them is crucial to success, especially in later floors (there are one hundred floors in total between ascending and descending). You will occasionally also make use of the tag mechanics in Story Mode, though this is not as frequent; Story Mode essentially places you in a series of five storyline battles against various different foes along the path to reaching the chosen character’s ending, and features Normal and Hard difficulties so as to allow everyone an opportunity to complete the modes and unlock a lot of the hidden characters and items in the game. Arcade Mode is what it always was: a series of eight battles to complete against progressively tougher opponents, though the mode seems stuck somewhere around Normal difficulty, as the first six battles are generally of mildly escalating difficulty, while the last two hurt a bit at first. Standard Versus is simply you and someone else (or the CPU) fighting it out, while Special Versus is the same thing, only with Skills and status boosts affecting your characters in battle. You can play either of these two modes online in Ranked and Player (unranked) battles, either against one person or in a queue against multiple people (where waiting players simply wait until their turn comes up before choosing a character and getting down to business). Online play is generally stable and, in a nice touch, you can see the connection quality of the people you’re going to be playing against so you can tell if there will be any significant lag before you play; I didn’t notice any lag to speak of, but I was playing against four and five bar opponents, so it’s possible that lag may pop up against opponents with bad connections.

For those who are wondering, there are ten “new” characters in SC4. Five are brand new characters (Hilde, Algol, Amy, The Apprentice, and either Yoda or Vader based on your version of the game), while five are basically new palettes of other characters (Angol Fear, Kamikirimusi, Shura, Ashlotte, and Scheherazade), which were designed by artists in Japan. The latter are mostly cute novelty characters, but the former are actual characters all their own and generally fit in well with the rest of the characters. Hilde and Amy in particular are pretty fun to play as and are pretty useful in combat, Algol is the powerful final boss (who, in all honesty, isn’t as bad as you might think; he’s not PLEASANT, but he’s manageable), the Apprentice, aside from being a walking advertisement for The Force Unleashed, is a little cheap when you face him in Arcade mode but isn’t as bad as he seems with some practice against him, and Yoda… well, Yoda is weird. He can’t be grabbed, at all, by anyone, and he’s short enough that many high attacks miss him completely, but he’s hard to manipulate at times and ends up being balanced by way of not being an impressive fighter in comparison to everyone he’s facing off against. It also bears noting that there’s an open slot in the character selection menu that some people speculate will eventually be occupied by Vader as an optional DLC purchase, so, having played as him: he’s not too unbalanced either, and generally feels solid and, overall, well balanced (in comparison to the Apprentice and Yoda, anyway). All of the Star Wars characters have Force Bars they use which allow them special attacks (lightning, Force Pushing, the usual), thus preventing spamming of the worst techniques, if nothing else. In general, the new characters and the old cast generally mesh well together and feel well-balanced all in all, and while some characters have their moves changed up a bit here and there (Cervantes seems to have had some combos mixed up, Maxi has had his “drum on your face” move changed up from being the end of a combo to being a separate move, etc), by and large you should be able to jump in and play as your favorite characters without much effort.

So what’s bad about the game? Not a lot, really. As noted, some characters are exploitable at times, and some characters seem to be “noob-friendly”, IE good for combo-spamming or button-mashing (Kilik and Maxi seem to fall into this category, judging by online complaints), which may or may not color your online experience a bit negatively. Chronicles of the Sword mode is missed a little, as it was a fairly unique concept for a fighting game mode that hadn’t really been done to that extent before and with a little tweaking could have been fantastic. A Team Battle mode featuring the three on three tag mechanics of this game would have also been awesome, since such things pop up in Tower of Lost Souls mode, but such is absent for whatever reason. While it’s good that custom characters have to use the default movesets of other characters because it means they will generally have stronger combat options, it’s also sad that some of the more interesting combat options from SC3 couldn’t have found their way here as more fleshed-out choices (like the boots with knives on them, those were neat). The only really significant complaint one can really make against the game that’s less “I miss this” and more “this might actually be bad” is that, well, underneath the pretty paint job and such the game is still Soul Calibur, and whether or not this pleases or offends you will really depend on how much of a fan of the series you are.

Really, though, Soul Calibur 4 is, in many respects, arguably the best game in the series. The storyline is fleshed out in surprising depth, it looks, sounds, and plays great, there are plenty of modes to play around with and plenty of things to unlock, Character Creation is dramatically improved, and the game features online play, all of which makes this a fantastic purchase for fighting game fans. A few characters might be unbalanced here and there, some modes that seem obvious are missing for whatever reason, and it really is more of the same, albeit better, if that puts you off for some reason. If you’re a fan of Soul Calibur or fighting games in general, though, you’ll really have a whole lot of fun with this; it’s fun, fast paced, works well, and hey, it’s been a few years since the last one, one more go is worth it, especially when it’s as fun as this.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: CLASSIC
Graphics: CLASSIC
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: UNPARALLELED

Final Score: INCREDIBLE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Soul Calibur 4 is one of the best Soul Calibur games in the series as well as one of the best fighting games available on the Xbox 360 today. Featuring a large volume of content and gameplay modes, a solid storyline, excellent presentation, a wide character roster, and a large amount of play and replay value, it’s generally well worth the asking price for fans of fighting games and Soul Calibur alike. There are a few balance issues between characters, and the game doesn’t do so much new as to appeal to those who are worn out on or don’t like the series, but if you’re even a little bit okay with Soul Calibur as a franchise, be sure to check this out; it’s fantastic, all in all.

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