Review: SoulCalibur: Broken Destiny (Sony PSP)

SCBD_Coversheet1SoulCalibur: Broken Destiny
Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release Date: 09/01/2009

I imagine many people rolled their eyes when they heard SoulCalibur was coming to the PSP. After all, this was a fighting game franchise that required tight controls and quick reflexes being put out on a system known for having control issues.

As for me, I was excited. Namco did a fantastic job with Tekken: Dark Resurrection a few years back and if they could get the gameplay to work, this could be a huge hit for the PSP.

Then they announced that Kratos from God of War was going to be in it. This was enough to guarantee I would be buying the game as soon as it came out. I’m a GoW fanatic you see, and the sole reason I’ll be buying a PS3 soon, despite living off of unemployment, is so I can play God of War III on day one.

Anyways, all of the videos and screens seemed to show that the gameplay was intact and that the graphics were perhaps the best any handheld system had ever seen. I was stoked.

So when I got the game and turned it on, imagine my surprise to learn that somehow, they have mucked it up so badly that even the gorgeous visuals and solid gameplay couldn’t do anything to dispel my absolute and total hatred of the game.

What went wrong? Read on to find out.

Modes

I’m going to start off listing and describing every mode in the game as they appear on the menu and then let’s see if you can tell what’s missing.

First up is Quick Battle. Here you can select any character in the game and play to your heart’s content against the computer. You’ll have ten opponents to select from each time and be given their win/loss record to help you pick. The problem here is that you can’t tell which character and/or style they’re going to use. Also, apart from the truly dismal ones, records don’t really indicate how skilled an opponent is. Getting schooled when you’re facing someone with a record of 24-128 is not something you’ll soon forgive. The worst part is that almost every single opponent is a randomly created character instead of any of the original SC cast. They’re in there, but they rarely show up and again, you can’t tell when they do. Each opponent has a title and your overall goal is to defeat each of them once so that you can use their title in versus mode.

The next mode to look at is Gauntlet Mode. This mode is essentially a tutorial from hell. You’ll play as a faceless character (though you can use anyone in the game) and join a party of Hilde and Cassandra as they search for a cure Hilde’s father, who apparently is ill. The writing in this is dreadful and any time you meet a SC character, they come off looking stupid and dull. It also goes for an anime look for the character portraits and it only made me hate Cassandra and Hilde more. The point of the mode is to make your way through 34 chapters each with several missions to complete. As it turns out, this mostly turn out to be you dodging enemy attacks. The first handful of chapters gives a clue as to what you’re supposed to do, but after that, you’re given extremely vague hints and then thrown to the wolves. What transpires from there is you getting your ass kicked once or twice so you can see what attack the enemy is using and react appropriately. However, if you’re not spot on the money you’ll fail over and over again until you want to throw your PSP through a wall. It is a poorly conceived mode that does nothing but frustrate.

The next mode is Trials Mode. There are three trials, one for attack, defense, and endless. Attack mode has you building up a score multiplier by chaining attacks with the idea being to build up a score. Defense does the same thing but with counter hits. Finally, endless still has the score, but is essentially a survival mode. The game keeps records of your highest scores.

Creation Mode is next. You can create a male or female fighter with all but a few of the fighting styles. (Sadly, you can’t use Kratos’ fighting style.) It functions much like an ancient wrestling game creator in that you can select from a bunch of clothing options and change their colors. A few can be positioned to your liking, but you can’t change body type or size. Seeing a giant hulk of a man use Raphael’s fencing style just doesn’t make any sense. You can have some fun with it, but the options are too limited. For instance, you can’t select facial hair. Instead, you have to select a face that has one of a few different facial hair types. If you want a guy with a mustache, he’s going to look like every other guy with a mustache. The creation mode in WWF Warzone from over ten years ago was more robust, even if your creations weren’t as pretty.

sc1Training mode returns for the series. It functions exactly the way it should and is by far the best conceived mode in the game. You can even change characters without going back to the selection screen.

And finally, you have a versus mode for ad-hoc only play. It works pretty well, but there’s no game sharing, so the other player will need to have a copy of the game.

So did you figure out what was missing? If not, go back and reread this once or twice…….got it?

There’s no ******* story mode! No arcade mode! They took out the single most basic mode in the entire fighting game genre! I asked my fellow staffers here, many of whom have played more fighting games than I even know exist, and they couldn’t think of a single game where you didn’t have at least some option of playing through a gradually increasing challenge of computer controlled characters until you reach a boss or something. This is flat out inexcusable.

If that weren’t enough, they took out the option to customize your game. You can’t change the time limit, number of rounds, or even the dang difficulty! What the hell were they thinking? You can’t simply remove the essentials from a game and expect people not to notice. Its like making a Mario game without the platforms or Doom without anything to shoot!

Another thing! You can’t select your opponent anywhere except in Training Mode! This, coupled with what I’ve said elsewhere, means you will almost never fight against the SoulCalibur cast unless you’re playing against someone else! And even then, that person is more likely to use a created character. I’ve seen interviews with the developers where they said that the game was designed to introduce people to the series. How is it supposed to do that when there’s no story mode and barely ever a time when you fight against the cast? The only modes worth playing are Training and Versus. The rest either flat out suck (Quick Battle and Gauntlet) or get boring really fast (Trials).

Inexcusable.

Graphics

What the game is lacking in compelling modes to play, it compensates with absolutely breath taking graphics for the PSP.

The character models are well detailed. From the flit of Sophitia’s skirt to the jiggle of Ivy’s breasts, the game looks remarkably like its console counterparts. I have never seen character models look this good on a handheld. Even Kratos, who had a go in God of War: Chains of Olympus, manages to look better here.

The backgrounds are also full of life and detail. One of my favorite stages has always been the one where you’re battling on a raft as it floats down a raging river. The scenery whizzes by as you battle, and not one bit of flourish has been lost in the translation from next gen to PSP. Its simply fantastic.

The best part of all of this is that even with the high detail and frantic action of the fighting, the frame rate never dips even the slightest. This is perhaps the smoothest running game I’ve seen on the handheld in addition to the best looking.

The only part of the game that I would change is the menus. They’re kind of bland and simple. Granted, you’ll spend most of your time fighting, so the fact that part looks better than anything ever seen on any handheld gaming system is more than enough to earn the game perfect marks in this category.

Audio

Anyone who’s ever played a SoulCalibur game before knows what to expect from the audio. The music is the typical orchestrated themes that make excellent background music. From the clashing brass to the booming horns, its all great to listen to, even if you wouldn’t want to listen to it out of context. (My copy came with the soundtrack on a CD. It was great for playing as I wrote this.)

sc2When it comes to the voice acting, there’s plenty of solid work here. The character only have to spout off a few one liners for before and after battles, as well as the occasional cry during battle. Most of it is exactly the same as in SCIV, but both Dampierre and Kratos bring something new and both are high quality.

The only real problem that I have is that some aspects of the audio were compressed during the transition. While the voice acting isn’t affected all of that much, the announcer sounds like he’s coming off of a DS speaker rather than a PSP one. It makes him absolutely annoying to listen to.

On the whole, the audio can’t quite match the fidelity of the graphics, but it does a solid job nonetheless.

Gameplay

If you’ve played SCIV before, you’ll know what to expect from this. You’ve got a vertical attack, horizontal attack, kick, and guard. The remaining buttons can be assigned to perform various combinations of those buttons. The default control scheme is not good. Having the guard button on mapped to X and then having to quickly switch to another face button for an attack simply takes too long to be any good for competitive play. Your best bet is to switch it to one of the shoulder buttons. Thankfully, you can switch up the control scheme from the start, so you won’t have to readjust.
There are a myriad of different attacks for each character. Rather than focus on a a ton of button inputs that result in special moves, you can perform different attacks depending on which directional button you press. These can be strung into combos that deal massive damage while keeping your opponent at bay. There are also high, mid, and low attacks that require different strategies in order for them to hit and be blocked. You’ve also got throws that can be performed by pressing two buttons at once, as well as a move that cause a critical finish in the right circumstances. (More on that in a bit.)

There are almost as many ways to counter, block and/or dodge an attack as there are attacks. You have your basic guard button that can guard against vertical and horizontal attacks when you’re standing. You can press down to block low attacks as well. You can also circle your opponent to try and avoid attacks, as well as duck under some high attacks. With well timed button presses, you can also counter throws with the attack buttons. Some moves are unblockable, although they are telegraphed long before they hit and easy to dodge. Other attacks can stun, but if you mash on the analog nub or d-pad while holding guard, you can break the stun and stem any further damage. There’s another move called the Ukemi which allows you to guard hits after having been knocked on the ground. These last two are guaranteed, and only work against certain combos. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that so many different ways to avoid attacks means that there is a lot of guess work involved in doing so during the heat of battle. You’ll need to play the game extensively to get a sense of what to do in every situation.

The game makes a point in touting its “guaranteed hit” feature. After you’ve successfully blocked an oncoming attack, your opponent will be unable to dodge a quick hit immediately afterwards. This doesn’t mean you can block and then counter with our biggest combo. Only extremely fast attacks will land and you have to be really quick in order for them to land. The computer can do this to, so it never becomes a crutch you can lean on. The main problem is that a lot of the times, a match will turn into a stalemate for a short while as both players are blocking in hopes of countering with a guaranteed hit.

sc3Battles take place in a small arena that lends itself to the full range of movement you have. Some levels have walls that can be used to trap your opponent, causing additional damage and allowing for brutal combos. Most levels also have one or more sections that are open. You can knock your opponent out of the ring and earn victory this way. This is usually a desperation tactic if you get too far behind in life.

Finally, you have what is called the soul gauge. If you continue to block more than you attack, your gauge will slowly deplete. If it starts blinking in the red, you become susceptible to a critical finish. With a specific attack, the game will switch off to a cinematic where the player performing the finish will absolutely destroy his or her opponent in stylish fashion. This is a one hit kill no matter how full your life is. This doesn’t happen often in battles, but its an interesting mechanic.

For the most part, the game plays great and manages to be a faithful recreation of SCIV on the PSP. The only problems come in that the controls can be a bit finicky. It can be nearly impossible to execute special moves with the d-pad, so you’ll need to use the analog nub. Even then, it doesn’t always work. Once you get used to it, the problems will be severely limited, but the learning curve can be a bit steep.

When it boils down to it, the gameplay is pretty good and a great example of how a complex fighting engine can be scaled down without losing content. I’m not the biggest fan of the blocking mechanic, as it takes a lot of guesswork, but the combat is as fun as always.

Replayability

Without a compelling single player mode to keep you going, this game can quickly become boring and tedious. There’s no fun in completing Gauntlet Mode even once, so replaying that with different characters almost seems like torture. Quick battle can be a decent way to build up your skills, but without the options to tweak the game to your liking, it can get old real fast.

In truth, the only mode that’ll likely keep you coming back is the multiplayer. However, even this is lacking. You can only play via ad hock mode and only if you’ve got a buddy with the game. Unlike previous Namco games on the PSP, there isn’t any gamesharing. This one really bugs me. Still, if you’ve got someone to play with, the game is competitive and fun.

Otherwise, you are not going to get your money’s worth.

Balance

This is the kind of game that takes a lot of patience, practice, and determination to win at. If this seems a bit odd, that’s because the SoulCalibur series has usually been known to be friendly towards button mashing. While skill was still the overall determinating factor in who won, someone new to the series could still have fun and at least win a few battles in a few modes.

Here, you are going to get your sorry butt handed over to you a lot until you’ve played the tutorial and training modes in depth. In the Quick Battle mode, the battles will either be too easy or ungodly unforgiving.

Everything boils down to training for the Versus Mode. More to the point, everything boils down to training for experienced players to increase their skills for Versus Mode. This is a game is not designed for newcomers at all.

So what we have is a great game for the initiated, but its completely inaccessible to new fans.

Originality

Let’s see. What we have here is the same gameplay as SCIV, but minus several features.

Gauntlet Mode is the closest thing to original the game gets, and even that is just a hacked up version of Mission Mode from the very first SC game.

This wasn’t supposed to be groundbreaking. This was just supposed to be SoulCalibur on the go. In that , it succeeds.

Addictiveness

This is yet another area of the game that is absolutely crippled by the lack of a compelling single player mode. I spent the longest amount of time I was able to play the game at once, a couple of hours, the first time I turned on the game. All I really did was mess around with all of the modes to see if anything took my fancy. Nothing did.

sc4If you get enjoyment out of anything, the lack of customization options will no doubt start to kill any desire you have to play for any length of time. Unless you’re someone who really gets a kick out of earning the “honors’ the game bestows those who play the game. I know I gave props to Dissidia for its accomplishments system, but it was far superior in that it gave you tangible and useful rewards. The most this does is unlock some new equipment for Creation Mode. While that’s nice, none of these new toys does anything but change how your created characters outfits look. Since you can’t change body types, it will feel a bit too much like playing dress up with only one doll. It just isn’t something that will keep you entertained for long.

When the game gets frustrating, or when boredom starts to sink in, there isn’t anything good enough to lift you out of it. In Tekken, when I got bored of the Dojo, I still had story mode, team battle, time attack, gold rush, and even Tekken bowling to play with. In Dissidia, the Duel Colosseum, arcade,, and sheer number of options available in Quick Battle meant that there was always something to do. SoulCalibur: Broken Destiny has none of that. As a result, only the most die hard fans will be entertained for longer than an hour or so at a time.

Appeal Factor

I believe I covered a lot of this in the Balance section. The game is simply made for those who are already really into the series. New comers or those with a more casual interest will not get the same enjoyment out of this.

I hate to be a broken record, but with games like Dissidia and Tekken still on the market (the latter available new for only twenty dollars), this doesn’t hold much water. If the game were at a budget price, I could see it gaining some more attention.

Still, when one of the most popular fighting franchises goes portable, plays good, and features the uber popular Kratos, it at least has a sizable built in audience. If that isn’t enough for you, you can pass.

Miscellaneous

Look. I really appreciate Namco spending the time to bring one of their biggest franchises to the PSP. The problem is that the developers took far too much out. I knew going into the game that there wasn’t going to be any story mode. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was willing to live without it if it meant I got to play SoulCalibur on the go.

Then I noticed the story wasn’t the only thing missing. I can’t remember the last fighting game I played that didn’t have the ability to customize your playing experience at least a little bit. I can’t change the number of rounds, the time limit, the stage I play on, or even the difficulty. These are staples of the genre and under no circumstances should they have been removed.

The end result is that Broken Destiny feels a bit too much like its name. This is an incomplete game from top to bottom. Don’t let the pretty face fool you. This isn’t worth forty dollars and the only reason to buy it is if you’ve got a group of friends who’re going to buy it as well.

(On a happier note, you have the option to install the game onto your PSP. You’ll still need a UMD to play it, but the loading times will be reduced to nearly nothing. This kind of thing was also available for Dissidia, and I hope that it is a trend that continues in the future.)

The Scores
Modes: Pretty Poor
Graphics: Unparalleled
Audio: Good
Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Poor
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Worthless
Addictiveness: Poor
Appeal Factor: Below Average
Miscellaneous: Poor
Final Score: Mediocre Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

diehardjackIf I were to tell you that SoulCalibur was coming to the PSP and not only would it play good, but that it would blow away any other game on the system in terms of the graphics, you’d think it would turn out to be a great game and possibly one of the best on the system. Well, that would have been the case if they hadn’t removed every staple of the fighting genre from the game and left us with nothing but boring, poorly realized modes to play in. Honestly, put in a story modes, allow you to change some of the options, and add the ability to change body type in Creation Mode, and the score would shoot up three or four points. Its just a big disappointment.

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