Sunday, 26 September 2010

Review: Soul Calibur 4

Sequels to fighting games are rarely a departure from the norm; usually just an updated aesthetic a couple of ‘new’ modes. When a series gets so far it succumbs to the equalising force of the fan-base: simultaneous desire for implementations of their own imaginations, and for the sequel to stay just as they like it. Soul Calibur (which was a sequel, really) and its successor, Soul Calibur 2, were good examples of pushing this dynamic forward; awesome sequels with some great new characters and nothing but good innovation with none of that meddlesome fixing-of-what-isn’t-broken. So reconciling how fighting games usually turn out once the hype has settled with Namco’s track record was tough (we’ll forget Tekken 4). The conclusion this time around, after a hell of a lot of playing, is satisfaction, but with reservation.

Soul Calibur is a series of fighting games in which you select an amnesia-stricken character and go after the legendary sword Soul Edge, slashing everyone up along the way with whatever weapon your character happens to use. I say amnesia-stricken because this game marks the fifth re-packaging of the franchise since its original inception, Soul Blade, graced our PlayStations with button-bashy goodness in the nineties. I can only assume the presence of memory problems because every other character seems to get to the end and say “Oh, whoops, it’s evil,” before walking away cheerfully. And you’d think they’d all remember the bloody castle it’s ended up in for the last four games. For that matter, how the hell are these people alive? They’ve all been struck multiple times with large, often-serrated, weapons? Oh well, sod all that; it’s a fighting game.

First of all, thank you for making a character creation system Namco, really; I can’t stand the things, but I’m sure there are many who enjoy it. What I can’t understand is why you took what should have been an optional extra for a bit of fun and turned it into a sort of RPG-knife, which then seemed to be used to stab the single-player repeatedly. Namco forces you to choose: either you play an un-fettered, balanced game with absolutely no chance of getting most of the secrets (although, to be fair, most of these extras are just more pieces of equipment, so this is a bit of a red flag for anyone who has no patience with RPG elements); or you stab the game with the RPG-knife, and never look back. Well, you can look back, but you’ll turn into a pillar of salt.

Let me explain; once you start customising your characters to make them monstrous, so do any friends you might game with. There’s a lot to be said for the difficulty of balancing a fighting game, and the RPG-haemorrhaging certainly doesn’t help; extremely imbalanced strategies become apparent, ones which the game practically forces you to employ in order to clear the challenges. So when ‘vs. Mode’ rolls around, the fact that you’ve made shiny, demonic characters, and so have your friends, compels you to choose from the ‘special’ option; it’s like another layer of competition that is a bizarre fashion show. And unless you enjoy meticulously tweaking all of the fighters to be optimal, you’re going to end up with a slim pool to select from.

Also, where the fuck is Team Battle mode? And, for that matter, the tag system that’s used throughout much of this game’s crucible, The Tower of Lost Souls, might have been nice for fighting friends, too. For some reason Namco went and removed a classic mode that, while not enormously popular, was at least a fun choice. The game also suffers by comparison with its predascessors: for those of you who played Soul Calibur 2, and then experienced the relative brokenness of its sequel, Soul Calibur 3, you’ll be dismayed to hear that they’ve only fixed it half way. Side-stepping isn’t quite as spritely and effectual as it was in Soul Calibur 2, almost to the point where horizontal attacks are redundant once the enemy is stunned. I guess this one is only really felt by those who have the benefit (or curse) of playing a great deal of the earlier titles.

In truth, the game is fun: the characters each have an impressive move pool, (though some far more impressive than others) and it stands up well to prolonged versus play. Another quality (or, again, curse, depending how you look at your games) is the difficulty: The Tower of Lost Souls is a lengthy challenge, especially if you plan on collecting all of the treasure chests. Each floor in the tower has a chest to unlock by meeting certain conditions that are hinted at with either annoyingly cryptic clues, or laughably transparent ones. Piling on top of this is the RPG-knife in your back, gently twisted with each floor you go up. Let me give you an example: on one floor the condition for the chest is to beat three competent computers without taking any damage. If you don’t actively utilise the RPG elements, such challenges become very testing.

The visuals are good, but I think Namco got a bit carried away with their fashion designing: half the outfits you compile for optimal stats look like modern fashion show rejects, and the objects on the outfits collide with each other about as naturally as a light sabre and a rabbit. I guess my only real gripe with the game is the movement speed: play Soul Calibur 2 and you’ll feel like someone took the shackles off of the characters’ legs. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if Namco were consistent with this speed reduction; so many of your actual attacks still move you across the ground at the same speed as in the earlier title. As soon as your attack-movement is over, your character is back to wading through custard. Players new to the franchise won’t have much of a problem, I imagine: it just feels comparatively restrictive.

The speed drop was likely to combat the effectiveness of side-stepping in past games but, lucky us, Namco saw the imminent rise in blocking coming and made something to stop those horrible people. It’s called a Critical Finish, and I’ve never read it explained in a way that someone who hasn’t played the game would understand. Okay, so basically, your character has a Soul Gauge at the end of their health bar (it’s actually more like a glowing gem). This changes colour the more you block their attacks or the more they block yours: red to blue, respectively. Once your opponent blocks your attacks enough, and their orb-gauge-thing is red, their life bar will start to flash red. If a few more attacks are blocked by the opponent, without turning his gauge around (by keeping up a good assault on you), then his guard will be broken with a peachy-pink coloured lightning-mist: this is called Soul Crush. As soon as that happens if you press LB, or L1 (depending on what you’re playing it on, and if the controls are set to default) you will perform a Critical Finish. This cuts to a mini-cut-scene-thing, where your character KOs the opponent in some super-stylised way.

Broken? Well, Critical Finishes are an irritating aspect when combined with the RPG-knife, but I don’t believe they’re particularly game-breaking. In truth, you can set the Soul Gauge strength to be as high or low as you like, but “choice” isn’t an indestructible shield to hide behind. The fact is, it’s not difficult to do, and is a direct result of too much blocking and not enough retaliation. The only problem is the soul gauge’s tendency to stay low into the next round: it can completely swing a matching, making you more offensive and less likely to block. Not a particularly good effect, considering different rounds are different rounds for a reason.

The game passes, though: compared to most other popular fighters this game is definitely more approachable. Soul Calibur has always (and continues) to assert more of a free-flowing system of combat, where you string small combos together, experimenting, much of the time, for the best effect. It beats memorising painstaking button-inputs, and comes much more intuitively. Check it out if you like fighters that are fast, relatively light on button-inputs and seem to have a minimum one-second delay on Xbox Live.

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