I initially picked up Soul Caliber IV on a whim, primarily because I wanted a fighting game that I could play with my girlfriend. Perhaps this is an ignorant starting point, as the apparent hype behind this game faded into darkness behind me as I browsed the aisles of a local game store. Fighting games have always entertained me for as long as I remember. From playing the original Street Fighter games on Nintendo and Sega Genesis, to this more modern take on the fighting genre; I was pretty excited to say the least.
One major qualm I tend to have with fighting games is that they tend to be novelties, but their actual gameplay value is fairly minimal. They are enjoyable for a few nights, and even more entertaining when you play with friends (preferably while under the influence of alcohol). So, to put it simply: I purchased Soul Caliber IV expecting it to be an “okay” addition to my game collection. A game I could pull out when friends are over, and something with a minimal learning curve so my girlfriend could play along with me. The big question for this review is this: does Soul Caliber IV live up to the hype, and is it’s gameplay and presentation as a whole make for a long-lasting experience?
The presentation in this game is pretty good, though very minimal in most respects. The menu screen and options look great, and have a distinct Japanese flavor to them that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Asian artwork and anime. The colors on screen really seem to pop, and for this reason the characters, environments, and menus seem to come alive from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Most other aspects of this game, from the extremely dull “story” mode to the character customization options are very boring. Every individual character has their own story, but most of them are not unique; and rely heavily on the same cutscenes and stages. Not to mention, they all end with one of two different final bosses; depending on whether or not your character is aligned as “good” or “evil.” These moral attributes are also extremely vague as well, and have no real role in the gameplay. The only major difference is that “evil” characters look evil, and “good” characters look good.
Of course, this would not be a fighting game without a standard arcade mode; and for Soul Caliber IV, this is truly a standard experience. Of more important note is the special feature “The Tower of Lost Souls,” which actually diversifies the gameplay to some degree and provides you some sense of purpose and goal-oriented play. As a single-player you can either ascend or descend the tower, while also facing a variety of enemies in the process. The early stages of the Tower are very easy, and misleadingly so. As you progress along, you will find that the challenges become so difficult that you are forced to learn different strategies, button combos, and so forth. As such, The Tower of Lost Souls ends up being a very robust training mode of sorts that rewards you with special equipment that you can apply in the Character Creation mode. Sadly, the Character Creation mode features a rather steep learning curve (considering how simple a task it should be); and is not all that awe inspiring. Still, you can upgrade your equipment and change the appearance of your character to some degree to suit your interests. Sadly, even something as basic as being able to change the color of skin and armor is not available. As a result, the character creation serves some minimal purpose (primarily for equipment upgrades); and does not influence the game more your average player in any significant way.
After you finish ascending the Tower of Lost Souls, you will be allowed to descend the Tower. This changes the gameplay up considerably, as you choose two characters that interact in a tag-team fashion. I felt the gameplay was challenging, but much more balanced as health regenerated for the individual who was outside of the “ring.” This makes much more sense when compared to real life: when people are not actively engaged in physical activity (in this case fighting), it allows them to relax, catch their breath, and proverbially regain their health. Of course, more rewards are received, generally in intervals as you descend the Tower. Overall, I really enjoyed this gameplay mode; and felt it was one of the strongest in Soul Caliber IV. Of course, it is still lacking in cinematic aspects; but if you are playing this game to fight, then fight you will do!
I personally was very impressed by the actual fighting mechanics found in this game. While they are not exactly reinventing the wheel when compared to older Soul Caliber games (or fighting games in general), the system that is in place is very easy to get a hold of; but very difficult to master. As a result, there exist two different learning curves for people who are interacting with this video game.
The first learning curve is a very basic and simple one to figure out. Learning how to block and perform basic attacks and combos comes pretty naturally to most players (yes, even to my girlfriend who does not play video games very much). This allows Soul Caliber IV to be a great game to pull out when playing with friends, even if they have never played this game before. The inevitable downside to this is that matches tend to rely more on button mashing than any real strategy, and some characters, such as my favorite Nightmare is pretty overpowered from the start; and also has a pretty long reach when compared to most of the female characters. This can make “simple” matches like this rather unfair, and also make using certain characters (like Cassandra Alexandra) unappealing.
The second learning curve is for serious gamers, and people who want to get the most for their money out of their Soul Caliber IV purchase. This is rather difficult to grasp, considering the amount of combos available are very high. Of course, having so many combos; many of which are difficult to actually perform while in a fighting match, makes pulling them off very rewarding. One major aspect of learning combos that I wish would be revised is the way that the game lays out the combos. Instead of using actual buttons found on the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 controllers, we are left to scroll through pages and pages of symbols that represent different buttons on the controller. This was immediately disheartening, and even more so when I noticed that the game booklet was not informative on this issue. This special code system serves no practical purpose, and while you can easily find a translation online; what is the real point? I understand this has been an element of fighting games for a while now, but to someone who is anything less than a hardcore gamer; staring at these symbols is meaningless and irritating. Still, if you can get past these problems, Soul Caliber IV is an intense game that rewards you for learning new things.
While the single-player gameplay is enjoyable, the meat of this game lies in the split screen and online multiplayer options. The split-screen multiplayer is essentially what you would expect from a fighting game, and is often one of the funnest aspects of the game (assuming who you play with is not an asshole who just does the same cheap move every time). The online multiplayer is a little bit more robust, featuring opponents playing across Xbox Live and the Playstation Network. The match-making is very simple, and often works very quickly. On occasion, it will match you with a player who’s skill level is significantly higher then yours; which can make the fighting matches feel unfair. On occasion there is some lag, and even occasions where it is hard to get matched with anyone to fight; but when you actually do get into these fights they are enjoyable. It is nice to be able to play against another human as opposed to a computer opponent, though I do admit that I often feel like I am fighting professional Asian gamers when online.
There are a few other standout elements with regards to the gameplay, such as the addition of breakable armor and critical finishers. Still, by and large, Soul Caliber IV does not take many significant risks. The presentation of this game when compared to past ones is updated, but only by a very small degree (most of which is attributable to the fact that this is on the new generation of consoles). Of course, as is the tradition of the Soul Caliber franchise, quite a few new characters have been incorporated into the game (perhaps most notably 3 from the Star Wars fiction: Darth Vader, Yoda, and the Apprentice (the protagonist from The Force Unleashed). Still, all of these additions are generally pretty insubstantial to warrant a new game release; and while the actual gameplay is very enjoyable, it can get old pretty quickly. Soul Caliber IV is a barebones fighting game, and incentives to continue playing are significantly lacking. One major element that could make Soul Caliber (and fighting games in general) better would be a more immersive story mode, as opposed to vignettes that provide minimal back story (or just a façade of a back story).
As it is, Soul Caliber IV is a decent video game; but does not warrant a significant amount of attention or hype that it’s series often receives.