Review: Soul Calibur 4

What could be better than a fighting game with great controls, awesome graphics, and an innovative combat system? How about one with gigantic swords! In this case, Soul Calibur 4 delivers on all fronts. The long-running franchise on the current generation of consoles will please veterans and newcomers alike.

Soul Calibur 4 has very solid fighting mechanics. It has a deep combat system with large and varied move lists for each character. Players can spend a lot of time perfecting their skills, and it definitely pays off in combat. But unlike last year’s Virtua Fighter 5, who’s fighting system was unforgiving at times, Soul Calibur 4 won’t frustrate newcomers. Starting at the easy difficulty lets players ease into the game, but veterans will still be challenged at the harder levels.

The combat system has several new and interesting features, the most notable being the Soul Gauge. It’s an orb that sits on the end of each player’s health meter. As you successfully block an opponent’s attack, it gradually shifts from green to red. Eventually it will start flashing red, and when this happens, any further blocking will leave your character stunned and open to attack. The gauge can be recharged by successfully landing attacks. It’s a great addition: it penalizes players who block too much, and does a great job of keeping the action going. It also adds a strategy element to fighting; I’d love to see some version of this in other fighting games.

Along with the Soul Gauge comes Soul Crush. If you stun an opponent by wearing down their Soul Gauge, they become vulnerable to a Soul Crush. This is a powerful move that finishes the fight in one strike. It’s analogous to Mortal Kombat’s Fatalities, offers players an even greater incentive to stay on the offensive.

Each character has their own unique Soul Crush. In fact, the characters are diverse in nearly every way. Each has very different weapons, style, and speed, and all the characters’ strengths and weaknesses are balanced well. For example, the fast and agile Taki has to fight with a pair of very short swords; players have to utilize her speed to get in close. Everyone should be able to find a character that fits their play style.

Speaking of characters, Soul Calibur 4 features some special guests. As I’m sure you’ve heard, several Star Wars mainstays make an appearance. You’ll find Darth Vader in the PS3 version and Yoda on the Xbox 360, and the Apprentice, the main character from Star Wars: the Force Unleashed, can be unlocked in both versions. Some of you may have thought it a little lame to include Star Wars characters; it’s hard to think of a more out-of-place setting for them. But they actually fit in very well.

Darth Vader is featured prominently in the PS3 version, playable right from the get go. Besides looking fantastic in his flowing black cape, he fights very well. In fact, Star Wars fans will recognize some of his moves as straight out of the movies, and yes, you can use the Force. Force choking a medieval knight is surprisingly fun. Though you’ll have to use it sparingly, as a Force Gauge keeps you from overusing the power, it’s just nice to see that Namco-Bandai didn’t just slap him into the game at the last minute.

Story generally isn’t the high point of a fighting game, but Soul Calibur games have always had a strong cast of characters; their interconnected story lines go all the way back to 1996’s Soul Edge, and Soul Calibur 4’s Story mode pushes those story lines forward. Unfortunately, this is the weakest area of the game. The Story mode is just too short and shallow: it’s only five stages long, so you can beat it with any character in about ten minutes. There is also very little explanation about the relationships between characters; this will disappoint veterans who have been following the Soul Calibur universe for years.

Thankfully, another single-player mode will make you forget about Story mode. The Tower of Lost Souls is the best feature of Soul Calibur 4. Ascending the tower takes you through 60 floors with multiple opponents each, and the difficulty level rises with each floor. You’ll find your skills improving with each floor you defeat, but it still serves up a serious challenge.

The Tower of Lost Souls is also the best source of treasure chests, which contain special weapons and armor. This leads us to talk about customization: all characters can be customized with a wide array of equipment. Customization can change attack power, defense, HP levels and other combat stats, as well as how your character looks. You can create some wacky looking characters: how does a purple afro sound? There are a few modes that exclude custom gear, so if you want a pure arcade experience, stick to these.

You can also create totally new custom characters. You can deck them out in any gear you’ve collected. This lets you design your perfect set of stats. But in the end this only effects combat behind the scenes. Custom characters must take on the fighting style of an existing character. But it’s still fun to fight with your wacky or powerful creation.

You can also take your custom characters online. Online multiplayer is a great addition to Soul Calibur 4, and it makes this game almost infinitely replayable. You can play ranked matches to work your way up the leader boards, or stick to player matches to play for fun. Just be warned: there are some pro Soul Calibur players out there, and they will kick your ass.

In case you’re wondering, Soul Calibur 4 looks great. Characters are extremely detailed and the clothing and armor move naturally. The colorful particle effects add style to attacking and blocking. They also serve a stratigraphic purpose by helping you recognize powerful moves. The levels don’t feature many interactive elements; they all look good, but in reality, they’re all pretty much the same.

Soul Calibur 4’s audio is also pretty good. The music can be repetitive, but it’s so minimalistic that you won’t really notice. Besides, it’s usually drowned out by the very good combat sound effects. Each character features different weapon sound effects, and the most notable is Vader’s lightsaber that sounds right out of the movies. While the whole game isn’t aurally impressive, the rest of the game is so strong you won’t notice.

If you like fighting games, you can’t go wrong with Soul Calibur 4. It has enough depth to keep franchise veterans interested, but every fighting game fan can find their place, especially if you’re into gigantic swords.

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