Like the middle child stuck between an overachieving older sibling and a dumb-but-popular younger one, Soul Calibur doesn’t always seem to know what it wants to be.
On one side there’s Virtua Fighter, home of throw-defence guard-buffering and Akira’s infamous knee, so technically perfect yet incredibly demanding that it inspires devotion among everyone who ‘gets’ it. On the other there’s Tekken, content to fill its games with boxing kangaroos and dancing bears, promising a sixth iteration in which Bruce Irvin lays chickens and Paul Phoenix boasts six-foot hair.
Soul Calibur, then, is left to shuffle uneasily between both positions – promising technical improvements but offering up improbable breast physics, Darth Vader, and a character from popular anime Sgt Frog. It’s a tale of swords and souls in which everyone keeps their dignity until you knock off their cuirass and make them fight in their bra.
The partial nudity does serve a purpose, however. Next to the usual health bar, each character now has a Soul Gauge, a blue orb that gradually turns red as its owner guards against attacks without retaliating. Once it’s depleted, a further hit will shatter the defender’s helmet, breastplate or trousers, depending on where the attack was aimed, making further hits to that area more damaging.
But there’s more: if the aggressor can hit all their buttons (or L1, control scheme allowing) at the instant of the smash, the game goes into a preset, Fatality-style animation and declares a victory by Critical Finish. It sounds potentially game-breaking and at the top level of competition it might well be – with no arcade location-testing it’s possible that exploits will be found allowing for near-automatic victories by skilled enough players. In lower-tier Soul Calibur, it makes almost no difference to the game – nobody blocks enough to suffer the indignity of being stripped, and on the rare occasions that they do the window of opportunity is so miniscule that a finish is impossible. Against mid-level opposition, though, the effect is exactly as intended – blocking is fine, but turtling is impossible, because offering no threat makes the timing of the fatal hit much easier.
Always an offensive game, Calibur now matches the parry-riposte tempo of a ‘real’ sword fight even better, and presumably that’s the point. Certainly, it’s more exciting – given a dusting of current generation prettiness, every clash of swords seems potentially lethal, and even blocked blows make characters recoil elastically.
Redesigned arenas make the frustration and elation of the Ring Out a decisive factor in battle, with different designs offering subtle advantages to different styles of fighter. The series’ trademark eight-way run, meanwhile, remains an essential part of play, though throws are slightly easier to counter so that less manoeuvrable characters still stand a chance.
Strictly speaking, there are only two completely new story-based characters to master – boss Algol and pike-wielding fraulein Hilde – although Sophitia’s sister Cassandra and Raphael’s adopted daughter Amy have been reworked radically enough to make them feel like fresh additions to the series. Hilde is clearly best, her short sword and pike style making her a worthy rival to mainstay Kilik, but Algol breaks the tradition of ill-balanced uber-enemies and manages to bring a gun to the party without seeming
hopelessly out of place.
Five new characters, each created by a prominent anime designer, provide sub-bosses for the game’s story mode, though they share move sets with existing characters. And finally, of course, there’s Vader and his apprentice – much better suited to the Soul Calibur universe than Spawn, Necrid or Link, their lack of coherent backstory doesn’t prevent them from being worthy picks in the game’s Versus mode. On the basis of 360 preview code, Yoda is less well-balanced – and unthrowable to boot – but the fact remains that, if you don’t like the Star Wars characters, you can simply ignore them.
They certainly don’t appear in Tower Of Lost Souls, the challenge mode which replaces the last iteration’s Tales Of Souls. Pitting a team of player-controlled characters against a pack of customised AI opponents, the Tower outfits each side with abilities that vary from the simple – extra health or damage, say – to the outlandish – such as an increased likelihood that they’ll automatically parry attacks. The tactical combinations possible make solo play an infuriatingly addictive experience – maybe Hyper Damage Maxi and Auto Unblockable Mitsurugi are what’s needed to crack level 23? – but the mode’s real purpose is to serve as a primer for the game’s Special Versus mode, where two players can pit tooled-up characters against each other.
And this, in fact, is what turns out to be Soul Calibur’s niche. Rather than strive for Swiss-watch perfection or descend to banana-skin slapstick, it’s content to occupy the middle ground, improving on its own strong points and piling in extra content as fan service. It’s unlikely to draw in new players with its subtler game dynamics – but then, that’s what Darth Vader and those ridiculously low-cut tops are for. It’ll certainly pique interest in online duelling, but whether it can withstand the coming onslaught of Street Fighter IV remains to be seen.