The Dulling Blade
While it is still mindless fun to vent your inner rage kicking your friends' butts with babes in short skirts wielding blades of death, Soulcalibur is beginning to lose its novelty. What began with the blocky battles of Soul Blade and was reinvented on the Sega Dreamcast as a polished, insanely fast and furious crossbreed of historical dynasties duking it out for glory is back for another incarnation.
This 3D fighter is far passed its prime compared to the radically evolving engines of titles like Shadow of the Colossus, God of War, and Resident Evil 4. Video games have evolved, so why hasn't this genre? Why are we still battling it out on a horizontal plane (with vertical 360? dodges and nifty camera angles giving the illusion of the third-dimension) as an ambiguous life bar depletes above?
How about we place the ferocious fisticuffs trademark of Soulcalibur in wild arenas with uneven terrain or environments slightly more interactive than knocking out a banister on route to a frustrating ring-out? Sure the backdrops (from full-fledged fiery wars to slabs of rock gliding down molten lava) are breathtaking, but that's really all they are: backdrops.
If the carnage must be limited to the flatlands, how about pushing that carnage to a whole new level of bloodletting gore, with an engine that accounts for wounded limbs, cuts and scars, and blood-stained kimonos? Imagine the dignified Sophitia with a gimpy hobble, her shield arm dangling, or the narcissistic Maxi disfigured with an unsightly scar cut across the ridge of his nose. A revolution in the fighting game doesn't have to be tasteful, and if there's anything I know about bloodshed and butchery, it's thrilling and makes loads of money. (Saw II anyone?)
Soulcalibur III may not be as innovative as the original, but it's still the most addictive fighting game on the market. For a title of its genre, it's loaded with replayability -- with its scores of gaming extras both standard and unlockable -- and the new create-a-character mode is actually quite deep. Sure the characters one creates are not quite as unique as the Soulcalibur pantheon of heroes (nor nearly as sexy), but the mode is still a blast and gives players alternative fighting styles not available with Namco's named originals.
The three new characters are all welcome additions to the freakish ranks. Tira is my favorite of the neophytes, a merciless babe with green locks and skimpy tribal fur, who wields a jagged-edged hula hoop ring-blade that's just about as cool as Isabella Valentine's Ivy Blade (the wicked whip sword for the uneducated). Also new and central to the cornball soul-centric plot is Zasalamal, a big black solemn-spoken sentinel with a scary scythe who likes to fend off visitors to his ominous clock tower with giant rolling gear traps. Finally there is Mitsurugi's latest adversary, the female samurai with reflexes as deadly as her cleavage, Setsuka. She fights with a katana hidden inside her decorative umbrella which she wields with quicker piercing thrusts than Raphael's rapier.
As for the old beloveds, they're all in fine form (and hotter than ever in the case of Kilik's buffer, sculpted physique or Seong Mi-na's skimpier wardrobe revealing supple curves) with the exciting new option to edit costume colors. It's hard to discern the slight improvements Namco may or may not have made in terms of balance and move selection, but as if players will care. Their choice characters are back in their prettiest incarnations thus far -- with the full-fledged return of Rock and Lizardman -- and the fighting itself hasn't been sharper.
The major new bonus is the Chronicles of the Sword story mode, a bizarre hybrid of tactical strategy and SC showdowns-to-the-death. It evolves an epic war in the quasi-medieval Eurasia world, where players control a bundle of customizable characters (one even created from scratch) as they progress through chronicles of a political campaign full of heroism and betrayal.
Each chronicle involves conquering a map of enemy sprites in various formations by protecting your fortresses and besieging theirs. Whenever there is a confrontation between units, either there is an immediate decisive battle and the combat carries out in traditional Soulcalibur fisticuffs, or the unit sprites face off in computer control and rely on their chosen unit type (bandit, knight, and infantry) to determine the outcome. If four units lay siege to the enemy castle at the same time (where the defender can take advantage of such annoying at-home bonuses like mine explosives or death-only-by-ring-outs) you can use them all to defeat the adversary (and considering some of the irksome conditions, you'll need them all). Luckily for you, when the boss battles with insanely leveled-up adversaries grow nearly impossible, character resurrection is only seconds away at home base, allowing a constant bombardment of player units against unstoppable enemies. By winning the battles, you reap the awards of experience (and RPG-style stats enhancement), money for use in the game shop, or new weapons and armor for your characters.
This big adventure is underdeveloped, highly cheesy, and really just a means of acquiring new weapons and clothing for other modes. This may not sound like much of a reward for such incredible tedium, but considering the shear number of extras to acquire, the motivation to fight on is substantial. Let's face it. We may like to pretend were macho boys who like to face off with sharp swords, but deep down we're all little girls who like to dress up our Barbie dolls with the most stylish of leather bodices and pirate trench coats. Chronicles of the Sword may be a hellish chore, but it gives you loads of options for a character creation mode that rivals the best wrestling games with similar features. And if you don't care for dress-up-Sally character customization, it's not like you have to play Chronicles; it's just a bonus mode to add more replay time. Sadly, for those who do care, you can't bring your personalized Chronicles protagonist into the main event versus modes, and will have to create another from scratch for that purpose.
Soulcalibur III isn't revolutionary. The new modes are either simplistic and tedious or have been seen elsewhere (though mostly in wrestling games, which only wrestling fans actually play), but considering they're additions to a stellar fighting game engine that could stand on its own, this is a minor complaint. The dialogue is still a blend of lame threats and cocksure boasting, all overacted with gusto, but we traditionalists wouldn't have it any other way. Soulcalibur is about flamboyant overkill, and this title embraces its shallowness with exuberant panache (non-combat-ready costumes, characters with fetishes for masochism, and harnesses, female avatars with black underpants). While Namco seems to be milking its franchises as bad as Eidos did with Tomb Raider, the blitzkrieg of action is still a mind-numbing blast that'll keep you up way past your bedtime transcending history.
22 November 2005