Soul Calibur IV

2008 is shaping up to be a big year for fourth installments in popular game series. From Metal Gear Solid to Grand Theft Auto to the hotly anticipated Street Fighter IV — four is the magic number.

While it may not carry the same clout as Metal Gear Solid or GTA, Soul Calibur IV has landed on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Soul Calibur also may not have the same name recognition that fellow fighters such as the aforementioned Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat or even Tekken, but the series is peerless in terms of weapon-based fighting.

The Dreamcast version of the game is hailed as one of the best fighters ever and ranks number eight on (a review aggregate site) in the list of the highest scoring games of all-time.

If you had any lingering doubts about the series’ first foray into this generation of consoles, let me save you some time and say it is far from a disappointment. Longtime fans of the series are probably playing Soul Calibur IV as I write this, so they don’t need to be convinced. But if you’re thinking about cutting your teeth on this installment, do yourself a favor and at least rent it. Soul Calibur IV is a highly polished, very fun and extremely accessible fighter that almost anyone can enjoy.

The first thing rookies will notice about Soul Calibur is the selection of weapons. They are the lifeblood of the game — the characters are simply bread to the blades’ (or nunchuku’s or bo staves’) butter. The weapons are as varied and interesting as the character models themselves, and the vast majority of a given character’s move set is derived from his or her weapons.

Whether you want to slug away with Rock’s enormous hammer or finesse your way through enemies with Raphael’s rapier, the options are limitless and will match any player’s taste.

This is not to say that the characters are not interesting. Veterans of the series will recognize familiar faces like the demonic Nightmare, the dominatrix-esque Ivy and the oddball blind-guy-who-crab-walks-backwards Voldo. There are some newcomers as well, most notably a few faces from the Star Wars universe. Yoda is playable (and adorns the box art) on the Xbox 360, while the PS3 gets Darth Vader. Also unlockable is the Apprentice — the main character from the upcoming Star Wars game, The Force Unleashed.

But what Soul Calibur has always done well is develop back stories and create dizzying ties between its characters. Player X is the brother of Player Y who killed Player Z’s son, and so on and so forth. This makes for a story mode that is much more than a way to sharpen your skills. This also means that the Star Wars characters are a bit out of place, but come on, you’re playing as Yoda!

The different play modes in Soul Calibur IV are pretty standard — story, arcade, multi — with one notable exception. The Tower of Lost Souls mode pits players up against enemies with armor, special abilities and unique weapons. Players can unlock treasure (to use in character creation) and achievements as they ascend/descend the tower. The Tower is difficult, unique and a great single player mode.

While these modes are great, Soul Calibur IV‘s character creation is an absolute revelation and the best character editor I have seen in any video game, fighter or not. The options are so many, the detail so deep that any future fighter needs to replicate Soul Calibur IV‘s or simply not include one for fear of unfavorable comparison. Players can edit characters down to the eyebrow hair color — and not just a list of preset colors, there is a fully scalable color palette with nine brightness levels.

While this may sound silly to those who haven’t burned two hours tweaking their Altair (from Assassin’s Creed) to perfection, I can assure you the level of depth here is astounding. There are already videos of Soul Calibur-izations of Obama and McCain, Solid Snake (and Raiden!) and the entire cast of Final Fantasy VII floating around. If you can think of a character, you can probably recreate that character in the Soul Calibur IV character creator.

But these days, a fighter has to be online to survive, and Soul Calibur IV does not disappoint. There are a number of online modes, including quick play and ranked modes. I had the most success with the custom mode, though, where players are allowed to set parameters on level range, time of match, maximum number of players and “best of X” wins. I also have yet to experience any lag whatsoever.

After linking up with three other players, I was off. One might think that sitting out and watching two other players duke it out would be boring. Not true. In fact, studying the winning player (who gets to play again) and his/her tactics is quite entertaining. But character imbalance does rear its ugly head online, as players — even those in casual rooms — tend to gravitate toward “cheap” characters, especially if they find themselves on a losing streak. Even as he was being mocked for “button mashing” and using the same handful of moves over and over, one player in my group would not be deterred, using his custom character with a bo staff relentlessly. The Apprentice and Yoda also seem rather unbalanced, but that may have been intentional.

Soul Calibur IV is a deep, rewarding and — most importantly — downright fun fighting game. The single player modes are better than most (if short, but that’s expected), the online multiplayer is phenomenal, and the character creator is the best diversion a gamer could ask for. The Soul Calibur series is alive and well in this generation.

RATING 9 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.