Surely I’m not alone amongst Soul Calibur fans in being dissatisfied with SC 3. The environments were boring, character creation was half-baked, and loading times were criminal. It didn’t help that Mitsurugi’s move set took a step backward and you couldn’t make characters shout at each other during the load screen. I’ll never understand why it was only released on PS2, and perhaps if it had come out on XBOX I might feel different. Regardless, what SC 3 did for me was reaffirm the preeminence of Soul Calibur 2 as a finely tuned, well-balanced fighter that- until the fourth installment got announced– I was content to accept as the only 3D fighter I’d ever have or need.
I had high hopes that Namco would do something truly special with my favorite fighter series in Soul Calibur 4. Part three wasn’t well-received and maybe the developer would retcon it out of existence and we’d all be the happier. Sure they’d no doubt keep the new characters imposed upon us, but who cares? Mitsurugi’s in it, Astaroth’s in it, and I get to play online. What could possibly go wrong? Up until I actually played the game, I couldn’t find a thing to complain about. All the chicks have huge floppy breasts? Cool! Yoda’s in the version everyone that counts will buy? He looks like a fast, cheap fighter! A new Soul Gauge system to punish turtling players? Awesome, I don’t block much anyway! New characters designed by anime artists? Fine, let the Jap players have them. It won’t stop me!
Well, the fairy tale did end. I learned two incontrovertible facts on release day, right along with everyone else. Ranked matchmaking is inconvenient to the point of being offensive. The online experience has been covered extensively elsewhere, and the lag that plagued the first day or two after release seems to have tapered off for me, so all I’ll ask is how, with a shining example of efficient matchmaking in Call of Duty 4, could Namco have fucked it up so much?
The other change was subtle, but is the reason I’m even writing this review. The characters seem to have all been weighed down to the point that attacks don’t string together with the immediacy of SC 2. I found myself forced to develop a new rhythm with Mitsurugi and the impression formed that what I liked so much about him had been removed. Perhaps Namco did this to compensate for lag they anticipated online– I’ll never know for sure. Regardless, for me SC 4 has become a different game. It remains beautiful, deep, and competitive when you can find a ranked match, but I’m now faced with a dilemma: I’m not as young as I used to be, and I lack the time and patience to relearn a fighting system. I went into SC 4 figuring that since I was good at part two, I’d be good at this one too, and this assumption has not borne out.
With this in mind, what do I play Soul Calibur for? Is a game truly good when it wants not for iteration, or is our love for a fighting game solidified by a developer’s willingness to tweak and sometimes twist the engine we are all asked to master? I think back to Street Fighter II’s evolution, and how allowing two of the same character to fight each other, or air block, made a dramatic, identifiable change in the entire game experience for every player. You either embraced the changes or were left in the dust. Soul Calibur 4 to me hasn’t changed anything so fundamentally, but the weight issue is pervasive enough to make me wonder if for some games we just shouldn’t demand change at all.
On a lighter note, people seem to be making much use of the character creation system. Unfortunately many players are taking their designs a little too seriously. I’ve seen ninjas and Saracen knights and far too many schoolgirls and stewardesses. For me, a custom character needs to entertain or beguile. Hence, I bring you two formidable additions to the great custom character pantheon:
First, meet Fagosign...
...And the indefatigable AfroHo