A long time ago (1997) on a console far, far away (PlayStation 1), there was a 3-D fighting game called Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi. It featured, naturally, a lot of popular Star Wars characters and locales, and promised to do for lightsabers and blasters what Soul Blade had done for traditional weapons in videogames. Reviewers, though, were not kind to the poor little game, and bashed it for its weak mechanics, imbalanced characters, and baseball bat-like lightsabers. Of course, these criticisms were warranted: Masters of Teräs Käsi was a horrible piece of spiteful programming, and an offense to anyone who owned a PlayStation. “Give us a Star Wars fighting game we can be proud to own! ” came the cries of the much-abused Star Wars fan base, angrily shouted towards the heavens. The heavens, however, remained silent… until one day, many years later, they opened up, and Soulcalibur IV found itself sitting in the starlight and ready to please an entire legion of fans that had been wronged so long ago.
The biggest buzz about Soulcalibur IV has been the fact that it contains not only The Apprentice from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, but either Yoda or Darth Vader (depending on your console of choice). While this sounds great in theory, there are a couple of problems. First, gamers aren’t going to have the ability to pit Yoda against Anakin Skywalker because the former is only available on the 360 and the latter on the PS3. This will hopefully change when downloadable content for the games becomes available, but it’s still a little sad that both characters aren’t available for each system. Vader and Yoda move like their film counterparts, with the man in black relying on brute force and ranged Force attacks as an edge while the Muppet uses speed and acrobatics to string together devastating combos. Yoda, thanks to his height, is a rather cheap character that can’t be hit with high attacks or grabbed at all. The Apprentice plays as a speedy fighter with some dazzling Force attacks, which makes his style unique enough to be enjoyable, but his lightning blasts and invisibility are also incredibly cheap. Unfortunately, neither Frank Oz nor James Earl Jones reprised their roles as the Jedi masters’ voices, so the nearly-photorealistic appearances of these characters lose a bit of gloss when they actually speak.
Meanwhile, the rest of the game is just what one has come to expect from the Soulcalibur series. All the gorgeous graphics (and these are truly gorgeous), great music, numerous characters and fast-paced fighting are back, but it somehow doesn’t feel quite as epic as it once did. Gone is the map of the globe showing where fighters wander in their quest for the ever-elusive mystical sword, replaced instead with an anemic story mode that seems tacked on at best (which says something, because the story mode in the rest of the series was a little weak to begin with). To fill in this gap, there’s a bevy of different game types (standard arcade, survival, and multiplayer), but it constantly feels like that extra something that made previous entries in the series great isn’t quite there for this one.
Aside from the aforementioned guest characters, a lot of time has been spent trumpeting Soulcalibur IV’s online matches, mainly because of the amount of lag I experienced. At first, I thought it might be a problem on my end, but other people I know with the game have experienced the same problem. Players can also enter into ranked matches, which compares them to gamers around the world based on experience points won from battles, but there’s no real penalty if a person drops out of a match when they’re on the cusp of defeat. At the moment, this is actually a good thing because being randomly disconnected from these battles isn’t all that uncommon, but once things are stabilized this could become a major problem.
The worst flaw with the game is that its art style has gotten so over-the-top that it’s beyond silly in some cases. There are a number of characters whose appearance is clearly anime-based, but this often feels jarringly out of place with the rest of the characters and levels. This odd style choice carries over to when players create a character: there no option to actually create any stat-boosting items or weapons, which means players have to use points to buy nothing but pre-made objects, which often look completely ridiculous. No offense to the game’s creators, but things like neon-colored witches’ hats and dangly necklaces tend to make characters look stupid instead of fearsome. When this art style is mixed with the game’s tendency to takes itself as seriously as it does… well, it simultaneously feels goofy and pretentious, which never really equates to a winning presentation. And no, before you ask: you can’t customize the Star Wars characters. As cool as it would be to give Yoda an oversized witch’s hat and make him look like a mutant Black Mage, the only thing you can do with any of these characters is change out their lightsabers (which remain the same color and style as before, but alter stats accordingly).
While it sounds like Soulcalibur IV is a bad title, it’s not. In fact, it’s a wonderful fighting game, overall. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better-looking title, and the fighting mechanics are as strong as ever. The problem is that each of its predecessors has managed to do so many new things right when they were released; here, it feels like a number of new things were attempted but put into the game without being perfected. As a result, it’s the first time I can say that the newest Soulcalibur game isn’t the best I’ve played.
Bottom Line: Soulcalibur IV is a solid fighter for both the 360 and the PS3, but it’s one that takes itself a little too seriously given its presentation this time around. The only reason you should choose one over the other (provided you’ve got both systems) is because you have a particular preference for the Light or Dark Side of the Force.
Recommendation: Rent it. Unless you’re a die-hard fan of the series, you should make sure to get the geektastic Star Wars battles out of your system before you enter into a committed relationship with the game.
This review is based on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game.
Aaron Stack once fought off an invading army of mutant koala bears by singing a drunken rendition of “MacArthur Park.” No one is sure if the bears or the song were more terrifying.