Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, Ivy’s outfit is gratuitous. Yes, the name “Boob Calibur” is quite appropriate when describing most of the female cast members. Yes, you should probably avoid playing Soul Calibur IV around your wife, girlfriend, mother, or any other female with whom you hope to maintain a normal, healthy relationship. Dead or Alive’s long-standing monopoly on digital T&A within the genre has finally been broken, for better or worse.
All kidding aside, the constant threat of cleavage could prove a barrier to entry for those of you with diligent parents, discerning spouses or impressionable children. The rest of you, however, will be pleased to know that SCIV is quite good. While failing to recapture the standard set by Soul Calibur’s sensational premiere on the Dreamcast in 1999, this latest installment is still worthwhile on its own and represents a fine transition to next-gen hardware. Like most Namco fighting games, SCIV has outstanding presentation. The characters and stages look phenomenal, especially in high definition. Animation and textures are top-notch. The music, though forgettable, is well-produced and pleasing to the ear. If nothing else, the game is an impressive showcase for the 360 and PS3.
So how does it play? SCIV introduces very few changes to the basic Soul Calibur system, its most visible addition being the new Critical Finish mechanic. Block too much, and the opponent can execute a Guilty Gear-style instant kill to win the round. Whether or not this new mechanic will have a tangible impact remains to be seen; average players usually lack the habits and patience necessary for Critical Finishes to be a factor. The rest of the gameplay is similar to Soul Calibur III with several small tweaks, so the end result is by no means captivating but still fundamentally solid.
SCIV’s single player offerings are pretty good for a fighting game. Arcade mode is still there, along with a short but entertaining story mode with endings for every character. A more meaty experience can be found in the Tower of Souls, an RPG-like mode with over 100 levels spread across two separate paths. Each level of the ascending half contains a hidden item you can unlock by fulfilling special criteria, some of which can be brutally difficult. Despite the schizophrenic AI, Tower of Souls offers a few days-worth of entertainment and is an excellent source of gold for purchasing items and weapons. Speaking of which, Soul Calibur III’s robust customization mode is back. Whether they’re modifying existing characters or creating their own, this feature should keep fans busy for months.
As usual, multiplayer is an important part to this fighting game. Standard versus is still there, along with special versus if you want to play with item-based stats and abilities. New to the series is online play. Does it work? The short answer is yes. To be more specific, it works well enough…sometimes. If you have a good connection and play people nearby, the lag is usually manageable. Otherwise, expect a lot of missed blocks, throw breaks and guard impacts. The matchmaking service for ranked games leaves much to be desired. As of this writing, I have yet to find a game using Quick Match that wasn’t full. Manually searching for games isn’t much better, as the majority of sessions you’ll find will be almost immediately filled. Failing to join a game or winning a match dumps you back to the online menu, forcing you to repeat the process all over again. Barring any major patches, ranked games will be quickly forgotten in favor of 4 player unranked sessions with friends. SCIV is definitely an improvement over previous online fighting games, but anyone seeking a consistently fun online experience should look elsewhere.
When all is said and done, Soul Calibur IV is a solid choice for any fan of the series and fighting games in general. Graphics aside, no single element stands out or demands your attention, but neither does the game come across as rehashed or “too safe”. In the end, Namco delivers a fun, well-polished sequel with plenty of content and great replay value. While you’ll know what you’re getting with SCIV, odds are you’ll enjoy it.