9.4

SoulCalibur II review
Invest your soul

The good:

Wide variety of fighters including Link
Loads of game modes
Fast and fluid gameplay
Loads to unlock

The bad:

Guarding is hit and miss
Level-up system in WM is rather pointless
Dungeons boring in WM

Summary:

Okay, time to admit it. I'm not a big fan of fighting games. The concept sounds very cool but I've always been vastly disappointed with the genre's offerings. So-called greats like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat have always felt so sluggish and restrictive. With the move into the third dimension I picked up Soul Calibur 2 in the hopes that it could properly convey what a fighting game should.

Visual

First impressions always occur, and Soul Calibur 2 certainly doesn't disappoint in that department. The graphical prowess of the game can only be described as beautiful.

The character models have been rendered wonderfully. There is a tremendous amount of detail in each individual fighter, like the straps of sheaths or creases in the clothes. There is an exceptional use of colour and shading to make each one look realistic. The way they have been designed also make them really look the part. Is there any question of Talim's heritage? No, because her design reflects it perfectly.

The animation on these characters is also of a very high quality. There isn't a single attack or defensive measure that looks unreal. When Yunsung dances backward and then launches forward in a circular slash his body moves accordingly and appears to solidly connect with the ground and the opponent's body.

Hair can be a nightmare, as it can cut through objects at times. SC2 has no such problem. Hair is fully aware of the body it is connected to and flows around it rather than through it. It's a trait that many others don't always get right, so seeing it here is wonderful.

The weapon designs are similarly intricate, with stylish designs and varying shapes. There's a solid collection of weapons too, for the uncertain who likes a wide choice of designs. All the weapons are also accompanied by flashy light trails that make it easier to see the flow of combat, in addition to making everything look pretty.

There are other pretty weapon effects as well that work well. Guard break attacks involve a flash of white to signify a successful strike. Unblockable moves have the weapon trail consumed by fire to show the extra power.

The stages that all this combat takes place in have been well designed as well. It's no exaggeration to mention how you can see the ripples in the water or the cracks in the temple wall. Namco have also been wise enough to include a variety of locations to test your weapon skills in. So, whether it's a mansion, a temple, a dungeon or atop a windmill platform, you'll find something you like.

What is quite impressive is how the game manages open stages, like the aforementioned windmill platform stage. Creating a completely 3D environment to account for this open stage would be unrealistic, but despite the obvious shortcut Namco have taken it still look impressive, so you don't get a flat lifeless feeling when you stare out into the distance.

Audio

SC2 contains a wide array of musical tracks that happily play in the background while the fighting fills the foreground. It's evident that a lot of work has gone into them, as the quality is high and they all tend to have good rhythm; often with multiple "strains" intermingled into a single medley that works well. Gamecube owners are treated to an extra track that the PS2 and Xbox owners don't get – a remixed version of the Legend of Zelda main theme. Despite not being a Nintendo game it's amazing just how well this rendition of the theme captures the magic of the original tune while bringing it into the current generation.

It's fair to say that these tracks compliment the arenas they are attached to as well. Listen to the temple grounds music and you can easily pick up on the Asian tones within it. Dungeons tend to have moody music to supplement the combat.

The collection of sound effects put in all work very well, managing to enhance the experience further. The clash of blades is brought to life by the sounds of those metallic weapons, and it sounds as it should do. You also get the scraping, slashes and thuds you would expect from a weapons based battle.

SC2 also goes the extra mile and adds in voice acting for the characters. The cool thing about this is how much has been put into it. No, Namco didn't just stop at a handful of phrases. Each character has a wide array of starting taunts, victory sayings, attack cries, pain cries and more. While some of these amount to no more than actual cries there is enough distinction to known them as different, thus making sure it doesn't become stale quickly.

The game also includes the option of listening to either the English or Japanese voices - an option too many games don't even bother with. For those people who insist that no voice acting can ever be better than an original Japanese cast they can satisfy that desire. Putting that aside though I think that the voices fit their characters very well. Nightmare has a deep rough voice while Talim has a calmer and higher pitched voice.

Oh, and for those Nintendo fans that are interested, don't worry. Link's voice acting consists of a series of shouts and grunts - pretty much what he does in his own series (this also gives him the distinction of not actually having an English voice actor).

Plot

Yes, Soul Calibur 2 possesses an actual reason to be cutting up other people. The story revolves around two swords - the evil Soul Edge blade that consumes the souls of the wielder and the divine Soul Calibur.

In Arcade mode the initial backstory doesn't really go beyond that. Thankfully, each fighter has their own reasons for pursuing the evil sword Soul Edge. Anyone looking for actual character development are bound to be disappointed though. The game provides a simple blurb for each fighter you face, a destined battle scene and the end scenes before and after the final battle. It's a little thin, which is slightly disappointing.

Players seeking a much more indepth synopsis of a character's background will be pleased to find full character profiles in the game, which gives an insight as to the actions and motivations of the fighters. It also gives information like blood type and weapon style, fleshing out otherwise dull characters.

Weapon Master mode takes the story and twists it into an alternative telling. Players can choose to take through any character, and a sort of rival will be whoever that character's destined battle in Arcade would be. Despite this, the player's characters can be changed anytime and has the exact same backstory and progression. WM basically ignores what the actual characters are and assigns other names and backgrounds, using the normal characters merely as models to fight with.

This change may be offputting to those seeking the true story, but on the plus side Weapon Master does contain an extensive story that develops a lot more than in Arcade.

Gameplay

The goal of most fighting games is pretty simple - to hit your opponent until they can no longer stand. Soul Calibur 2 hands everyone weapons and sets them against each other with this same premise.

Matches usually consist of rounds, where players aim to win a set number of rounds to claim victory. This is dependant both on the game mode and the number of rounds option set. Successful attacks deplete the health gauge of the struck fighter, and a win is gained when the opponent loses all of their health.

Each round also has a time limit, and if both fighters are still up when time expires then the fighter with the most health remaining wins the round. Wins can also be earned by knocking an opponent off the stage (although this isn't possible in every stage).

Fighters have a variety of moves they can use to prevail in combat. Weapon attacks are typical either horizontal or vertical attacks, and also are classed according to the attack height. Vertical attacks can be sidestepped but many horizontal attacks can be ducked or jumped over (although jumping is actually quite awkward).

Some of these moves are known as Guard Break or Unblockable attacks. Guard Break attacks will stagger an opponent if they try to guard against it, which opens them up for a follow up attack. Unblockable attacks are exactly that; attacks that will hit the same even if it is guarded against. While seemingly powerful, both types of techniques possess the same drawbacks of being slow to hit, making it easy to interrupt or dodge if they are used carelessly.

For the times when a weapon hit just isn't fast enough then a player can execute a fast kick attack. There is a solid amount of variation in these as well, and can catch opponents off guard, but they lack power and range in exchange for that speed.

For guard happy opponents then throwing may be an idea. Going up close and pressing guard and either horizontal or vertical attack buttons performs a grab. These moves are typically powerful and knock the opponent down or away. A grab can be broken by pressing the same attack button used to perform it, but since there is no indication and little time to react then breaking the hold comes down to mere luck than anything.

Of course, the game doesn't just have basic attacks. Every character has a pretty extensive moves list, with a huge variety of horizontal attacks, vertical attacks, kicks and grabs. These lists tend to be big enough that it is not uncommon to not know half of what someone can do, so it comes down more to learning a selection of techniques that work.

Most moves rely on button combination presses. Many are pretty simple, involving a few directional inputs followed by one or two attack presses. It's a system that works pretty well, offering a lot of choices. However, there are some moves that just seem ridiculous. Ivy has two throws that are very damaging but require such a long winded button combination that you would likely never do it against an active opponent. I barely managed one of them against a dummy in training.

But the problem with these moves lies not only with a human player trying to pull them off, but the fact that computer fighters manage them so effortlessly. Per typical for computer opponents it seems they can manage the most complicated attacks with the greatest of ease, putting some sense of imbalance between them.

Attacking is only part of the game though. All fighters can guard with either a standing block or a crouching block. Sounds pretty standard fighting game, but SC2 manages this slightly different. The problem I've had with blocking in other fighting games is that a crouching block tended to prevent everything except throws, making it seem very cheap. In SC2 many vertical attacks will cut through a crouching block.

Sounds good, except this manages to introduce a whole new problem. SC2 is naturally a fast paced game, and since a block doesn't stop everything then guarding against attacks becomes more of a game of luck in hoping the opponent doesn't attack with something you can't block.

A move called Guard Impact also exists. Pressing towards or away from your opponent while guarding performs this move. If an opponent's attack connects at the moment you use this then they'll be staggered and open to attack. It also isn't subject to the limitations of normal guard moves, so an opponent can't actually break through the guard.

However, timing is pretty difficult with this and the reward just isn't worth it. Opponents aren't staggered for long enough to do a suitably powerful attack before they can raise their guard or interrupt you.

All characters can also perform a soul charge. A soul charge temporarily raises the stats of a fighter. Some moves also upgrade to Guard Break or Unblockable moves. However, this system doesn't really work. The increase in performance isn't big enough to compensate for the time spent actually doing the soul charge. Some weapon sets have special traits attached to soul charging, but most of the time it's better to focus on attacking.

There's a pretty solid physics engine involved here. It's far from realistic (the idea that Taki can launch the behemoth Astaroth through the air with a flick of her knives is silly) but makes for a fast game pace with a strong sense of "impact". These aren't weak taps they're throwing out.

All characters possess a plethora of moves that knock opponents off their feet at varying heights, which lends itself well to the secondary means of winning - ring out victories. This not only means players have to watch for these chances but be careful about where they are moving. It's all too easy for the situation to turn around and have the hunter get thrown off instead.

In all the normal modes each character only has one weapon set each, and their abilities are static. Once the extra modes starting getting unlocked then players can start picking weapon sets that they have unlocked to use in those modes. The weapon sets not only look different but also possess a variety of traits that can help or hinder.

The most obvious types of traits are those that affect power and defence. However, there are a variety of other traits too. One of the most useful or damaging can be the ones that affect health. Weapon that drain health usually have some powerful traits to compensate, while some weapons can restore health (making them a way to restore health in survival modes).

SC2 contains a variety of game modes; most of which have both a normal version (only default weapon sets) and an extra version (all unlocked weapon sets).

Arcade is the main mode, which tells the story of SC2. Players work through six random battles first. The seventh battle is always a destined battle, where the opponent is determined by which character you're using (Taki and Mitsurugi fight each other here). The final battle is always against Inferno, who not only has more health than any other fighter but mimics other fighters, taking on three different styles during the fight (and always being a single round fight).

Versus is pretty much just that. Two players (one can be computer controlled) fight it out, with the stage selected for each battle.

Survival pits the player in a series of battles that ends only when the player is defeated. In addition to the difficulty increasing with each win the player's health gauge does not refill between fights. Each survival battle only lasts one round each.

Extra survival throws in an extra twist by adding in three variants (quite why the normal version doesn't have these variants in anyone's guess). The standard survival offers limited health recovery, while no recovery doesn't even offer that. Instant Death matches are decided by whoever lands the first successful blow, although with the game's guard system it can be really tricky to manage.

Time attack plays out in a similar fashion to arcade, except that there is no destined battle and the battles aren't so random. The number of battles is either 8 battles of 2 rounds each (except the Inferno battle) or the harder 16 battles of 1 round each.

Team attack allows the player to build a team of up to three fighters to take on other teams of three. In single player the last team always ends with Inferno (although weaker than the Inferno from other modes).

Training simply allows you to practice with any fighter without limitation. The opponent has a number of settings, like do nothing, fight back, simple attack, guard etc. A human player can also take control of the opponent. This mode gives extensive information, like damage dealt from attacks as well as the complete moves list of the participating character.

The real meat of the single player is no doubt Weapon Master mode. In this mode players are presented with a map that displays challenges. Initially progress is linear - the next challenge opens when the previous one is cleared. Later on alternate paths and extra areas open up, making things a lot less linear.

The challenges all involve fighting but many contain conditions you wouldn't normally see. Such of the more basic conditions involve losing health during the fight or landing a set number of successful attacks.

Some of the more interesting challenges involves ones like where you have to defeat an opponent by slamming them into the walls or floor of the arena, or where gravity is reduced and damage is caused more with juggling combos. It is this variety that prevents Weapon Master from descending into repetitive mediocry. Even better is that any completed missions can be replayed at any time, allowing players to partake in their favourite missions whenever they want.

Length is certainly no problem in WM either. In addition to a full ten chapters of missions there are two sub chapters and four extra chapters to play through. Each chapter contains at least three missions each, and when the final mission in Chapter 10 is cleared then every single missions gains a harder extra variant to complete as well.

Most of these missions are quite fun. However, Namco have tried to put in dungeons and they really don't work. No, don't get excited. It's not side-scrolling beat-em-up. All a dungeon means is moving around via a map system to select a room and then entering a fight. That's it. There's nothing wrong with the fights themselves but these can get a little dragged out.

Completing missions earns experience and money. The money can be used to buy things from the WM shops. Items available depends on which chapter area you are in. Most items are simply the extra weapons that can be used both in Weapon Master and the extra modes, but you also get things like extra costumes, weapon demos and art galleries. An interesting aspect about buying weapons is that the game acknowledges which character you're using the most and causes the costs of their weapons to be higher than anyone else's.

The use of experience is a little more questionable. Experience is used to "level up", but the issue is that there isn't actually any use for this. You're assigned a title based on what level you've reached but that's about it. Oh, there is a chapter that opens only once you've reached a certain level, but the idea feels so tacked on that it's forced.

When you're not playing then you'll find a tremendous amount of extras in the game, although most of it must be unlocked first. Character profiles gives details background information on each of the fighters, as well as information on the stages they are standing in, voice clips and visual appearance.

Art galleries also exist in the game, encompassing of hi-res 3D portraits, promotional illustrations of every character and a "special" gallery consisting of promotion artwork of objects or multiple characters.

Weapon demonstrations can be unlocked, which has the characters showing off their skills (somewhat like practice swings). Charade's is a little odd though, with the body parts circling the arena instead of actually showing combat ability.

Weapons can also be viewed in their own gallery, which shows not only the weapons but background information on each of them. A Battle Theatre is also available, which pits two computer players against each other, and thus allows the player to take on the role of cameraman.

Overall

Soul Calibur 2 has restored my faith in fighting games. It's fast, deep and offers a surprising amount of variety. If you're looking for a fighting game then look no further.

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