I realise that I went away but I had a good reason.
I find it funny writing this, but SoulCalibur IV is a fairly significant game - for me. This is because it ticks many of the boxes in my quest for the Holy Grail with character customisation and several different play modes it's a good example of what sorts of things I like to see in my games.
This, then, is my review of that game. First some context: I'm a brand loyalist to this franchise. When Soul Edge came out at the arcades I was snared. Soul Blade on the PS1 kept me fighting for many hours - my completionist wouldn't let me quit until I had every damn weapon. I missed Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast, but enjoyed it immensely in the arcades. I was a little disappointed with SC2 as it had a weak single player component. And I enjoyed SC3 because it had a strong single player component. Of the beat-em-up genre this is my preferred game, only Tekken and Samurai Showdown offered any real competition and I enjoyed my brief visit with Marvel vs Capcom (and variations) and Darkstalkers.
SoulCalibur IV is a good game. In gameplay terms it straddles 2 and 3. For those who may not have experienced these games it falls between tight, crisp controls and wacky, concept themed powerz. There's a degree of balance tweaking in this game, many move sets have changed with most changes being actual re-designs like with Cassandra or increased functional consistency (from a heuristic design point, at least) such as with Tira or Ivy. Although not all the balance tweaks created balance. Astaroth, for instance, received a fairly hefty speed boost making him a much more powerful character than he was before. Rock (upon whom Astaroth is based) did not receive the boost and is now easily the weakest character in the roster.
Of all the fighting games I've ever played it's still the most accessible. It takes itself seriously enough to be robust, but has enough of a sense of humour to be fun. The Street Fighter series is too hardcore for me. DoA and Mortal Kombat too um…do people actually take these games seriously? Tekken is okay but its gameplay (juggle emphasis for instance) is too cheeky, and its character customisation options (with 5) are bland or silly (silly is okay but bland is not). Thus SC4 has a broader base appeal. It's also easy to get into although mastering is something else entirely.
If you've never played fighting games before and you're curious then this would be a fair introduction. It pays lip service to story, has barely any artwork (when compared to SC3) and few distractions from the core gameplay experience. There are four basic modes on offer. Arcade or Arcade Plus (labeled as Story Mode), Survival (descend mode in Tower of Lost Souls), Puzzle Fight (ascend mode in Tower of Lost Souls) and Versus or Multiplayer.
Of the four basic modes only two allow for true whimsy. Arcade and some Versus/Multiplayer modes allow the player to create their own visual avatar that fights with a style of their choosing (as long as it isn't lightsaber based). All other modes require the use of character "skills" which are more akin to buffs and debuffs for your character and that are linked to skill points. Skill points are linked, in turn, to your clothing and weapons. Thus for most of the game modes you're required to think about what skills you need to progress and then configure your gear around those points. Female characters have a huge advantage over male characters because they have many more options (of greater power). While I quite like this aspect of the game it's fiddly, nitpicky and requires an investment of time that has nothing to do with "fighting". I wish, at times, that as I ascend the Tower of Lost Souls, I didn't have to reconfigure (or create anew) a character designed to thwart the particular set of parameters set as obstacles in my path. For example one "floor" has opponents that are resistant to most types of damage except one. You have to find out which one. It's not as easy as horizontal strike, vertical strike and kick (the basics) either. Meaning that some characters who have a large repetoire of easily accessible guard breaks become more desirable should this be one of the techniques required. If you don't have one of those characters in your roster at the time the fight begins then it's possible you'll be spending some time in character generation mode making a character that takes advantage of this special circumstance (or acquires the guard break skill or both for maximum carnage). Problem is with about 25 levels (they call it 60) each with their own conditions - unless you're an elite player - you'll be spending a lot of time in chargen picking outfits for their skill point bonuses.
Online multiplayer is ghastly. I'm a complete noob when it comes to online play so my expectations are probably very off. I've read that SC4 has a robust online game, but have yet to experience it (30 battles at this stage, stuggling to find motivation for more). The lag is terrible, often buttons I press don't even register and my character's actions feel entirely random. The online game messed with my offline game too. I found myself pressing buttons long before they were needed (in a kind of slo-mo) when online and this was brutally fatal offline. Still, a new patch recently arrived that might address this a little…I so very much wanted this to be a good online experience, I need to be able to fight other people to increase my skill level, the AI isn't encouraging lateral thinking or demanding I step up. I've nearly completed everything in single player though, so those online 'honors' beckon.
The clothing "breaks" if hit enough and this is reminiscent of Soul Blade (aka Soul Edge) where the weapon broke if it was used to guard too much. I really like the idea behind this and while the execution isn't yet perfect it comes close to realising a workable means for encouraging activity (read attacking versus defending). The Soul Gauge represents how psyched you are in the combat, attack lots (and have those attacks do damage) and your soul gauge increases. Defend lots (guard) and it decreases. Lose enough of your soul gauge and your opponent will initiate what the game calls a soul crush - a brief moment of vulnerability where your opponent can…maybe…execute a critical finish. The soul crush state is very delicate, any further hits will restore some of their soul gauge, it's also a temporary state lasting a few seconds. The soul crush is a fairly rare event in play - opponents attack enough, die too quickly or fall out of the ring too often for the exact conditions to create the state to come to pass. When it does happen two things typically take place. Either you press L1 in time, or you never get the chance because the soul crush happens at the start of a combo and the subsequent hits negate your chance at a critical finish. I've also managed a third version where I hit both the L2 and L1 buttons at about the same time. L2 got read first so I switched in another character BEFORE executing the critical finish and was confused as to why my support character was doing it - well for a moment or two anyway. All in all this feature is fun if a little goofy. If online is "fixed" then I intend to create a male Cassandra style character just in the hopes I can inflict the most hilariously humiliating critical finish in the game on some poor unfortunate out there in the interwebs.
You can switch characters in the character building modes (a limited form of team battle) but NOT in the versus mode. An oversight, as allowing such a capability would have enhanced the versus mode considerably (offline and online). By switch I mean you can be fighting with one character and switch them to the bench to rest and fight with another character, alternating fairly freely - there's a gauge that restricts abuse of this but it fills quickly and there's a skill…
Sc4 is a robust fighting game with something missing. It's a strange thing to say when it is the most flexible fighting game available. But it is its very flexibility that highlights the flaw that irritates me the most. I don't get to play the game my way, the designers have crafted an experience that is deceptively rigid. I am given the illusion of creativity but then am forced to find the specific weakness or quirk required to progress through the game. I'm phrasing this poorly as it's only true of one game mode, but…there's this nagging sensation that lingers as I try to build my ideal fighter, as I try to build a character that visually represents my ideal, as I try to find a "style" that represents my preferences, as I try to build the perfect set of skills. I can never quite realise a complete character because the game won't let me use one or more of its features or turns them off completely as it pushes me toward what it wants me to do, not what I want to do within it.
Thus, for fighting games, the quest for the Holy Grail continues…