The first time you play Soulcalibur IV, you might wonder what Darth Vader is doing there, but unlikely appearances are a hallmark of the classic beat ‘em up series. Heihachi Mishima of Tekken fame, for example, joined the action in Soulcalibur II on PlayStation 2, and Soulcalibur III featured KOS-MOS from Xenosaga.
Ultimately, he is there because, having sensed the combined power of the Soul Edge – a sword that gained a soul of its own after years of bloodshed – and the sword forged to counter it, Soul Calibur, he believes they can help him rule the galaxy. In the short term, however, he’s there for the same reasons as everyone else: to bash people up.
Lord Vader aside, many fighters on the roster will be familiar to fans of the series, including Yoshimitsu – whose resemblance to the Tekken character of the same name is astonishing – and Darkness, owner of the Soul Edge and alter ego of Siegfried Schtauffen. Everyone has their own reasons to pursue the magical swords, but this is not a story driven game and, as it should be, plot takes a back seat to fighting with gigantic swords, hammers and other implements.
Gameplay is an evolution of previous games; tweaked rather than overhauled, with new features added to increase depth. One new feature is the ability to perform Critical Finish moves. Also new to the series is the Soul Gauge; a meter that increases when attacking and decreases when guarding. If your opponent’s meter is completely empty, hitting them will knock off a piece of their armour and leave them vulnerable. If their bar then empties a second time, you will have a short window of time in which you can perform a Critical Finish. This system reduces the effectiveness of constant blocking and makes for faster matches.
Of the three single player modes, Arcade is the most traditional; you select a character and take on others in a one-on-one, best of three match. Winning takes you further up the ladder and onto tougher combatants. Story Mode has a greater sense of plot, and allows you to pick an accomplice to help you fight through stages filled with skeletons, lizards and pirates, as well as other Soulcalibur warriors.
Tower of Lost Souls is similar to Story Mode, but with incorporated RPG elements, such as the ability to find items and weapons and increase your character’s attributes. You can either ascend the tower and take on increasingly powerful foes or descend and try to survive a constant onslaught of enemies, and your best scores can be added to an online leaderboard.
Competitive online play is present for the first time in the series, allowing players to duke it out in either Standard VS matches, using default characters, or Special VS matches, for customised or created characters, and there are various leaderboards available. Creating characters is particularly enjoyable, and one of the most flexible seen in a fighting game. You can tweak your character's physical appearance, weapons and clothing, and your choice of attire affects the character’s strength, speed and other attributes. Also, new weapons and clothing items can be unlocked in the three single player modes.
Soulcalibur IV is more of the same from Namco, which is exactly what fans of the series want. The Soul Gauge is a welcome addition, as it reduces the effectiveness of continuous blocking and speeds up multiplayer matches, and the chance to test your mettle online is extremely appealing.
Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.