See it in Action!
These days, even the most ardent fan of fighting games would grudgingly admit that the genre just isn't as popular as it used to be. Fighting games used to be all the rage, allowing two players to square off in battles of skill and wits. But video arcades, which were crowded throughout the '90s with gamers hoping to spend all their quarters on the latest fighting games, are less plentiful and emptier than ever, in part because home video game technology has long since surpassed the arcade state-of-the-art. Ironically, the past several years have ushered in some of the best fighting games ever made. For example, this year's Virtua Fighter 4 for the PlayStation 2, a faithful port of the arcade original, is widely considered to be one of the best offerings the genre has seen in years. And the release of Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast back in 1999 was nothing short of an event for fighting game fans worldwide.
Perhaps Soul Calibur is partly to blame for the lack of many new fighting games since its release. Namco's weapon-based 3D fighter stole the thunder from the company's own Tekken series by offering up a memorable cast of characters and truly superlative gameplay. What other game could possibly compete against such a polished, well-balanced, beautiful-looking, and incredibly well-designed game? The obvious answer is Soul Calibur II. Years after the release of the original Soul Calibur, the sequel (actually the third game in the series, since Soul Calibur was itself a sequel to Soul Edge) is finally finished and starting to make its rounds in the arcade scene. We've played it extensively and are here to give you the details on how it stacks up.
In short, it stacks up well. However, if you're one of many who were awestruck by how impressive Soul Calibur was for the Dreamcast, don't expect to be wowed all over again. That's because, whether the developers were afraid of straying too far from a successful formula or whether they simply didn't want to fix what wasn't broken, the bottom line is Soul Calibur II is a very similar game to the original. Featuring most of the same exact characters and virtually all the old moves, combos, and strategies, this is a game that Soul Calibur players should be able to get into instantly. The trade-off is that, despite how most of the characters and all the backgrounds appear different in this sequel, Soul Calibur players may well feel a distinct sense of déjà vu when they first get their hands on the game.
Before we delve in further, it should be noted that the recent release of Soul Calibur II in arcades suggests that a home version of the game may be a ways off on the horizon. Considering the domestic version of Namco's own Tekken 4 isn't due out for the PlayStation 2 until later this year, don't expect to be playing Soul Calibur II at home until sometime in 2003. The good news is that there's every indication Soul Calibur II will find its way onto every major gaming console, not just the PS2. For the time being, have a look at the arcade version and you'll see what the PS2 version of the game is probably going to look like, since the hardware running the Soul Calibur II arcade game is essentially a glorified PlayStation 2.
For an in-depth look at the gameplay of Soul Calibur II, read on.
The New Stage of History
At least 17 different characters have been confirmed to be in Soul Calibur II. That may seem like a lot, but initially, only 13 are selectable. Of these, nine return from Soul Calibur relatively intact, two are thinly veiled replacements for equivalent Soul Calibur characters, and only two are completely new. In other words, if you've played a lot of Soul Calibur, you'll be entering into some very familiar territory with Soul Calibur II. You won't need to relearn the game from scratch--just pick your old standby from the first game and watch how all of his or her best skills carry over into the sequel. Sure, most of the returning characters look different than before (and sport at least one completely different outfit since the first game), but in practice they're not completely revamped.
Is Soul Calibur II just a rehash? Certainly not, though a cynic might think so. At any rate, there's no denying that the gameplay of the sequel doesn't fall too far from the tree, by opting to accentuate some of the finer points of the original's mechanics rather than to introduce too much in the way of new features. As before, the game uses four action buttons: vertical slash, horizontal slash, kick, and guard. The guard button, when timed properly with a joystick motion, can be used to deflect or reverse certain attacks. As for the other attacks, they work in a sort of rock-paper-scissors relationship that's mostly new to this sequel. Vertical slashes tend to have priority over horizontal slashes. However, vertical slashes can be easily dodged and countered using lateral maneuvers, since characters in Soul Calibur II can move in any direction. Horizontal slashes hit sidestepping characters, though. In practice, since most attacks are blazingly fast, you'll need to anticipate your opponent's moves and mix up your own in order to survive. This rock-paper-scissors-style attack system is made all the more complex by another such system that should be familiar to anyone who's ever played a 3D fighting game: You'll need to defend high, middle, and low attacks by guarding accordingly.
The reality of all this is that Soul Calibur II favors the aggressor. Players who try to continuously defend against their enemies' attacks simply won't last long--even if they manage to deflect a series of strikes, they'll soon likely find themselves on the receiving end of an unblockable slash or a throw. Consequently, Soul Calibur II matches tend to be brutal and action-packed. Despite the fact that none of the weapons in the game ever draw blood--characters miraculously emerge from battle in as pristine of a state as they started off--there's no denying that Soul Calibur II offers lots of fast action, at least as much as its predecessor.
Gameplay follows a tried-and-true formula: By default, you need to win two out of three rounds to defeat your opponent. Rounds are won usually by knocking out your opponent, but also possibly by knocking him or her out of the ring. This is easier to do in certain arenas than in others, and since the challenger can choose the arena in which to fight at the beginning of a match, ring-outs may be more or less probable depending on your preference. As in Soul Calibur, in the sequel you may be knocked out of the ring only by a blow that lifts you up off your feet. You can't simply be pushed out.
It's not an obvious addition, but one new gameplay element in Soul Calibur II is the ability to flatten your opponents against walls, setting them up for devastating combos. While this wasn't possible in the first Soul Calibur, it's nevertheless been done in games like Virtua Fighter 3 and 4, Dead or Alive 2 and 3, and Tekken 4, so it's not exactly an innovation. Also, fighters that are launched into the air by powerful attacks now have a limited ability to control their movement while airborne, possibly using this to lessen the damage they might otherwise sustain from juggle combos.
Next, find out about Soul Calibur II's various modes of play, and take a look at its characters.
Sword and Soul
Soul Calibur II is the first arcade fighting game with a practice mode. Actually, because it's an arcade game, you may be surprised to find that the game offers not just a practice mode but other modes of play typically found in home fighting games. Though the standard arcade mode will take you and your character of choice through a series of matches against increasingly capable opponents, culminating in a match against Soul Calibur's aptly named end boss, Inferno, alternately you can choose a five-minute practice mode to hone your skills. Just cross your fingers that no one jumps in to challenge you while you're practicing. The game also sports a survival mode, where you challenge a continuous stream of opponents, regaining a little bit of health in between each match. There's even a time attack mode, where the challenge is to plow through all your opponents as quickly as possible.
We also know of the presence of a so-called conquest mode, though it either wasn't implemented or wasn't unlocked at the time we saw the game. Presumably, the conquest mode functions similarly to the mission mode from the Dreamcast version of Soul Calibur, where your character travels the world taking on different opponents and trying to accomplish varying objectives. For instance, he or she might have to defeat an opponent using only throws, or vanquish an otherwise-unstoppable foe by knocking him out of the ring.
We were surprised to find that all of the speech in Soul Calibur II has been dubbed in English. Games like Virtua Fighter 4 and Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast made a limited attempt to have their characters speak in their native tongues--basically, Western characters spoke English while Eastern characters spoke Japanese. However, it's all English in Soul Calibur II, and some of it does sound awkward. Some of the voices fit well, such as Nightmare's menacing growls or Xianghua's playful taunts, but others, like Mitsurugi's phony Japanese accent, don't sound quite right.
At any rate, let's go over the new fighters in Soul Calibur II:
Talim - A young girl hailing from Southeast Asia or possibly from India, Talim looks like a belly dancer and is armed with a pair of elbow blades, with which she can deliver fast, damaging strikes. Talim is small in stature, and her weapons have an inherently short range, so she doesn't seem overly powerful at a glance. She doesn't even seem as quick on her feet as some of the fastest characters in the lineup, returning fighters like Taki and Maxi. Nevertheless, Talim's acrobatic moves are no doubt a lot deadlier than she herself might appear.
Raphael - A French fencer, Raphael is the quintessential swashbuckler, complete with shoulder-length blonde hair and goatee. He uses his rapier to deliver a barrage of piercing attacks against his opponents, and his assortment of snap-kicks complement his sword techniques nicely. Raphael seems like he'll be a popular new character to use in the game, as he's certainly impressive to see in action.
Yunsung - Yunsung basically replaces Hwang from Soul Calibur. Like his predecessor, he fights with a broadsword, which he wields with surprising dexterity despite the blade's bulky shape. Yunsung is a nimble fighter, easily compensating for his lack of sheer size by extending his reach as far as it'll go, all to deliver many fierce strikes against his enemies.
Cassandra - Cassandra is the younger sister of Soul Calibur's Sophitia. Like her sister, Cassandra is a sprightly, blonde-haired lass who fights with a shield and short sword. She's the spitting image of her sister and has many of the same fighting techniques, too. The shield certainly helps Cassandra's defense, although it also serves as a secondary weapon.
Next, we review the returning fighters from Soul Calibur.
Many of the most popular characters from Soul Calibur are back in Soul Calibur II.
Mitsurugi - This powerful samurai returns, seemingly stronger than ever. Mitsurugi again boasts a solid, versatile offense, but with good reach and more than enough speed. As before, he can switch to two different fighting stances, though now with new moves available from either one. His alternate outfit depicts him as a wild-haired ronin, an apparent homage to Haohmaru, the main character from the classic Samurai Shodown fighting game series.
Taki - Taki is a kunoichi, or female ninja, and fights with blinding speed. Her speed and her stunning good looks have made her a popular character with Soul Calibur players. Our initial impressions of Taki in this sequel were that she seemed a bit toned down since the previous game, doling out somewhat less damage than before with her rapid attacks. Some of her attacks also seem to have lost some of their high priority over enemy strikes. Nevertheless, Taki seems entirely effective and notably packs a couple of painful-looking new throws.
Kilik - Kilik from Soul Calibur is also back, sporting some fancy new clothes. A staff fighter of mysterious origin, Kilik packs many long-range and surprisingly fast attacks, some of which can be very damaging. He isn't so straightforward to play, but as in Soul Calibur, here he seems to be an extremely dangerous character in the right hands. He seems to have a number of new acrobatic moves.
Xianghua - This spunky young Chinese swordfighter packs a lot of sleek, flashy fighting techniques that are sure to keep the opponent guessing. Capable of continuously switching between high-hitting and low-hitting strikes, Xianghua can quickly slash her foes into submission, even though her individual strikes may not pack quite as much punch as those of some of the other fighters.
Maxi - The stylish nunchaku-wielding fighter from Soul Calibur returns for the sequel, now with even more surprising and effective moves. Maxi seems particularly effective at attacking while dodging from side to side, making him especially good at taking out opponents that rely too heavily on vertical slashes. Maxi's powerful, long-range techniques seem to have few real weaknesses, except that the aggressive nature of his fighting style opens him up to parries and reversals.
Nightmare - Once an honorable knight, Nightmare is now a purely evil being that's become infused with an evil sentient sword--Soul Edge. Nightmare's alternate outfit in Soul Calibur II makes it obvious that he once was Siegfried, a character from Soul Calibur and its predecessor. Though Nightmare and Siegfried always shared most all of their moves, now Nightmare seems to have literally all of Siegfried's techniques, as well as his own. As before, the tremendous reach and sheer power of his two-handed sword make for a serious advantage.
Ivy - The sadistic Ivy returns in Soul Calibur II, armed with her signature sword-whip weapon. Ivy was one of the more challenging characters to use effectively in the previous game and yet retains many of her confusing moves, though she does seem a bit faster than before. She's also got a number of new moves that let her use her sword whip to its fullest potential--she can often be seen whirling the weapon about, a sight that will surely make an opponent give pause before approaching too quickly.
Astaroth - This gigantic, ax-wielding monstrosity is back in Soul Calibur II, and as before, your best bet is to try to take advantage of his relative sluggishness. When Astaroth does get his hits in, they really, really hurt. He also has more unblockable attacks than any of the other characters, so don't stay on the defensive for too long when up against this guy. His large size made him relatively difficult to play in Soul Calibur, and that still seems to hold true in the sequel.
Voldo - The bizarre Voldo returns and fights as effectively as ever with his katars, essentially scissorlike knives affixed to his hands. The fact that Voldo can't see or hear has no effect on his fighting prowess. His tall, lanky frame and dexterous moves can fell any foe. Voldo seems even more maneuverable than before in the sequel, though he's still relatively difficult to play.
Read on for our final thoughts on Soul Calibur II.
A Legend in the Making?
Besides the 13 initially selectable characters, there's also Inferno, the last boss. Like in Soul Calibur, this fiery being basically assumes the form of one of the other selectable fighters. You square off against him in a one-round match, and the fires emanating from his body make fighting him distracting. He switches between different characters' fighting styles at a couple of different points in the fight and has much more health than a standard opponent, so good luck taking him down.
Several hidden characters have already been revealed to be in the game, though we haven't seen them for ourselves yet. Still, they are Cervantes the pirate, the swordsman Yoshimitsu from Soul Calibur and the Tekken series, and a strange character called Charade, apparently a bipedal manifestation of the Soul Calibur weapon. Presumably, Charade takes the fighting styles of any of the other characters, much like Inferno or Soul Calibur's Edge Master.
Soul Calibur II is certainly a fun game. It controls smoothly and precisely, the frame rate is exceedingly fast, and the character models are highly detailed and finely articulated. Namco still does the best motion capture in the business, so rest assured that every character's moves look authentic, brutal, and exciting. But is Soul Calibur II the revolutionary game its predecessor was?
That's actually a loaded question. Many remember the original Soul Calibur as a superlative fighting game. The problem is, they only remember the Dreamcast version, rather than the relatively underwhelming arcade version that had been available for months prior. It took the graphical overhaul and the addition of many cool bonus features for the Dreamcast version of Soul Calibur to really make people sit up and take notice. Soul Calibur II simply doesn't offer the same sheer breadth of options at this point, but it's an arcade game. Who's to say what more can be expected from the impending home versions?
Arguably, Soul Calibur II doesn't do much to change the gameplay of its predecessor. However, the same was once said of the arcade version of Soul Calibur as it related to its predecessor, Soul Edge. Soul Calibur offered only a few completely new characters, and the new moves added to returning characters weren't obvious at first. All this is to say, even though Soul Calibur II isn't an obviously impressive game, it does seem to have all the elements that made its predecessor such a fantastic game.
In the end, only time will tell if Soul Calibur II will have the same amazing depth and longevity of the previous game in the series. What's evident is that it's got some big shoes to fill, and though many fans will undoubtedly be eagerly awaiting its release for home systems next year, they should rest assured that the game is officially available now in arcades. So what are you waiting for? Grab those quarters and head to that one last good arcade you know about.