We recently had the chance to get our hands on an updated version of Namco's Soulcalibur IV, the latest entry in its popular fighting series. The latest installment features a large roster of fighters that mixes old and new characters. It will also feature some very special guest stars, Darth Vader and Yoda, who'll be exclusive to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, respectively. While Darth and Yoda weren't playable in the version we tried, we were able to check out some new characters and stages. We also got to try out some of the new mechanics being introduced in this installment and check it out on the PlayStation 3. While the game is still a work in progress, the new content has us curious to see how the game is going to come together.
The demo we played on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 offered the same content on both platforms. We were able to try out four characters, each of which featured an alternate costume. There were veteran fighters, Taki, Cassandra, and Seong Mi-Na, as well as newcomer Hilde. The five playable stages included the two stages we saw at CES, the jungle and Grecian stages. There were also three new ones: a large carousel stage, a dojo room that overlooked a battlefield, and a seaside boat.
We dove right into the new stuff, picking Hilde and the carousel stage. The new fighter takes some getting used to because she doesn't handle quite as you might expect. While she may look like Siegfried with cleavage, handling her is considerably different. You'll use a shorter blade for many of her attacks and bring her longer stave into play a bit more strategically. The most interesting twist to her fighting style is the need to charge some of her attacks with her longer weapon. When it hits, it does a good amount of damage, but charging it up when someone like Taki is busting you up left, right, and center is tricky. Seong Mi-Na, on the other hand, has a much tighter feel thanks in part to our familiarity with her. The staff wielding butt-kicker has the range and a respectable amount of speed that work well together.
Although we'd tried Cassandra and Taki at CES, we gave them another whirl in this version and found them to be tightened up considerably. The move timing felt a bit better and combos came easier. The only other thing that stood out to us in this version is that the overall combat speed didn't feel quite as fast as it has, but we'll see how that evolves throughout the game's development. The stages didn't really play much of a factor in battle, although it was possible to ring out in the carousel and dock stages after your broke some of the background elements.
The combat system in this version of the game finally included some of the new content we'd heard about previously. The demo featured some new elements in the life-bar displays, which play into combat. The large gem at the end of each bar is the soul gauge and cycles through different color states based on your combat style. If you tend to block a lot, your gauge will eventually cycle to red and allow your opponent to perform a powerful guard-break attack. If your foe gets the timing right, he or she can follow up with another strong attack and actually break your armor. This new system is tracked by a small trio of green boxes under the life bars onscreen, which represent the condition of your armor: high, mid, and low.
From the look of it, once your armor is broken, that's how it stays for the rest of your match. Fortunately, your armor is back when you take on a new fighter. When your armor is broken, your fighter will reflect the loss in his or her appearance, and you'll obviously take a bit more damage. The more controversial new addition to the mix is the critical finishers, which are tied to armor loss. At the moment, once you've broken at least one section of your opponent's armor, you can knock him or her around again to get his or her soul gauge back to red. Then, you'll have a small window of time to trigger the critical finisher by pressing all four face buttons on the controller at the same time. If you've timed it right, you'll be treated to a short cinematic sequence that's unique to each fighter, wherein fighters will lay the smack down on their opponents and end the match, regardless of the recipient's health. We have mixed feelings about this addition, although we have to say it will ensure people stay on their toes during a match.
The visuals in the game are shaping up really well on both platforms. The character models look great on both platforms. There's a high level of detail on the fighters and their costumes, which looks sharp. The somewhat "free and easy" physics that was happening with Taki's chest is still in full effect, so we're starting to assume that she'll be the bounciest character in the roster. The environments are gorgeous and a bit more interactive than the last time we saw the game. At the moment, the interactivity is limited to the odd bit of floor breaking and elements in the back, such as vases on the dojo stage breaking, but the effects are fine. We noticed some new ambient elements in the CES stages, namely dodos that are now roaming the battlefield, which is a bit odd, but we reckon they went extinct for a reason, right? For those looking to split hairs, the game looks almost identical on both platforms, but there are a few minor differences at this time. The PS3 seems to have a bit more specular lighting effects, which are most noticeable on Hilde's armor, and there are some differences in the color saturation on both systems, but it's not anything dramatic. The game's frame rate is mostly stable, but there were a few hitches, which is to be expected for a game in the middle of development.
Based on this meatier taste of the game, Soulcalibur IV is coming together nicely. The visuals are looking good, and the fighting system is heading in an interesting direction. We'll be curious to see how the final system handles and how much of an impact the environment is going to have on combat. Soulcalibur IV is slated to ship this July for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Look for more in the coming months.