It's entertaining and certainly doesn't lack technical polish, but a few gameplay flaws make for some rough edges.
Soul Calibur II is a 3D fighter from Namco, the sequel to the game Soul Calibur, which just so happens to be a game often revered as one of the best ever. In Soul Calibur II you pick from an ample roster of characters and select a stage in which to fight. There are two fighters in the arena at one time and on paper the gameplay is pretty straightforward. You can move towards or away from your enemy, or move around them; your character will always be facing your enemy. Though the movement comes second to all but masters of this game since the real meat and potatoes of the game comes from using the various, gorgeous attacks to brutally hack away at your opponent. Every character has a very unique and very impressive roster of moves and weapons, and some of the more dazzling throws and combos are a sight to see.
Like most fighters, the multiplayer is far-and-away the better mode of play over the single-player, or Master Quest as it is known in Soul Calibur. That being said the single player is quite impressive and adds some nice lasting value to the game. The story is nothing mentionable and there are no twists or revelations to speak of, but you go through various areas of an imaginary land and fight under different circumstances which nicely mixes up the gameplay. You may be wounded from a past battle and you have to fight with hindered health; it may be particularly windy so there's a good chance that you'll be blown off the edge; or maybe you'll just have to fight three (not at the same time) enemies. It's neither long nor short and is neither original or clichéd. But at the very least it's entertaining and comparing to some other fighters it boasts quite a good single player.
The actual fighting mechanics are quite solid. There are a series of combos that are available to each character that make the gameplay more varied than it could be. Each character has a set of at least five or six unique throws, and the brief cinematic shown when a throw is executed really showcases the amount of detail and polish that Namco put forth. These throws deal some hefty damage and range in difficulty as far as execution is concerned. The same goes for most of the attacks. The stronger the move, the more buttons you’ll have to press and timings you’ll have to nail and vice-versa. Though memorizing an entire characters moves would taxing to say the least, it's surprisingly easy to nail down a strategy for a character that may involve a certain string of moves here or a throw there. However you can check your character’s move list when pausing the game if you're so inclined to do a new move at every possible time.
The variety is the stand-out of the gameplay. You can attack in nearly countless ways and the different weapons from different characters create some immense advantages and disadvantages. In any given battle you may never use one move twice, but the ranging levels of simplicity and difficulty in completing the moves inherently leads to one of the games biggest flaws: repetition. This game is a button masher’s dream. Gamer’s that find themselves skilled at the game after playing it for a month or two may find themselves ousted by a first-timer who’s just mashing their controller pad and pulling off amazing throws or deadly combos. Also it’s more likely than not that while playing someone they’ll find a single deadly move that’s easy to perform and they’ll continually best your efforts. In other words the balance in the game is poor and it’s incredibly easy to button mash your way through the game. For this reason it’s both frustrating and not entirely rewarding. When you beat an enemy there’s a good chance that you’ll have used some sort of button-mashing at some point, that is until you become quite a skilled fighter, and at the end you may just be left thinking, 'Is that it? Did I really beat someone on the second hardest difficult by shoving my palm down on the pad?'
That being said there is a good amount of strategy needed, at least when playing against computer characters. You need to block at the right time, duck, perform throws when you need to and use your horizontal slice at the right time as opposed to a vertical strike. But this once again leads to another of the game's flaws. Once you nail a strong hit on a character and they're knocked to the ground it's easy to slice and kick them while they're helpless, which is how you'll get most of your damage on an enemy. While this is at times avoidable, the ability to really destroy a character once they've been knocked to the ground seems like something that should have been avoided.
Both in visuals and audio this game is fantastic. The voice acting for each character, which is thoroughly impressive, can be heard throughout the battles and if you unlock character profiles later in the game you can go through any given character's lines, from their pained grunts after being dealt a blow to their taunts and victory cries. The music, aside from that found the absolutely breathtaking introduction CG video, isn't memorable but rather fades nicely into the background during a fight which is essential to keep it from becoming distracting.
The graphics are equally impressive and Namco spared no detail to each beautiful character model and made each powerful strike truly look painful. However it should be noted that the environments are not interactive, which is really a disappointment since being able to kick down obstacles would add to the experience. The levels themselves look nice as well, though the design isn't all that creative. Most of the levels are merely large rectangle shapes on a high setting.
Was it worth the wait? Perhaps not since there's really not much difference between the original and its follower. Is it worth checking out, though? Definitely. Even if there are better fighters it's still quite an impressive game which is worth a rental at the very least. It has great graphics and sound and it has some pretty good replay value. Even the more major gameplay flaws likely won't keep you from having a great time. Fans of the original, however, may just want to hold off on buying it for the sole reason that it's undeniably disappointing and in the end you'd be better off hunkering down with your old, dusty copy on the Dreamcast than investing in the newer adaptation. Though at its Player's Choice price, those who never experienced the original should give it a go.