You'd think the characters in the SoulCalibur series would've gotten tired of the whole "quest for the sacred sword(s)" thing by now and retreated to their couches to watch Matlock reruns.
Not so. After 12 years, Cervantes, Astaroth, Yoshimitsu et al are still going strong—and they've even welcomed a couple of newcomers to the party.
Well, maybe not so new. Namco Bandai's SoulCalibur IV, the latest installment in the popular fighting series, welcomes Star Wars' Darth Vader and Yoda (Jar Jar Binks had other commitments, apparently) to the fold as guest combatants, supplementing the 24 wiley veterans (and additional unlockable characters) that populate this rock 'em, sock 'em universe.
None of these battle-hardened avatars care much about Vader's troubled past or Yoda's suspicious resemblance to Harry Potter's house elf Dobby. They're far more interested in claiming one or both of the game's über-powerful weapons—the evil and corrupt Soul Edge or the good, shiny Soul Calibur. They've all got their own reasons for searching for the weapons: The quasi-angelic knight Siegfried wants to destroy the Soul Edge. Dastardly pirate Cervantes wants to claim the evil sword for his own nefarious ends. Rock just wants to become a better dad. And so on.
But all these storylines—bewildering though they may be—mean next to nothing to most of the folks who slap the SoulCalibur disk into a console and pick up the quest. This game is mainly about simple, smashmouth combat, and the only plot most players care about is the plot of virtual land in which they hope to bury their opponents.
Whack a Jedi
Gamers have plenty of options as to how they engage their enemies. There's a Story option, an Arcade mode and a chance to battle your friends either on- or offline, along with a handful of other offerings. But actual game play doesn't change much from mode to mode. There's no nuance here, no subtlety. Your guy faces off against another guy, and you've got to kick his animated keister.
You have access to special moves, skills and weapons unique to your character, with a chance to collect cooler armor and weapons as your experience increases. You can design your own characters from scratch, too, giving each one everything from a unique fighting style to a unique hair style.
Gameplay doesn't have to be complicated, but it can be. You can spend hours practicing complicated moves, but the average button-masher can do just fine in the early going. And it's admittedly entertaining to see what kind of sword (or whip or claw or gun) will spring from your character's hand (or foot or torso or back) with jumbled button mash-ups.
What we didn't find so entertaining is the game's fantastical, muddled theology. Some of the fighters are seemingly demigods, loaded with magical powers and (as they tell us occasionally) a thirst for souls. Granted, the game steers clear of overt blood and gore (though one warrior showcases his beating heart on the outside of his ribcage). But many of these muscle-bound creatures are disturbingly dark, and their surroundings often have a quasi-religious vibe. Studying the storylines behind some of these warriors only enhances the game's Dungeons & Dragons feel.
Naked Blades, Nearly Naked Bods
Moreover, the dress code here doesn't include comfortable sportswear—you know, shorts, sweats, that sort of thing. Many costumes you'd expect to find in the newest "Fetishes R Us" catalog, with the women wearing particularly skimpy outfits. One female wears a leatherish get-up that exposes much of her chest and all of her buttocks. Another dresses in a wispy, white toga-like thing from which her breasts seem to constantly threaten to break free. Nothing new for this series, but as game graphics become increasingly realistic, these outfits become more and more problematic.
Players hear the occasional curse ("d--n," "h---"), and the onscreen warriors sometimes talk trash. (Players can even force their avatars to taunt, if they so wish.) And, of course, there's the very real issue of the fighting itself, even if the battles are comparatively bloodless.
"Ohhh! Great warrior!" Yoda told Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. "Wars not make one great!" One wonders just how the formidable but peace-loving Yoda would feel about being a part of a game that specializes in turning one-on-one warfare into an entertainment form.