When I first popped in SCIV and watched the obligatory opening cinematic, I felt a twinge of disappointment. Namco only featured a sparse handful of characters whereas previous entries have showcased all the characters. Then after a moment, I thought does it really matter? This is a fighting game. The point of the game is the interactive exchange and not watching pretty cinematics.
Over and over I found myself asking that same question does it really matter? Gone is the "Soul Arena" and the fancy battles where you collect coins, fight a giant statue. Gone is the pointless (not to mention redundant) "Time Attack" mode. Say goodbye to "Versus Team Battle", "Battle Theater" where you could set the computer to fight itself, the Tutorial (?), the extra fighting styles from SCIII's Create a Soul feature, and curiously also missing is the ability to adjust the difficulty in Arcade Mode (?!).
It feels like Soul Calibur did some serious introspection -- a line by line audit of all its features -- and asked itself, "Do I really need this to be a good fighting game?" A noble, if flawed, effort. The Tutorial would have been nice to keep for newcomers, and an adjustable difficulty would be just dandy in case players get bored of fighting the ridiculously easy AI (I guess this is a step up from SCIII's ridiculously unforgiving AI.) I would trade all the guest and bonus characters for those two features, but whatever.
With a few glaring exceptions (Yoda, Vader, Apprentice, Bonus Characters I'm looking at you), Soul Calibur IV is what I've been waiting for from a fighting game for some time now. Especially with how fighting games lately have decided to throw everything at the player (including the kitchen sink) to the point that the core fighting elements feel more and more neglected (Soul Calibur III, MK Armageddon). I want to play a fighting game that cuts through the crap, cuts through the superficial fluff, cuts through the cheap propaganda I want a fighting game to focus once again on fighting. Did Namco skimp on the extra features? Oh, absolutely! Is the story complete and utter nonsensical crap like most other games (especially fighting games) that hit #4 (technically #5) in the series? You bet. Do the character's outfits look god-awful? Indeedy-do! Now ask me how the game plays.
The aforementioned introspection extended even into the fighting engine where the excessive number of (mostly useless) moves from Soul Calibur II are consolidated into a smaller list. For example, in SCII Taki's 3+B* was a static uppercut move, while 1,1+B* could be chained into her possession stance for more options. The static uppercut was axed, and the combo-able uppercut replaces it entirely.
In fairness, SCIII tried this and felt like a step back from II; however, IV feels far more polished and solid.
Do I miss the deleted moves? The static uppercut from the above example? Nope. In SCII Taki had a nice little 8-way run combo, 2,2+A,A,A, that looked cool (kinda useless against veteran players, but served me well against everyone else). I kinda wish that was still in the game, but it doesn't affect the fighting that much (I used it more for aesthetics when I could get away with it.) And of course, new moves are introduced for old characters some more drastic than others. Taki more or less receives tweaks and refinements while Tira, for example, now changes moods mid-fight which affects how her combos pan out. Ivy has received a major overhaul as well, giving her three base stances depending whether her sword is in solid, whip, or coiled state not to mention completely reworking her command throws.
Hilde is an interesting addition to the cast, using a short sword (horizontal attacks) and spear (vertical attacks) and the range difference of those respective weapons makes playing as her a unique experience (if lacking an immediate attack.) In early matches I found myself attacking when the enemy was in range of the spear, forgetting that 1+A* is a short sword attack, and paying for it when the sword whiffs.
Algol, the new boss, is a mishmash of good ideas and horrendous ideas. He is one with the swords, whose hands turn into their respective blades, and he can sprout more blades from his body it would be a neat new take on the old Soul Edge/Inferno/Abyss idea where the swords possess its wielder. Instead, Algol is intertwined with the already convoluted plot, and revealed to be the origin of Soul Calibur with his soul infused into the sword sleeping in a tower to be resurrected when yeah, this is approaching the Plan 9 standard of bad writing. Fortunately, story is irrelevant to a fighting game.
So on to something relevant: the stricter buffering system, which requires more precise button inputs than previous entries. Perhaps to counterbalance the smaller move set? Might be a turn off to newcomers and quasi-button mashers who might not be able to get their combos to work, but won't phase veteran players.
Lastly, Character Creation which I've never really cared for in past games, finally strikes my interest. Mostly because now you can rework the hair and outfits of existing characters. So if Namco gave your favorite character a stupid look (Elvis-impersonator Maxi, anyone?) or maybe even if they grossly misproportioned their anatomy (Taki, Ivy, anyone?) or if they gave them a neat outfit with ridiculous colors (Raphael) chances are you can fix it, or at least hide it.
In the end, despite the glaring exceptions (Guest/Bonus characters), SCIV trimmed the useless excess of previous games to deliver a more solid fighting game experience which makes it the best Soul Calibur thus far.
*Standard net notation for Soul Calibur; see any SC FAQ for explanation if you don't already know it.
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