Soul Calibur 2 for the GameCube is released in the States on August 26th. Should you import it now? Well, that depends on how you like Link, and if the best fighting game ever interests you. Read our full review for details.
Let's see a show of hands: who here didn't play Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast? There's probably not a single gamer who's truly alive that didn't log at least two hours of play on that masterpiece. Soul Calibur was a virtuoso weapon-based fighting game with an intuitive engine that sucked in people who'd never played a fighter, sweet classical music that sucked in people who'd only played RPGs, and graphics that sucked in people who'd never picked up a videogame controller, period. That said, the sequel comes with a lot of preconceptions. Everyone wants to know: is it better than the original?
Rather than say "Yes -- and no" I'll go ahead and give you the short answer: Yes. Yes, Soul Calibur II is better than the original. If you own the original and still play it even kind-of regularly, without a doubt, you must buy Soul Calibur II. If you've been in a coma for four years and never played the original Soul Calibur, and have ever enjoyed any kind of fighting game whatsoever, by all means pick up Soul Calibur II. If you remain yet unsure, feel free to continue reading.
The story of Soul Calibur had something to do with twenty warriors seeking out some legendary sword. In Soul Calibur II, players can pick between any of these warriors, including series standbys such as grizzled Samurai Mitsurugi, bo-fighter Kilik, his sword-wielding sister Xianghua, giant Frankenstein-man-with-an-axe Astaroth, and whip-sword-armed French lady Ivy. New to Soul Calibur II are Cassandra, a look-a-like of Sophitia from the original two games in the series, Yun Sung, a look-a-like of Hwang Sung-Kyung of (you guessed it) the other two games, Raphael, a gentleman with a rapier and a dancing stance, Talim, the cute Filipina with two deadly sticks, and Todd-McFarlane-designed demon-warrior Necrid.
Some people have complained that the character models in Soul Calibur II aren't as "appealing" or "interesting" as the ones in the original Soul Calibur, and I honestly can't see what they're talking about. Whether they're "interesting" or "appealing" or not doesn't matter once you see them in super-fluid almost-real motion. Once you feel how perfectly your button presses translate into this fluid motion, you become the character, and from that point on, you hardly care what your character looks like.
Suffice it to say, this is the best-looking, best-feeling, and best-sounding fighter I've ever played. Backgrounds are ridiculously rich and detailed and shaded, battle screams and clashes of swords are varied beyond imagination, and the controls are a dream.
What I always loved about the original Soul Calibur is how easy it was to convince someone else to play. Like I've said, that game sucked people in. Skill at memorizing eighty-button combinations isn't what makes you a Soul Calibur champion -- innate skill at videogames, at hand-eye-coordination itself, makes you a legend that will never die.
This skill will be put to the test over and over again as you play with friends. You might find yourself thinking you mastered the game, as I did, only to be beaten by your friend's girlfriend whose only other game was Super Bomberman 2 on the Super Nintendo. No, no -- this is a good thing.
One thing that's not entirely a good thing is the Weapon Master Mode. In Soul Calibur, a "Quest Mode" let you play out a storyline as you moved your character from square-to-square on a map screen. Each battle had its own little set of rules -- wind, poison, an enemy with recharging energy, hit the opponent only while he's in the air, et cetera -- and some of them got hair-rippingly complex. Each battle won earned points, which were used to buy pictures for the art gallery or new costumes. This mode returns in Soul Calibur II, only now, it's blessed with prizes of "Gold," which is used to buy new weapons at each chapter's weapon shop. The weapons, like those of Soul Edge's Edge Master Mode, have various abilities: some can't be blocked; some absorb energy; some are twice as long as normal weapons; others, while strong, can't be used to block.
However, in Soul Edge, you played Edge Master Mode as each character, and each weapon was won as part of a "story." Each character had his or her own story, at that -- not like in Soul Calibur II, where you pick any character, and can buy weapons for all characters from the start. What's more, the missions are sometimes very uninspired. "Dungeon" levels require you to click on square after square until you meet the super-powered "boss." This makes the Weapon Master Mode, while necessary to unlock all of the hidden weapons and costumes, very quickly become tedious. I took the game over to a friend's house, only to have him complain about wanting to use Seung Mina. I played Weapon Master Mode, alone, for an hour, until we unlocked Seung Mina.
So yeah, there are just too darn many things to unlock in the game -- modes, weapons, characters, costumes -- and it's not fun to do it. Those "dungeons" I mentioned? There's at least one in every chapter, it takes a half an hour of clicking to beat each one, there is seldom more than one path to take through the dungeon, and you have to beat them twice in order to unlock everything. It's a slow, lazy way of hiding things, and it's not innovative. I think the time has come for all these things to be unlocked from the start. It took me seven hours of solid play to unlock everything. Even a non-gamer in attendance was able to help me beat a couple of missions. The "story" sequences presented between battles -- in Japanese -- are boring hints of "voices in the darkness," and I don't feel any of the original game's "historical" setting in them. I don't play a fighting game for the story. All I want to do is fight against friends.
And maybe that's because the fighting is just too fun. I simply can't stress this enough. Soul Calibur II is a game you can feel in your wrists when you're not playing. The greatness of it is in feeling out each character's rhythm, not memorizing his or her move list. I could sit and play forever on the "Survival" mode, taking down opponent after opponent as Seung Mina; after awhile, it starts to feel like a game of pinball, or Tetris. I like this kind of thing. It makes lonely play-sessions of Soul Calibur II more than bearable.
It's once you get friends in on the action that you start to see the true beauty of the game. When a non-gamer can beat a hardcore gamer at Soul Calibur II simply because of her natural intuition and hand-eye coordination, that's when you know you're looking at something special. When you witness two hardcore fighting game masters clashing and deflecting and parrying with energy-absorbing weapons for a half an hour with the timer set on infinite, that's when you know Namco has made something magical.
If Namco has added anything to Soul Calibur aside from the new costumes and characters, it's arenas with walls. In the original Soul Calibur, every side of every arena emptied off into space. Ring-out victories ran rampant. In Soul Calibur II, some arenas have walls, against which aspiring Soul-masters can juggle and re-juggle opponents. I can't stress how much this adds to the game -- it's like Namco has added a fourth dimension to its three-dimensional fighter. I'd go so far as to say, heck, if you like Soul Calibur, get Soul Calibur II for the walled arenas alone. I have THAT much fun with them.
Certainly don't get the game just because Link is on the box-art. Sadly, I find Link unsatisfying. One friend of mine, drawn to the game by Link's presence on the cover art, soon agreed to our tournament rule: No Link in tournament play. He's a fan-service more than anything else: his boomerang and bow (the ONLY projectiles or any kind in any Soul game!) are cheesy beyond belief, and every time you press the two slash buttons together, he pulls out his weapon, and aims. A normal character would turn around into a combo. Not Link -- he plays like he's not from this game. For someone to enjoy playing as Link is for them to enjoy playing alone. This is a game for group play. I would have preferred it if Namco turned Link into a more air-based Sophitia clone.
Hey, at least he's still got his Zelda 2 down-thrust attack.
Namco is taking about six months to localize this game. Some say it's because they're re-dubbing the Japanese voices into English. In any case, the Japanese text is minimal, and limited only to weapon and storyline descriptions. If you've played the arcade version, you know the story, anyway, and even what the fighters are saying after battle. If you've ever played any videogame, you'll be able to figure out each weapons abilities by using it once or twice. So, in terms of import-friendliness, I'd rate this one a super-high -- made even super-higher by the ready availability of the Free Loader disc. It's a good time to import games right now, and an even better time to import Soul Calibur II.
I bought my copy of Soul Calibur II at the AsoBitCity gaming super-Mecca-store in Akihabara, Tokyo. In front of the store, some thirty-something kiosks were set up with Soul Calibur II on proud display, ten for each version. Half of the Xbox kiosks featured the game and a Hori Soul Calibur II stick -- the other half featured the Xbox Controller-S. Three of the PlayStation2 kiosks were armed with the standard PS2 controller -- the others all proudly featured the stick. All of the GameCube booths were outfitted with the 'stick. I would not consider this an accident. I've tried playing Soul Calibur II with my Wavebird, and I just don't like it. My friends prefer to use the Hori Digital Pads that I brought back from Akihabara, and they work beautifully. The GameCube's standard D-pad is too small, and the analog stick just isn't responsive enough for what is, without exception, a digital game.
The Hori Stick, which I proudly own, is the finest fighting stick I've ever played with. Anyone who picks it up becomes a fighting-game-god, and even those who say they prefer pads can't help commenting on its sheer plastic perfection. It feels ripped from an arcade cabinet for a reason -- because Hori makes those arcade cabinets. They would be foolish not to release this stick in America; in Japan, it only cost me around $25. I'd advise anyone importing the game to also import two of these sticks. They are an integral part of the game, like a dancing pad to a Dance Dance Revolution game, like a two-player mode is to any fighting game. So get two -- unless you're afraid of your mom standing a more than fair chance at beating you.
So there you have it: if you like Soul Calibur -- or fighting games in general -- get Namco's Soul Calibur II and two Hori Fighting Sticks. The game is a glorious, beautiful-looking, feeling, and sounding replacement for its predecessor, and, some minor one-player item-unlocking issues aside, the all-around best fighting game available for (oh so) easy importing today.