Rick's plowed through Namco's multi-platform fighter ... and his soul STILL burns!
When Soul Calibur was released for the Dreamcast launch, it was an instant success. It was one of the first times that an arcade game had been ported to a home console better in every respect than the original. The graphic quality was enhanced all around; there were new single player modes added, hidden characters, and gameplay that appealed to the masses. Even more unusual, the game remained a huge seller throughout the lifespan of the console; a testament to the dedication Namco instilled in the project.
Years later, Namco has released the sequel on all three platforms, but much like the extra effort they put into the previous title, Soul Calibur II has features unique to each version in the form of a special character only found on each respective console. Of course, Nintendo fans have been eagerly awaiting their version of Soul Calibur II, since it features everyone's favorite Hylian … and without the controversial cel-shading of the latest Legend of Zelda.
While the game is a multiplayer haven to be sure, Namco has put extra effort into making the single-player experience something to be cherished. Playing through the "Weapon Master" mode allows you to gain experience points (which increase your personal rank), as well as gold with which you can purchase new weapons or features. The weapons aren't just for show, as each can subtly affect how much damage you deal or take, as well as reflect damage or heal your combatant. Each weapon is exquisitely detailed, and fits the character's mode of fighting, with Link's weapons all coming from items he can acquire in his other console adventures. Some necessary liberties were taken, such as Link being able to wield the Biggoron Sword with one hand.
Something of an odd addition to the Weapon Master mode are the dungeons, where the player must find their way through a labyrinth of rooms and battle the boss at the end. No experience is gained until you finish a dungeon, and some are quite lengthy, so prepare for the worst before you sojourn into one. Unlike other games, these dungeon hacks are nothing more than a series of rooms; each with a foe to defeat, but progress in the Weapon Master mode will require successfully navigating several of them. Navigate them you will, as the features that are unlocked are more than worthwhile. Extra single-player and multi-player modes (where you can use purchased weapons rather than the default set) are just the start, with art galleries, new character costumes, and demonstrations rounding out the list of hidden features.
As with the previous game, the fluidity of the gameplay is where Soul Calibur II really shines. Watch the characters carefully and learn which moves are coming, because there is almost always a counter or a way to evade for those skilled in the mechanics. Your character can move in any of eight directions, useful for escaping a vertical slashing attack, but will usually cost you when faced with a horizontal attack. There are cheap attacks aplenty for the button mashers (and you know who you are), but when someone pins you to a wall and pummels you, or juggles you in the air while attacking you mercilessly, you'll be thankful for the options to retaliate. The main face buttons handle everything you'll need, but the Z, L, and R buttons can handle buttons combinations for fast access. For example, the Z button does a Soul Charge by default, normally requiring a simultaneous press of the A, X, and Y buttons.
There are some characters missing from the first title, but a little careful observation will find their movements and attacking styles in a couple of the initially non-playable characters (unlockable only in the US version). The characters that are present each have a unique and impressive style of movement that is smooth and clean. They aren't bad to look at either; while the skin of the fighters looks somewhat plastic, their clothing ripples and flows in a very realistic fashion. Some of the animations are reused from the original, but given the detail exhibited throughout the rest of the title, a little frugality is acceptable. When it comes to eye-candy, the ladies of DOA have new competition, with the Soul Calibur girls displaying enough jiggle and beauty for anyone. Expect Taki to be a popular choice for the hormonally-charged. For those with the capability, the game supports progressive-scan televisions, more of which hit the market every day. (A 27-inch model from Samsung can be had for under $600!)
Somewhat less impressive (but not by much!) is the soundtrack, which features themes that support the gameplay without becoming the focal point. The game supports Dolby Pro-Logic II for those with the hardware, and the surround effects add a dimension to the game, as weapon strikes can be heard behind you or to the sides as you circle your opponent.
Soul Calibur II isn't nearly the breakthrough that its predecessor was, but that tends to be the case with the follow-up to any wildly successful title. Regardless, it's the absolute best fighting game available on the GameCube, and fantastic fun for one or two players. Good luck finding one, since early buzz is that Nintendo's heavy advertising of Link in the GameCube version has that edition of the game in short supply. Snatch it up while you still can … you won't be the least bit sorry.