The original Soul Edge arcade game by Namco (converted to the Playstation as Soul Blade) was an excellent 3D fighting game, fusing the speed and style of the great Tekken series to a weapon-based system of combat. It carried with it Namco's technical accomplishments and portions of Tekken's combat method, but managed to set itself apart by infusing the proceedings with a thoroughly fantastical flourish - a look that put the player in a mystical world set quite apart from the one we know.
It's sequel, Soul Calibur, was something of a surprise when it burst onto the fledgling Dreamcast scene: for a start, no-one could have predicted that such a high-profile release by Namco would be DC-bound and, secondly, no-one in their right mind could have foreseen how stunning and important the title would become.
High production values are a hallmark of Namco's products, but the biscuit is well and truly taken with this title. Right from the intro, everything about the game glistens. A CG intro, using the game engine, flashes across the screen: characters as weapons are posed, showing-off their smoothly animated attack patterns. Options screens are typically Namco-static, but are well drawn. Although the fighter selection screen seems underpopulated at first, further fighters are unlockable after more extensive play.
The character range in weapon-based fighting games ideally should hinge upon three factors: the protagonist's speed, style and type of weapon, and each factor should determine his or her effectiveness. This balance is served and preserved to the 'n'th degree in Soul Calibur, as each stat on each protagonist carries significant complexity - enough to enable a broad range of actions and fighting styles to be represented. It is not simply a case of character 'A' being a big grunt with a huge axe therefore he'll be slow but strong, and character 'B' being a weedy girl with little but a sharpened stick, who'll be fast but won't cause a lot of damage. The system is far more wily than that: the large guy may have a range of subtle feints at his disposal to counter-balance his lack of speed, and the smiley neophyte girl may have the ability to chain multiple hits, making her a devastating proposition. Suffice to say, there are few characters who feel under-balanced, and none that can't be employed to some degree of effectiveness.
It is from this that the high standard of the title begins to really show. During combat the characters move forwards and back with the requisite press in the right direction on the stick or D-pad (either can be used, and the player will find his/her own preference quite quickly), and will circle around the opponent with either an upwards or downwards press. This opens up a new range of tactical approaches: the full-3D nature of the arenas means you have to be fully aware of your position - as well as understanding the range and timing of your weapon's thrusts - as attacks are employed from different heights and with varying strengths. Blows are configured to the pad in such a way that X and Y are strikes of varying power (depending on character selected), A is block and B is kick. Similar in manner to Tekken, these actions can be combined for special moves, throws and, in some cases, unique counters. What is taken from Tekken and yet improved ten-fold is the area of the body the attack connects with: Low, Middle or High. In Soul Calibur, the weapons will clash if an attack of similar height is performed. The fluidity of transition between strikes can be breath taking if done correctly, and yet another technical aspect brings itself to the forefront: the parry and counter system.
Pressing back and block at the same time will, if timed correctly, parry an incoming blow. This means that the opponent will stagger slightly past you, wherein you can quickly throw him/her or attack with a blow or combo of blows. Similarly, if you press forward and block at the same time you will knock their guard away and may attack. Both require split-second timing and execution to work effectively, and can be performed to counter any height of attack. Such a system transforms Soul Calibur from a good fighter to a great fighter, being as it is flawlessly implemented and adds not only a feel of realism (due to the spot-on implementation), but also underlines the true 3D nature of the mechanics. The player is truly given a sense of immersion and replication, as each movement on your behalf is solidly and realistically mimicked in the arenas.
Each stage is glorious eye-candy - thematically linked to each fighter and packed full of intricate detail. The Teutonic Siegfried's stage, for example, is set beneath the walls of a great European castle, battlements lined with standards and weapons of war; during the battle, segments can be seen to be destroyed and collapse toward the ground. Kilik's stage is a serene valley containing a lake and tiny hut, and ties-in perfectly with his personality - revealed in the Mission Battle mode. Many stages can be played in seasonal settings, or during either day or night-time, which is more than just a gimmick as each has a different 'feel', helping to make the game universe more diverse and intriguing. The design maintains a cohesion and consistency too regularly absent from video games, not least because of the aforementioned back-story and also due to the time and skill employed drawing and animating the fighters, which are fabulously diverse: there's Ivy with her chain-whip sword, Voldo with his bladed gloves and S&M bondage gear, Mitsurugi with his traditional Samurai garb and katana... and all of them have a second 'skin' which alters their appearance significantly. The music in-game is fabulous, with a wide range of instrumental styles all well-suited to each particular stage, and the sound effects and character voices are suitably individualistic and appropriate, with bone-crunching impacts and primal screams complementing the intense action.
What truly elevates the game above and beyond all but the highest echelons of 3D fighters is the range of modes: you have the standard one-player and vs. modes, a training mode (as comprehensive and helpful as that of the Tekken games), survival and the intense Mission Battle mode. In this mode, and in a similar manner to Soul Blade, your chosen character must travel the globe, engaging in various battles which have predetermined objectives, which serves as both an alternative to standard combat and also as a 'story'mode, fleshing-out the characters' personalities. For example, one fight sees you having to defeat your opponent using only throws, another sees you standing on a strip of land where only one enemy at a time can attack, and you are assaulted from both sides by numerous Lizardmen. The variety is telling and compelling, and some will have you tearing your hair out in frustration at the difficulty, but it is more than a tacked-on addition and extends the game's length and reach.
The Museum is another platinum addition to the options menu. This contains such things as a gallery of original Soul Calibur art, 3D profiles - literal profiles - of characters, in rotatable 3D form, and a cracking Exhibition mode, in which any chosen fighter will perform a life-like routine demonstrating their combat skills. Recent games such as Namco's own Tekken series and even Sega's Virtua Fighter 4 have emulated many elements of 'Calibur - a testament more flattering and telling than any number of complementary reviews could hope to convey.
Although any flavour fighting game will fail to convert the die-hard anti-scrapper to the genre, no fan of gaming can fail to be impressed by the product as a whole. If the future of video games depends on creating utterly consistent game worlds - to aid immersion - then this must be seen as a design blueprint for achieving such a lofty ambition. Not only does Soul Calibur have incredible (and still, arguably, unsurpassed on home formats) visuals for a beat-em-up, with glorious lighting effects when weapons clash and highly detailed and individualistic warriors, but this never feels like an achievement obtained at the expense of either gameplay or consistency.
Soul Calibur isn't perfect, of course, but only in the ways any game will never be 'perfect': some people will find it dull (it's a fighting game - you really only fight), unbalanced (despite the technical skills attainable, you can hammer-out a result by bashing buttons occasionally) and short (it's a fighting game - ultimately, you need two players of reasonably equal skill to get the most from it). These are only criticisms levelled at all games in this genre, though, and are both negligible and forgettable. One of the most painful moments in the history of video games was when the community realised the Dreamcast was unable to survive and prosper. A machine capable of games of this magnitude should never have been overlooked and should remain an object-lesson to any aspiring developers. Totally consistent, exciting, gorgeous and infinitely playable, Soul Calibur is a design classic and possibly the most fully-formed and flawless example available in the 3D Fighting genre.
Score: 9/10Text by Stuart Peake