August 7, 2008

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Soulcaliber IV (PS3/360)
Project Soul, July 31, Rated T
By Glenn "Vagrant Samurai" Given production@hippopress.com

Technically this entry into the Soulcaliber series has more partially exposed breasts than swords. So does that make it a boob-based fighting game?

Since Soul Blade for the original PS took years of sleep and productivity from me and my college newspaper cohorts back in the mid-nineties, I’ve had a fondness for Namco’s weapons-based 3-D fighter. Soulcaliber has dutifully occupied a fun yet challenging middle ground between button-smashing spastic fighters like Tekken and arcane exercises in timing, guard-buffering and frame advantage like Virtua Fighter. Now, there is a time and a place for both ends of the spectrum, but neither side of the digital fight coin will please everybody; hence Soulcaliber. Technical players can find a rich pastry of combos, feints, stance-dancing and changeups in the 28 available characters. Most of the original cast returns, so fans of nunchuck-swinging Japanese Elvis-likes and BDSM Italians will get their due and the new faces (most notably in the sensibly clothed Hilde) come in strong.

The big buzz is the inclusion of a pair of Star Wars Jedi in the roster. PS3 owners will James Earl Jones their opponents down as Vader and 360 twiddlers will get to flip about and speak in broken Yodinglish as the green muppet himself. Those two are neat, but the real treat is the addition of the Starkiller/Apprentice character on both consoles from the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed title. Sure, he wields his lightsaber with a grip that every 13-year-old broom-handle-swinger thinks is totally badass, but his acrobatic slashing, lightning-blasting and Force-tossing feel quite at home.

The basics of the Soulcaliber license haven’t changed much; you still ogle Ivy’s barely restrained breasts lasciviously. Uh, I mean, you still use each character’s signature weapon style to whup your opponent’s butt across beautifully rendered arenas winning either by KO or ring out. Each fighter has a unique pace and a deep list of combo-able attacks including throws, parries, feints and unblockables. New to the move list are critical finishes and the Soul Gauge. As you fight, overly defensive opponents will find their Gauge flashing red indicating the potential loss of armor on head, torso or bottoms. Savvy opponents will trigger Critical Finishes when they see an enemy’s armor fly away, striking a match-ending blow in semi-cinematic form. Since most high-end players will easily avoid these situations and most button-mashing drunks will never have the coordination to set one off, the Critical Finish seems a perfect addition. An excellent enhancement for the middle ground that SC so passionately loves.

Online matches provide a fighting outlet for those of us whose circle of friends doesn’t tack toward the digital pugilism, even if the lag and connection-dropping can frustrate. Of special note is the character creation system which lets big manly men play a ridiculously intricate version of Barbie dress maker. Your from-scratch brawlers choose various powerups and stat-enhancing petticoats to customize the weapon style plucked from the game’s base fighters. The time sink of design and tweakability is worth the price of admission alone as one could drop the entire roster of franchise melee-kateers in favor of personal content like this. I swear to jeebus I spend more time be-frocking my fighters while twirling my frilly mini-skirt about to the Immaculate Collection and pausing to sip on my cosmo than I do actually engaged in battle. But who cares, ’cause my digital Elizabeth Bennet can take her lance and short sword to your pompus katana chopping Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy for his callous treatment of her fair love. AGlenn Given