You hear the same words used over and over to describe Soul Calibur IV, words like forced. Jarring. Anachronistic. But to me, the word that describes shoehorning Darth Vader and Yoda into a game about sentient swords, Renaissance-era combat, and plucky female martial artists is simply desperate.
That's not even mentioning the game's T&A, which Namco cranked to Spinal Tap's proverbial 11 (well, I won't mention it yet, anyway... I'll save that one for last). The point is: something about so much of the content stuffed into SCIV makes you think they're just not sure what else to do with their once-upon-a-time-briefly-great fighting series, so — for lack of vision — they're just sitting in the board room, passing the bong and scribbling down ideas between mouthfuls of Thin Mints.
It may sound like I'm about to tear SCIV the shreds, but I'm not. It's fun, in the same modest way a bad kung fu movie or a box of fireworks smuggled back from Tijuana are fun. And even gamers totally disenchanted by the staleness of the whole exercise will admit the game looks spectacular, the fighters approaching what only a couple years ago would be pie-in-the-sky CGI renders — but in real-time, at 60 frames a second.
Soul Calibur IV
Soul Calibur IV: Publisher: Namco Bandai Games. Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360. Price: $59.99. ESRB Rating: T (for Teen). Score: 7 (out of 10).
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Part of what's led SC off the path of greatness, though, are questionable layers of gameplay added in the spirit of fixing things that weren't broken. Gameplay depth is a tricky thing; the geekerati vie for it like it's an inarguable cosmic good, but in truth sometimes depth is merely that: depth, the dirt, boulders and old roots between you and buried treasure. With each iteration Namco adds a new gameplay wrinkle (Soul Crushes and Critical Finishes this time), none having really contributed much besides more jargon and button combinations, further obscuring what is essentially a straightforward fighting game. Or was.
For those not sure whether to go for Darth Vader on the PS3 or Yoda on the 360: don't worry about it. A patch allowing both on either disc is inevitable (if not already out by the time you read this), the only question being whether Namco will charge you to access a character that's seemingly already available.
There is a glimmer of life, though, in the Character Creation mode. Unlike the interesting but ultimately pointless equivalent in SCIII, player-designed fighters in SCIV can actually be taken online — making the whole exercise of perfecting the look of a character a lot less masturbatory. The first few days of fiddling with the mode are predictable, but after you've made Scorpion and Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat, King Leonidas from 300, and 15 variations of ninja hookers with the properly inverse relationship between cleavage and clothing, there are deeper levels of customization to dig into, like options that make your fighter harder to juggle or move faster.
On all that T&A: Dead or Alive is no longer the king of exploitative fighting games; the female cast of SCIV makes them all look like the nuns at your local parochial school. Just about every costume fetish is represented here, from the pedestrian (double E-cup, S&M-flavored Ivy in her thong and spike heels) to the troubling (15-year-old Talim mixing it up in see-through pants and a bra top). Some in the gaming press have been critical of the escalated sexual content in a rote (and somewhat disingenuous) way, missing the larger point: like a teenage girl proudly showing off her whale tail and slapping on eyeshadow with a palette knife, Namco seems to be out of ideas on how to get attention.