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SoulCalibur (Dreamcast) artwork

SoulCalibur (Dreamcast) review

"Most competent Dreamcast fighting game reviews talk about this game mechanic or that, as though the reversals of Dead or Alive 2 are somehow superior to the reversals of Virtua Fighter 3. I suppose there's merit to that approach. However, in Soul Calibur's case, the reversal (parry) system isn't what sets the game apart from the crowd. The eight-directional mobility and high/mid/low combination systems (both of which have become 3D fighting mainstays) don't differentiate ..."

Most competent Dreamcast fighting game reviews talk about this game mechanic or that, as though the reversals of Dead or Alive 2 are somehow superior to the reversals of Virtua Fighter 3. I suppose there's merit to that approach. However, in Soul Calibur's case, the reversal (parry) system isn't what sets the game apart from the crowd. The eight-directional mobility and high/mid/low combination systems (both of which have become 3D fighting mainstays) don't differentiate Soul Calibur from the pack, either. Namco's weapon-based 3D fighter instead wields its extravagant storyline and rich atmosphere to great effect, cutting a path through the swath of capable rivals.

In this undying legend's first episode (titled Soul Edge in the arcades and inexplicably retitled Soul Blade on the PlayStation), the dread pirate Cervantes was jointly defeated by both Greek beauty Sophitia and mystical kunoichi Taki, even though the game never allowed two players to cooperatively battle a single opponent. After this epic but impossible clash between two legendarily endowed women and their monocular nemesis, the evil sword Soul Edge shattered into a dozen pieces and dispersed itself across the world. During his quest for revenge, young knight Siegfried happened to stumble across the sword, which had somehow unscattered and reassembled itself. Not one to look plot contrivance in the mouth, this vengeful German picked up the wicked blade and transformed into a genocidal maniac, setting Namco's stage of history for an ill-conceived World War II allegory.

This transformation from manly knight to horrific demon wouldn't be complete without an appropriately scary name, and countless frightened peasants were quick to assist. With armor fused to flesh and devil's horns jutting from his right arm, the beastly ''Nightmare'' imposes a grotesque countenance, made even more unnerving by the giant sword with the Sauronic eyeball peering out from inside of it. Although Namco spared us the groan-inducingly obvious ''Knightmare'' pun, they titled both the game and the opposing Sword of Light (which does not have an eyeball stuck in it) as ''Soul Calibur'', which is an awful play on Excalibur that most people won't even catch.

In his tougher and meaner form, Siegfried embarks on a journey of wanton destruction across medieval Europe, razing cattle and irrigating fields with blood. Trust me, it's more devastating than it sounds. Nightmare's ultimate goal is the Black Forest, a locale that isn't even featured in the game . . . so it's pretty safe to say that evil won't triumph this time around.

Despite its nonsensical setup, the mythological slant imparts a larger-than-life aura and sets the table for a grandiose feast of carnage. Even through all the silliness, Nightmare is a convincingly dire archvillain, lending an air of urgency that many fighting games lack. Of course, some people would rather face Dural for the fourth game in a row. Soul Calibur is not for these people.

Soul Calibur is for people who lust for gorgeous, fast-paced combat on the pretentious stage of destiny. Propelled by fate to face one another in the bowels of the earth, two determined champions clash in the glowing underground caverns of Cobra-la. Rivers of lava pulsate along the stone platform's periphery; in the background, an enormous golden statue of serpentine Golobulus looms ominously. Amidst this heretical scenery, Maxi the noble pirate (a swarthily romantic knave from the South Seas) lithely brandishes the swashbuckler's favourite weapon of yore: nunchuks. He must be a ninja pirate. On the other end of the battlefield, vile and monstrous Astaroth plods across the rocky floor of the underground pagan shrine, his rusty battle-axe hungering for the heroic dandy's spoony blood. Maxi immediately lunges towards his gargantuan nemesis to exact retribution for the brutal slaughter of his entire crew of jolly (ninja) pirates!

The piratic nunchuks twirl fluidly and control effortlessly, a simple weapon to learn for even the simplest of gamers. Astaroth's blunted axe lurches forcefully in a sensual display of pulsating heaves; extremely powerful and extremely slow, Astaroth demands an enormous degree of skill (and offers a substantially bloody reward). Fifteen other diverse souls await both novice and expert players.

Those players can then mash buttons, slaughtering the senseless computerized opponents. Soul Calibur is a great game for button-mashers. It's also a great game for people who learn one single attack and repeat it over and over, pecking away at the computer-controlled opposition's lifebar with a parrot's repetition. It's even a game for Street Fighter 2 veterans who throw their opponents. And throw them again. I don't say these things from lack of skill, and I certainly don't say these things out of disrespect. I say these things because, when facing the computer, Soul Calibur is an easy game. Even on the most difficult setting, spindly Xianghua skewers her way to victory via near-random tappings of the buttons. Alternately, she can shish kebab opponents one after another upon her thin, Chinese blade of justice with a simple ''right right Y'', followed by another ''right right Y'' again followed by ''right right Y''. If an opponent trips the noble heroine, victory is still assured; Xianghua throws a four-year-old's temper tantrum, pounding the ground with her fists and feet ó crippling any foe who dares draw near!

What other fighting game lets the plucky heroine pout and wail and cry, not only hurting but possibly even defeating the opponent by doing so? None that I know of. I also don't know of any other fighting game that so thoroughly conquers its own shortcomings. Through the inclusion of an extensive and highly replayable mission mode (still unfinished five years later), Soul Calibur thrusts players into silly, grim, laughable and grueling conflicts. In the Mission Mode, legendary adventurers travel across the globe, crossing swords with a legion of opponents in a plethora of outlandishly creative and mentally challenging scenarios.

The slender Sophitia confronts sinister gimp-masked Voldo in ''The Money Pit'', a dark and claustrophobic storage room. Driven mad by seclusion, the nearly-blind Voldo fights with ferocious abandon, vigilantly guarding his gluttonous master's treasure. As the battle ensues, rats scurry through the flickering shadows along the torchlit chamber's stone tile. Formerly nothing more than a fancy graphical detail, the rats gain new meaning in the Mission Mode. In a sudden (and deviant) twist of fate, the scurvy rodents acquire a taste for flesh, their bites causing either warrior to clutch his or her foot in agony while dropping to the floor! In a later mission, the devilish designers at Namco imbue these same medieval rats with the black plague, poisoning hapless combatants with even a simple scratch. This poison quickly drains the life of the afflicted, lending a sense of urgency to a formerly routine battle.

Moving from the darkest depths to the brightest heights, Sophitia invites the freakish Voldo to her home: an Athenian temple in the sky. Heavenly winds sweep across the arena as the battle rages, hurling careless warriors to their arm-flailing death (punctuated by a jovial ''RING OUT'' from the chatty announcer). As beauty and the beast clash in valorous battle, an angelic orchestral arrangement resonates throughout the open blue sky. None of the audio functions as filler; all of it is grand, sweeping and momentous, forcefully stressing the importance and magnificence of each encounter. Even though I dislike dominatrix Ivy's revealing and blatantly male-targeted garb, I love her music. Featuring a seamless transition from organs to faux woodwinds, the Valentine Mansion's accompaniment flows as smoothly yet unpredictably as Ivy's chainlink whip.

As for the mandatory two player head-to-head mode, I wish I could find someone to play against. I can only imagine the depth involved; with an enormous set of combination attacks, parries, counter attacks, eight-directional movement and situational responses, Soul Calibur theoretically possesses all the necessary strategic elements for a superb fighting game . . . if playing against an opponent with a (human) brain. Alas, finding victims willing to die at my hands over a five-year-old Dreamcast game has proven to be an insurmountable obstacle.

In the end, I'm forced to play and judge Soul Calibur as a single-player game. Although the combat itself is easy, the variety in mission objectives and ingenuity of scenarios produce a stimulating and unpredictable challenge. The excessively ambitious story, flawless graphics, stunning score and ever-present narration (This victory strengthens the soul of Lizardman!) overshadow the core gameplay and establish a unique, endearing atmosphere. With its creative Mission Mode and enchanting presentation, Soul Calibur provides the most satisfying single-player fighting game experience I've ever had the pleasure of playing. I give it my undying recommendation; this game is still as fun today as it was on the day I bought it.

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Community review by lilica (July 12, 2004)

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