"Then, as your fighters battle across courtyards surrounded by gurgling fountains alive with plant life, or along the deck of a ship while flaming arrows plunge toward the water and other ships in the distance, the magic takes hold. Everything is beautiful, from the misty waterfalls with their shimmering rainbows in Talim’s stage, to the comets that streak across the skyline while you battle through an inferno."
With graphics that put most other games to shame, the usual audio excellence, three new characters, a treasure chest full of extras and some cool modes that will keep you engaged for hours, Soul Calibur III is perhaps the Playstation 2’s premier example of a flawed but amazing game. That flaw, as it turns out, is a severe lack of balance that will have all but the most saintly of players screaming obscenities at the television well into the night. Expect controller sales to rise sharply.
Like its multi-platform predecessor, Soul Caliur III is gorgeous. The backgrounds at first seem drab and simplistic. Then, as your fighters battle across courtyards surrounded by gurgling fountains alive with plant life, or along the deck of a ship while flaming arrows plunge toward the water and other ships in the distance, the magic takes hold. Everything is beautiful, from the misty waterfalls with their shimmering rainbows in Talim’s stage, to the comets that streak across the skyline while you battle through an inferno. Careful inspection of the more than 18 unique arenas didn’t help me to discover so much as a single graphical hitch.
Character models benefit from similar polish. No one looks quite like he or she did in Soul Calibur II. Talim is the slightest bit more reserved, Ivy dresses like a proper aristocrat (with intriguing nylons) and Maxi… still looks like he’s trying to impersonate Elvis.
The new characters are also vivid. Dark-hearted Tira is the obvious looker of the bunch, with turquoise hair, green lips and a shredded shirt that leaves precious little to the imagination. She dances about with a circular blade that slices her opponents but leaves her open to counter-attack. Zasalamel, the deep-voiced man with one eye, wields a devastating scythe and longs for mortality’s peaceful release. In his pale robes, he’s a dark visage not dissimilar from Death himself. Finally, Setsuka is a woman who attacks with a razor-sharp umbrella. I wouldn’t miss her if she disappeared from the roster, but she’s not out of place.
As always, each character is voiced by decent actors who give them a certain amount of depth but never really make you care for them. Some of those voice tracks are also assigned to any custom characters you might create.
Character creation is neat. You pick sex, class, eye and hair color, complexion and general sets of clothes. Initially limited options gradually evolve to virtual closets full of capes, hoods, belts and bras that you can use to make a sexy or gruesome character of your liking. These items are unlocked in the game’s single-player modes.
One of those, Chronicles of the Sword, actually requires that you begin by designing your favored warrior. Once that’s out of the way, you’re entered into the most refreshing experience Soul Calibur III provides. Remember wandering the land the last time around, searching for battles and items? That was enjoyable. I miss it. Still, the replacement has its own appeal. Picture a battle map, something like you might expect from a tactical role-playing game. Villages and fortresses dot a landscape alive with raging rivers, swaying trees and even falcons that circle the skies. You place a few warriors near your base, then set about managing their movement toward neutral or enemy fortifications.
Once you reach a hostile zone, you get to take it over on the map. If enemies lurk within, the game has you battle them in the standard rounds you’d expect from the game’s main modes. If you win, you take the fortress, while losing sends you back to the base to recuperate before trying again. Later maps bring new objectives. One early example finds you storming the enemy’s castle while also defending a bridge crucial to your army.
The mode almost feels like a proper role-playing game. Victories gain you experience points that go toward character level-ups and gold that you can use to purchase weapons and armor. It’s like you’re getting two games in one, even if you wouldn’t pay for such a title on its own. The biggest disappointment for me was the relative absence of the main game’s memorable characters. Instead, you endure an almost endless line of ninjas and samurai and even dancers that frequently fall for the simplest of attack patterns.
The main game’s story mode more than makes up for that. Early rounds are easy. You can just mash buttons if you like and you’ll probably still win. Enemy fighters stand around like dorks, not putting up much of a fight. Perfect victories are not uncommon. As you proceed, though, the difficulty matches your strides and quickly outpaces you. Suddenly, your attacks do little damage at all, while the computerized opponents need only yawn to chop off a quarter of your life meter. You’ll slash in quick flurries, high and low attacks, trying with all your might to do any damage. Then, as you realize with elation that you’ve taken off an eighth of your opponent’s bar, he lazily swings his ax and does twice the damage to you with a single blow. Attempts to dodge or block such strikes often prove futile.
At this point, I found that mashing the controller mindlessly doesn’t win matches, but it often gets a person every bit as close as a well-reasoned assault. In fact, some of those tough matches punish you for trying to switch up your attacks. I won a few of the last fights by simply tapping one button repeatedly. Several of my most challenging opponents fell to me that way, though more varied attacks were simply blocked. This is not even slightly enjoyable.
Fortunately, the game’s other strengths remain to keep you (and perhaps your friends) playing. You’ll likely spend many hours in multi-player mode, knocking down your friends and talking trash. The lengthy single-player campaigns and massive number of unlockables (there are numerous galleries) are also quite enticing. In short, Namco got almost everything right. It’s a shame about that crappy balance.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (November 08, 2005)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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