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SoulCalibur (Dreamcast) artwork

SoulCalibur (Dreamcast) review

"Soul Calibur wasn't always the Dreamcast's ''best'' game. "

Soul Calibur wasn't always the Dreamcast's ''best'' game.

Before its announcement, unveiling, and subsequent hype in its DC form, Soul Calibur was simply an arcade game. It sat in the middle of arcade walls, collecting just enough coin to keep itself housed and employed. It was never a phenomenon, it was never a ''masterpiece,'' and it was barely even appreciated. Maybe it was because it was an easy, potentially mindless button-masher. Maybe it was because it looked like a crappy Playstation game.

Now, it looks like a stunning Dreamcast game, and the world has taken notice. In fact, Soul Calibur is so recognized and respected that the flaws that kept it from reaching success before have faded into ignored obscurity. Suddenly, people care that Famitsu magazine gave it a perfect score and suddenly people don't care about its design flaws. Suddenly, this game that nobody ever cared about is the greatest fighter of all time, and the best reason to own a Dreamcast.

In reality, it's neither.

Soul Calibur is a weapons fighter. The roster of dueling opponents brandishes an arm of some sort, some a little more realistic than others. It's set in a medieval fantasy world, a time when architectural beauty was the result of years of work with coarse materials. Armor and weaponry could be as beautiful as the woman wielding them. Soul Calibur is themed with chivalry and an epic gladiatorial atmosphere; fighting here is not simply between combatants entering a random tournament. It's an epic event, a beautiful spectator sport.

Matching and bolstering this theme perfectly is the game's incredible assortment of characters. For a selection so big (17 unique characters, two with random, shared movesets), each character is rippling with personality. Each has the ''x'' factor that makes you want to play him. Each has charisma and a draw for you to at least try them out. Great care was taken to craft the heroes and villains with attractive looks, eliminating the prejudices we all feel against playing the uglier characters in other games.

Maxi, for instance, has a slender yet solid frame, sporting a pompadour/devilock combination. Hwang has an intimidating stare and badass tattoos, and Sigfried sports heavy knight's armor that contrasts his flowing blonde locks. Ivy is intimidating in her dominatrix couture, while Xianghua hides her technique mastery with her innocent beauty. Never has a fighting game's character selection been so entirely desirable. And those are just the aesthetics.

Mastering each of these warriors will take a considerable amount of time. Soul Calibur is every bit as deep as the illimitable Virtua Fighter 3, with move lists of incomprehensible size. To know a character in Soul Calibur, to have mastered him, is to have given part of your life to the game. Soul Calibur is a game of uncountable combos, and practically infinite situational damage possibilities, thanks to its ''8 - way run system.''

By simply moving the stick around, you can run around in every linear direction, in and out and easily circling your opponent. Soul Calibur's new system here is long overdue in 3D fighters, and will definitely be the method future games mimic. Coupled with its very juggle-friendly nature, Soul Calibur is almost limitless in its theoretical combo situations; you can juggle someone from almost any angle, where certain moves will work to keep the chain going and some won't. Then, from another angle, the effective moves will again be different. Soul Calibur is undeniably deep and open-ended.

But Soul Calibur's sword is indeed double-edged. For all of the fluidity and for all of the possibility, Soul Calibur is actually too open for its own good.

Soul Calibur lacks balance, period. As glorious as the character selection is, it comes at the cost of necessary tweaking of their weaponry. Kilik, for instance, with his wooden staff, has almost unequaled reach. He is also extremely fast, and for wielding a weapon lacking a blade, deals a surprising amount of damage. Sigfried, with his enormous, fear-inducing sword, moves deftly and his combos are as fast as if he were carrying a small rapier. The characters have not been balanced well enough to provide distinct advantages and disadvantages.

But even that isn't what truly drags down Soul Calibur. Its fate is sealed and its brilliance is dulled by its overly accessible combo system.

In Soul Calibur, the majority of the moves for each character chain into most of the other moves; in the wrong hands, this has the net effect of a random, unprepared combo orgy. Moves so easily flow into each other that simple button mashing would be indistinguishable from veteran mastery were it not for the physical noise that results from such frenetic activity. As your well practiced and honed techniques are button-slammed into impotence, your honeymoon with Soul Calibur will have ended. It will be time to clean the sheets.

As a package, Soul Calibur is the most complete fighter ever released to a console. It has single-player elements leagues beyond those of its contemporaries. The most buoyant of these is the mission mode, where you assume the role of one of the fighters and fight smaller ''scenario'' fights, where a goal is given to determine progress. Win with an unblockable hit, knock out multiple enemies in succession, knock an opponent to his back quickly; Soul Calibur keeps the missions surprisingly varied and surprisingly addictive. Traversing the game's simple map and defeating the familiar enemies in unique ways is a very welcomed and original way to enjoy a fighter's typically limited one-player dimension.

In the end, though, it achieved its celebrity from its looks. And it could never be ignored that Soul Calibur is a beautiful game.

As far as fighters go visually, this is it. It sits atop the pedestal of graphical impact and destroys all comers. Its backgrounds are gorgeous, highly detailed renderings of scenery and structure, defined in texture and refined in color. Characater models are smooth and solid; they seem sculpted and carved to deliver true character instead of merely being objects with faces. The resolution of the entire affair is razor-sharp and fine throughout. And, even though some technically superior fighting engines have been developed, Soul Calibur maintains its supremacy with its untouchable aesthetic and ambient appeal.

Equally as polished and inspired is its soundtrack, which is an endless selection of epic scores, each symphonic and immediately remarkable. The songs are highly climactic, heightening the already-prevalent sense of dignity and tension Soul Calibur permeates. Their classical, royal qualities deepen the quality of Soul Calibur's superb thematic strengths.

Had it not been for its balancing flaws diminishing its appeal, Soul Calibur could have been a true revolution. It's rare that a fighter can come together so flawlessly in its aesthetics, making itself so instantly attractive. It is a beautiful, graceful, deep and very fun fighter, but its engine's weaknesses cannot be denied. Soul Calibur is a good fighter and a hell of a purchase, but it is not the bullet-proof, dominating powerhouse it is purported to be (and should have been).

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Community review by ethereal (March 14, 2004)

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