If someone heard my buddy Joey and I playing Soul Calibur II, they'd think that it's probably the funniest game ever.
See, the other day I was playing Soul Calibur II with Joey. And regardless of this review's publishing date, that could very well be any other day considering how often I've been playing this game. But anyway, I was fighting as Nightmare, the young, cursed knight with Aryan looks and a sword big enough to make Final Fantasy VII's Cloud blush. Joey favored Talim, the tonfa-wielding teenager who is a new face to the series. During the second round Joey got a call from one of his many girlfriends. I was visibly irked that our game had to be on hold, and he left the room.
While I waited, I fiddled around with my azure knight and practiced my punishing moves. Eventually I stumbled upon a new side step for Nightmare, where he would spin sideways and end up in a stance that has him holding his sword behind his back. The next vertical slash would bring down 200 pounds of sword onto my failed aggressor, who was Joey of course. He returned and reassumed his role as the 15-year-old Talim.
"Look at me, my tonfas are gorgeous," Joey said.
I sometimes wonder if he makes up these faceless girlfriends just so he can regain whatever manhood he loses when he assumes the role of a nubile teenager like Talim.
"Look at Nightmare's right arm, it's so big from jerking off so much," Joey taunted.
"At least I picked someone that I have something in common with" was my clueless retort.
"Just shut up and play"
The next time I tried that sidespin move, Talim lunged at a spinning Nightmare, who was already ready to bring down his sword onto her back. Next thing I knew, Talim flipped back out of my counterattack and delivered a final kick into Nightmare's gut. Joey then began yelling to me about maternal copulation. But we laughed and laughed until we were ready for another anything-can-happen match.
Such is the joy that can be found in Namco's third installment of their 3D weapons-based fighting game. The game isn't so much funny as it is fun. No other game has made me laugh so hard, sweat so much from anxiety or make me pound the table in disgust at a match's results. The response may be purely visceral, but the extremes of those reactions are so gripping that I can't help but smile when I think about that other day when I was playing Soul Calibur II.
My fondness for this game grew slowly but steadily. Having played the first Dreamcast game to death, it didn't seem that this sequel had much more to offer. The Sega Dreamcast is technically part of the 128-bit generation, and the first Soul Calibur's graphics are still among the top tier in the fighting genre to this day. Soul Calibur II has the greatness of the first game intact, which makes it seem initially underwhelming. After all, it was hard enough on Namco to follow up on a game that raised the bar dramatically for the fighting genre, a bar that still hasn't been met. This multi-platform sequel is basically a reiteration of the first game's excellence, expounded by a more detailed presentation and bigger lists of moves.
The highlight of the single player mode is the Weapons Master mode. Like the first game, players must fight through a variety of matches under unique circumstances. Sometimes players must be required to beat the enemy before a poison eats them; other times, quicksand threatens to swallow the combatants whole. New to the series are grid maps you must navigate and fight through to get treasure. Through it all you gain cash to buy exhibition theaters of each character, costumes, and most importantly, new weapons. Like the first game in the series, Soul Blade, each character has 11 weapons, each with a unique statistic. Nightmare's Soul Calibur sword gradually gains the player life, while the samurai Mitsurugi can wield the Damascus Sword, which trades blocking ability for sheer, unadulterated power. If anything, Weapons Master is worth completing to be able to see each character's version of the Soul Edge—gnarled and twisted takes on their primary weapons.
It's not very convincing for me to only say the fighting system is deep. What I believe separates this game from other 3D fighters is the spot-on hit detection system, something that isn't recognized often enough. The fighting system follows a similar rock-papers- scissors format of high, middle and low attacks like other 3D fighters. However Soul Calibur II isn't confined to those rules. The only constant in the fighting is if it looks like the hit should logically connect, then it will.
For example, this other day Joey was Xianghua, a real crouching tigress with the Chinese sword and I was the bo-wielding Kilik. Xianghua has a move where her body would bend back towards her opponent in a 90-degree angle as she swings her sword before straightening. As Kilik, I randomly did a jumping split kick that went over her body, which was already parallel to the ground. When we recovered, neither of us had a scratch on us. Xianghua's sword completely missed Kilik's legs, which kicked over her body. In a game like Virtua Fighter 4, Kilik's high-hitting move would cancel out Xianghua's middle hit, or vice versa depending on who did the move first. Regardless of who did it first, we still ended up completely missing each other.
This is why bigger move lists in this game are nothing to sneeze at. Many characters have been given new stances, new moves to segue into those stances, moves from those stances to segue into other stances and on and on. Some moves allow you to "guard impact" (a counterattack that leaves your offender helpless for a moment), while others fake opponents out or mix up high and low attacks. Namco seems determined to continue making fluidly animated martial arts moves that flow together perfectly, and are seemingly designed to counteract with several other moves in the game. It's been one too many times where scenarios like the ones I described above have happened, but I live for moments like that. When a character misses another character because of logic and not because of some control or graphics flaw, it's not a programming mistake but a programming obsession. And the players are the real winners, which brings me to my next point.
Soul Calibur II is for anyone and everyone. About 70 percent of the moves are simple enough to be performed by anyone. The easiest criticism for this is that the game lends to "button mashing." And it's true, button mashing gives access to some of the more beautiful moves in this game, especially to the stance-changing, fluid animations of the nunchaku-twirling Maxi. But it takes more than rolling thumbs to master guard impacts, side steps, throw counters and stance changes, all moves that are essential in beating a hardcore fighter. Tough fights usually end up having six or seven guard impact exchanges in a row, at the very least.
But then again, beginners probably shouldn't be playing at tournaments anyway. Instead, they should be having fun with an incredibly accessible engine that might pique them into learning more of the intricacies of their character. The game's inclusiveness is what elevates it as a videogame of the highest order.
I wish I had all the space in the world to talk about the game's excellent art direction, with elegant costume designs, detailed environments (complete with walls) and Ivy's chain-linked sword, a real piece of videogame magic as it goes from flaccid to sharp. I wish I could talk about how, despite the game's violence, the in-game physics and pyrotechnics that occur when attacks are performed or connected are constant reminders of the fantastical nature of the game. I wish I could talk about how much I love the fencer Raphael, and his evades which I have affectionately dubbed "the Matrix dodges."
About the only thing I can really cram in here is why the game didn't get the site's highest score of 10, which I truly believe belongs to the first sequel, the Dreamcast's Soul Calibur. While this game may be "more perfecter" than its prequel, it's still baby steps compared to the moon jump of the first game. But don't let the slightly lower score fool you. Soul Calibur II gets my highest possible recommendation.
Besides, there's a certain point in gaming where you just stop thinking about semantics of criticism and let a moment take you. It's probably after Nightmare scrapes his hulking sword across a castle wall with sparks nipping at Talim's feet as she runs up the wall ready to slice back at her aggressor. No two-digit number can validate the pure exhilaration of that moment. And any time I begin to think that ratings even matter with a game like this, I can only offer myself the advice I gave Joey the other day (or was that last week?). Just shut up and play.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the GameCube version of the game.