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|[ 07/07/05 ] = Time (Our Sworn Enemy)
Seeing that Soul Calibur III is on the way (and shaping up nicely), I thought it would be a good time to finally cover the critically-acclaimed Soul Calibur II. I have to admit that I wasn't impressed when I first saw the game; it didn't seem like it had changed much from its flawed predecessor, and in Japanese arcades the machine was always vacant. But after heavy influence from friends and quality coverage in Play magazine, the game's unique aesthetics and battle system grew on me as time went on. Having played all of the previous entries in the series (as well as each of the Tekken games), I must say that SCII is the best Namco fighter to date. While Soul Calibur II isn't the best fighting game ever, it's also not the worst, and what it does, it does well. Although it doesn't escape without flaws, Namco did a very good job on the game as a whole. SCII is Namco's best fighter, and it sits well next to other PS2 hardware fighters like Street Fighter EX3, Capcom Fighting Evolution, Onimusha: Blade Warriors, and Bloody Roar 3.
To start, Soul Calibur II was designed on the same hardware as Tekken 4 (the PS2-compatible System 246 hardware) and runs on the same graphics engine, but that's where the similarities end; Soul Calibur II looks a lot better. Completely different from Tekken 4's boring and uninspired visuals, Soul Calibur II has what some would consider to be character. For Tekken 4 Namco threw something together and rushed it out the door as quick as they could, but heart was put into SCII; the game's manga-inspired cast and well-crafted stages resemble the awesome-but-canceled Capcom Fighting All-Stars. Sure, the character design isn't perfect (Astaroth is stupid, Raphael is fugly, and Voldo is a fucking weirdo), but most of SCII's manga-inspired characters look and animate very nicely. Namco did a very good job on the characters in SCII. Mitsurugi has aged just as he should, Nightmare looks more menacing than ever, Cassandra and Ivy's smooth, curvy character models and short outfits are great, and the voluptuous, beautiful Taki is an absolute bombshell. Overall, I'd say that SCII features the best of Namco's character creations.
For some reason, even though they share the same graphics engine the animation in Soul Calibur is better than that of Tekken 4; some may say that the jerky exchange of bobbing, weaving, punching, and kicking in Tekken 4 is smooth, but the cast of SCII animate with surprising fluidity as they nimbly walk, slash, and circle about during battle. While Mitsurugi is actually my favorite, the most notable character in SCII is the beautiful Taki. When I first played the game, I was amazed at how well Namco designed her stellar character model; she even looked good in Soul Edge and the first SC, but in SCII her model is off-the-charts good. Not only does her character model closely resemble the knockout Japanese adult actress Sakura Shiratori, but her boobs animate so incredibly well that they give DOA's "bouncing breasts" a run for their money. However, there is one thing that irritates me about SCII's visuals; for having such impressive character models, there is some unnecessary character clipping. It wouldn't really matter if it weren't for the fact that Namco spent so much time on the visuals, and that it makes my favorite character (Mitsurugi) look like a goddamn joke during his win pose. Aside from occasional clipping, though, SCII's visuals utilize the power of the hardware, and are very good as a whole.
Like Bloody Roar 3 (also on the same hardware), SCII's loose gameplay mixes several elements from other fighters, including button-sequence combos, special moves, juggles, Super Moves (or what seems like their equivalent) and counter attacks. While these may seem to be features common to every fighting game, in each fighting game emphasis is put on certain attributes to create a unique battle system. Like its predecessor, the emphasis in SCII is on normal attacks, juggles, counter attacks, and to some extent Special Moves; knowing normal attack and Special Move priority is essential, juggling is important, and learning the improved Guard Crush counter attack is useful.
Super Moves can also be used in SCII, but just like its predecessor, there's no emphasis on them. That is, unlike Street Fighter EX3 and Bloody Roar 3, performing Super Moves is not essential to winning; in SCII most Super Moves are very strong, very slow at startup, and can be used infinitely (no charge gauge is present). The splashy effects during execution look cool, but the game would be better if the Super Moves were weaker, had quicker startups, and better priority; for example, Taki's Darkness~Possession Super Move is quick (with priority), but her Seal of the Fire Dragon Super Move is deathly slow (with almost no priority). Sure, the former is less powerful than the latter, but I'd rather have Super Moves weaker and quicker (with priority) than stronger and slower (with no priority). Not that it makes SCII a bad game, but I'd like it more if the speed, damage, and priority of Super Moves were more consistent (as in other fighters). If Namco ever tweaked the Super Moves (and even some of the Special Moves), SCII would be one hell of a furious game.
SCII and its predecessor are often praised for their 8-Way Run system (a control system less jerky and stiff than Tekken), and while I think it's a unique system feature, some issues seem to stem from it. When you do a combo in Street Fighter EX3 or Bloody Roar 3, the number of hits is usually consistent (give or take a hit), and combo success rate is consistent (unless a mistake in timing is made). But in SCII the combo system is strangely inconsistent; take this Mitsurugi combo for example, D +F B, K, Back K, B. Now, in other fighters such as those previously mentioned, the combo would turn out to be four hits over and over again (if timed properly), but in SCII tried and true juggle combos often don't connect like they should. The combo inconsistency in SCII seems to be influenced by its own, unique 8-Way Run system; hit detection feels off at times, and the success of juggle combos just seems to be unpredictable. Sure, you get used to it after a while, but you never truly know when your attacks will connect and when your juggle combos will work. I don't like guessing when I pull off a combo that has been tried and tested, so this particular aspect of SCII's system bothers me.
Thankfully though, Astaroth has been weakened since the original SC, ring-outs seem a little harder to get, and the Guard Crush counter attack works better, so that's a definite plus. However, newcomer Raphael is one of the ugliest, cheapest motherfuckers ever in a fighting game. Astaroth, Raphael, and Voldo are bullshit, and they really should have been kept out of the game; the roster is great until you get to those assholes. Also, Xianghua seems to be a little too strong, but even after all the matches I fought with her it's possible that I just can't play against her well.
Soul Edge was impressive for its time (with splashy visuals, likable gameplay, and a fresh cast), but it was plagued with the stiff and jerky control of Tekken 2. Soul Calibur was also decent, and although the 8-Way Run system was implemented as an attempt to fix the stiffness and jerkiness of Soul Edge, the game had no balance, counter attacks were too unpredictable, and ring-outs were way too easy. So, why is it that Namco did a better job on SCII than its predecessors? Because, for the most part, Namco fixed the counter attacks, made ring-outs a bit harder, and furthered the aesthetic direction of the series. It's hard to say that I like SCII more than Bloody Roar 3, but overall it's a good game. It could use a few gameplay tweaks here and there for more seamless fighting, but until SCIII, SCII is the best title Namco has ever made. The manga-inspired 3-D visuals are pretty good, and the control feels smoother than Namco's other fighters. Since Soul Calibur, the aesthetic direction of the series has shifted from realistic CG aesthetics (found in most Namco titles) toward manga-inspired aesthetics (more rare in Namco fighters). Not that there is no CG artwork for SCII, but unlike Tekken 4 (which features character artwork by the same artist) the emphasis is on the hand-drawn artwork, and it is more impressive than the CG artwork usually seen in Namco titles. One of the things I enjoyed most in SCII was the hand-drawn cinematics; it adds a pinch of old-school to the game. Tekken may be considered to be Namco's flagship fighting series, but Soul Calibur II is their best fighting series.