Good: Near-perfect fighting engine, amazing graphics and sound, new characters
Bad: Chronicles of the Sword, annoying interactive cutscenes
Why?: No Vs. Team Battle!!!
On September 9th, 1999, Namco released what is in my opinion the single greatest fighting game of all time. Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast was the most refined, beautiful, and instantly accessible fighting game available. While games such as Virtua Fighter 4 may rival the depth of the Soul series, they were never as immediately appealing to hardcore gamers and novices alike. It was possible to button-mash and pull off some really impressive moves, but it was also possible to spend months mastering a specific character and become unbeatable. Soul Calibur is one of the closest examples of a 'perfect game' that I've ever seen.
Over six years later, and Soul Calibur III has arrived for the Playstation 2. While SCII was a great game, many (including me) regard it as a disappointment. Considering it was in development for four years, the basic addition of some new characters and disappointing Todd McFarlane creations didn't make it worth the wait. Soul Calibur III didn't take as long in development, yet it feels light years ahead of II in some ways, while still managing to fall short of the untouchable original.
The biggest fault in the game is the inclusion of several unnecessary modes, and the omission of one of the best. Chronicles of the Sword is the new mode that the box touts as a "Real-time strategy adventure". In reality, it resembles neither strategy or anything close to an adventure. Rather, you just take your created character from stronghold to stronghold and watch him hit it for a while. When you finally topple it, a "Decisive Battle" begins, which is a typical 1-on-1 Vs. battle. You'll also control other characters besides your created warrior, but it's all the same. It's a matter of "Select character, pick stronghold to attack, fight a guy, repeat". It's a useless mode, and it's unfortunately necessary if you want to fully unlock everything the game has to offer.
I can't even begin to fathom why Namco got rid of the 8-on-8 Team Battle mode. It was easily my favorite mode of the last two games, and was the best way to play 2-player. Choosing 8 characters with the "random" option and going against a friend was the best way to get acquainted with all of the characters, and offered a great multiplayer experience. For some unexplainable reason, they added a Vs. League and a Vs. Tournament mode, both of which absolutely pale in comparison to Team Battle. Playing a bunch of fragmented fights in a grid-based system doesn't match the intensity of a fast-paced 8-on-8 battle.
The basic single-player story mode has changed a bit, and now features branching paths. For example, let's say you've just finished a battle with Mitsurugi. A text screen may pop up indicating that he has spotted a mysterious stranger. You'll then receive an option to pursue or ignore the man. Your decisions directly affect the path you take and what enemies you'll fight. Sometimes hidden fights and unlockables will become available if you choose the right path (as well as a hidden last boss). In addition to the branching paths, there are also some new interactive cutscenes. They're actually pretty annoying, considering you have to watch them every single time you go through Tales of Souls mode. After the 9th time that Zasalamel throws a huge gear at you, you pretty much know that you're gonna have to press right to dodge it. Sometimes, enemies will perform attacks in a pre-fight cutscene, and if you get hit by it, you'll start the match with a depleted energy bar. After defeating the final boss, there is usually an interactive cutscene that affects your ending. While previous entries in the series featured basic text endings that explain the fate of your character, SCIII features fully animated cutscenes. These are easily the best endings in the series, and some of them are very good and/or funny (Lizardman especially).
For those that have played Soul Calibur, the gameplay should seem familiar, although extremely refined. Characters are all very well balanced, and every single one of them features a ridiculous amount of moves. The basic button inputs grant you the ability to perform horizontal slashes, vertical slashes, kicks, and guards. Once you start combining the buttons (as well as utilizing different analog movements), you'll find yourself performing some really amazing stunts and throws. My favorite part of playing a new Soul Calibur is when I inevitably pull off a great-looking move by accident. It's these "Whoa:.how did I do that?" moments that make you want to dive into the tutorial mode and learn all the moves this game has to offer.
The primary new characters in this game are Setsuka, Tira, and Zasalamel. Setsuka has an umbrella and attacks with a short sword. She's lightning quick, and should appeal to fans of sneak-attack fighters like Taki. Tira wields a giant circular blade, and almost appears to be dancing when she fights. She'll kick through the circle, swing it around her arm, as well as various other acrobatic moves. Zasalamel is easily the best new character the series has ever introduced. He's a towering wizard with a giant scythe, and is the most easily accessible fighter out of the new bunch. In addition to pure power and some great looking moves, he's also very quick. Each of these new characters features fighting styles that are completely new to the series, and none of them are disappointing in the least (speaking of which:.Necrid is thankfully gone).
In addition to the new characters, the existing ones are improved to varying degrees. While Kilik may fight just as you remember him, Ivy has a bevy of new moves. She's actually the most improved character by far, and is probably in the top 6 or 7 fighters now. Some of the button inputs have changed, so you might have to go into the Tutorial to re-learn Mitsurugi's double upward slash or Nightmare's dropkick. The game also features a completely new boss named Abyss. He's far more interesting than Inferno, who was just a guy made of flames. While Inferno was a mimic character like Shang Tsung or Dural, Abyss is an entirely new creation with his own moves, and he's the best boss the series has seen.
Soul Calibur III features a new character creation mode, and it's neither superb or terrible. There are countless weapons and clothes items you can purchase in the shop, and these can be used on your character. You begin by choosing a gender and a class, the latter of which basically determining your entire moveset. It's not possible to edit moves, only the class, appearance, and name of your character. In this aspect, it's fairly bare-bones, but Namco spent some time ensuring that each class features some very cool moves. Some classes of created characters even outshine a few of the pre-made characters.
The area of greatest improvement is the graphics. Backgrounds look absolutely gorgeous, characters are superbly animated, and impressive particle effects are everywhere. Some of the best backgrounds in the history of fighting games are included in this game, and you'll sometimes even find yourself getting distracted from the fight because you're staring at them. Little improvements are all over this game, sometimes even as subtle as the quick halo of blue that emits from the defeated character when the last blow lands. All of the new costumes are great, and some are downright odd (Voldo's sunflower outfit, Astaroth's hammerhead).
As always, the audio is top-notch. The background music is beautiful in some points, intense in others, and always epic. Some old tracks are even brought back, such as the theme from Maxi's stage in the Dreamcast game. If you prefer the Japanese voices (like I do), the option to change the language is still available.
Soul Calibur III is a game that gets better with each time you play it. You're always learning new moves, there's a huge amount of things to unlock and buy, and the new Tales of Souls mode offers a new experience every time you play single-player. While Chronicles of the Sword may be completely disappointing, the new characters and graphics certainly are not. A must-purchase for any fan of fighting games.
First Play: A-
Last Play: A
Overall: 93% A