Reviewed: November 25, 2005
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Released: October 25, 2005
I have to confess that when I came away from my Soul Calibur III demo at E3 last year I was not only unimpressed, I was downright disappointed. But as the score proves, you canít form your opinions a year before the game actually releases. You see, at E3 the only thing the Namco reps were really hyping were the three new characters, while trying to downplay the discontinued support for GameCube and Xbox versions.
But this third installment in the Soul Calibur series has so much more than just three new fighters. For the first time ever you can now create your own fighter using a robust character creation engine, and there is the new Chronicles of the Sword strategy mode that allows you to take that custom character into a whole new type of adventure, and finally, the Tale of the Soul story mode for the each of the built-in cast of characters.
Tale of Souls mode basically replaces the traditional series of arena-style fights we used to take each of the characters through and instead, allows you to choose your fights as you travel across a large map. Realistically, this is nothing more than the old sequence of fights with a clever interface to make you think you have some say in the matter.
Admittedly, you do get to choose your course at several branching points, effectively creating a unique text-only story each time you play. There are also some dead-end paths that lead to specific objectives giving the game some greater depth than simply questing for Soul Edge. But unless you really care about reading window after window of scrolling text, most gamers will simply mash the X button until the next fight starts effectively recreating the chain of fights from the previous games.
Even the designers really didnít seem to care about the story. Unlike the DOA games where all of the characters seem to tie together somehow, Soul Calibur III is basically a collection of 20 short stories, none of which really gel and some that even contradict others.
Chronicles of the Sword has numerous chapters, each with their own set of objectives that must be checked off before you proceed to the next. After a short mission briefing you pick your units and instigate an attack on the map screen in real-time. Most of the fights are handled by the computer but when a boss battle ensues you will need to directly control the character.
There is also a World Competition mode that tests the skills of the most advanced players. No custom characters or special weapons are allowed, this is all about the skill of the player as they travel the world map engaging in battles for prizes and special bonuses. There are special prizes for winning consecutive matches and these go up exponentially as your streak grows larger.
But even without all of the fancy game modes, Soul Calibur III continues to offer an intuitive and engaging fight engine that mixes martial arts with weapons. The difficulty scales itself to novices can feel like they are making progress while veterans of the series can explore intricate combos and devastating Soul Charge attacks.
All of the moves are here; the 8-way run, jumping, guarding, throws, dodging in all four directions, and of course the advanced techniques for fighting on the ground or the powerful Ukemi attacks as you are getting back up. There are all sorts of guard and counter moves that require precise timing and when you combine the 8-way direction with vertical and horizontal attacks, the combat possibilities are staggering.
One new element to the fighting are levels that initiate with a reflex test, like the QTEís of Shenmue. Usually something related to the environment will require you to make a quick move to avoid taking some pre-fight damage. If you do get hit you start the fight with a chunk taken out of your health bar.
Itís a cruel world when a game this beautiful still pales in comparison to those found on the more powerful consoles, but even so, Soul Calibur III is a gorgeous game, easily the best looking fighter on the PS2 and certainly the crowning achievement in the current trilogy. There is a bit of shimmering and some pixilization in places, but only if you are looking for it.
Those in this for the gameplay can focus on the fantastic character designs, gorgeous costumes, fluid animation, and stunning battle arenas. These levels arenít as interactive or multi-tiered as those in DOA but you do get the handy Ēring outĒ feature which has saved me from losing on more than several occasions.
The built-in cast of characters is huge and they designers managed to make each one look amazing with several costume changes and each with their own style that fits their attitude and style of combat. Even the character creation engine allows for a wide variance in designs and you are sure to find something that suits your own style. Just make sure to play a lot of the core game so you have already unlocked some of the cooler costumes and items.
The new modes have their own interface with a rather generic map screen highlighting the possible destinations and text windows that tell the limited story in a stylish, but totally legible font. Menus for character building and shopping at the store are functional and easy to navigate.
Those with some high-end video gear can kick the game into progressive scan at a funky 525p mode that isnít all that popular or even compatible with most HDTVís. Itís also a bit tricky to get the game into this mode since it requires holding down a combination of buttons while the game loads Ė each time you start. Not sure why they didnít just put this in the options menu like every other game does.
Itís refreshing to find an energetic soundtrack that not only enhances the level intros, environments, and gameplay, but also doesnít rely on licensed tracks. This is the perfect music for this game and it does not disappoint. Crank it up loud.
The rest of the sound experience could very well be recycled from Soul Calibur II for all I know. There isnít a lot of opportunity to create new sounds when you are merely punching, kicking, and swinging a blade. Itís all standard fighting fare but it sound fantastic and there is a good Dolby Pro Logic II mix for the gameplay and a fantastic Dolby Digital EX mix for the opening movie.
Dare I say it; I believe Soul Calibur III actually has more unlockable content than the Mortal Kombat games. Itís hard to say because all of the prizes arenít laid out in an easily countable grid of cemetery plots, but even the most seasoned fighters will be playing this game for months just to unlock a fraction of the bonus items, costumes, and accessories obtainable in this game.
With more than 20 built-in characters, scalable difficulty, and new game modes, there is easily 40+ hours of gameplay just in the core, and once you start exploring with your own custom characters, going through the World Competition, and questing for the infinite bonus items, youíll probably find yourself playing this game until the PS3 arrives.
If you are an Xbox or GameCube gamer I feel for ya manÖI was heartbroken when I learned this was a PS2 exclusive title. But you can rest easier knowing that the new game modes Namco added really arenít life changing and the new characters, while very cool, are more for show than fighting.
Even so, everything about the core gameplay and fighting engine has been tweaked and refined and taken to the next level. Soul Calibur III is the definitive fighting game on the PS2 mixing up martial arts, weapons, and more levels, characters, and game modes than you can shake a giant sword at.