Here’s an easy way to feel old: SoulCalibur II was released on consoles ten years ago, back when I was just a kid who just wanted to mash buttons. Now I’m an adult who presses buttons with a little more finesse, and SoulCalibur II has been given the HD re-master treatment. A little older, I was excited to get the chance to rediscover the game and hopefully develop a new appreciation for it.
For those who have managed to avoid it all these years, SoulCalibur II is a weapon-based 3D arena fighter. Actually, for many, it’s the weapon-based 3D arena fighter. Sure, SoulCalibur V was alright, but it also added a lot of things I felt were unnecessary like meter management and super moves. I found myself wanting to go back to simpler times, where all I had to worry about was whether or not to swing my weapon horizontally, vertically, or just kick my foes in the face.
Of course, there’s a lot more to SoulCalibur II than just that. Sidesteps, blocking, parrying and guard breaking moves are all there to increase the strategic arsenal. Battles revolve around making the right decisions to catch the other player off guard, through either defensive or offensive means. The opponent isn’t the only thing to watch out for, however, as the stages can be just as deadly. Almost every arena is precariously perched above a bottomless pit, and if a fighter is knocked off it counts as an instant-kill. The skill ceiling can reach quite high, but it’s rewarding for those willing to climb it.
Fights move quickly, as damage can build up fast, and a few bad decisions (or just one depending on how close to a cliff a player is) can put someone in a very unfortunate position. The fast pace of the matches makes the game feel fun to play, as well as easy to jump right back into. At its core, the simplicity and fluidity of the game are still what make SoulCalibur II a classic. And really, hitting things just feels good. There’s lots of flailing, impact sounds, and sparks that make every blow feel like a little victory.
While it’s entertaining to play with friends and foes alike, one of the more interesting things about SoulCalibur II is its vast amounts of single player content. There are tons of modes, characters, stages, and weapons to play here, and it’s one of the few fighting games that I could recommend playing purely by oneself.
The driving force behind that recommendation is Weapon Master mode, a story-driven series of missions that test your abilities. There are big globs of text to read, but truthfully it’s not that interesting and pretty easy to ignore. The main draw is a combination of compelling missions and an ever present incentive looming in the distance. Many of the missions present situations like an enemy’s top half being invisible or having to pass a bomb back and forth between fighters, while others are more grounded like landing a certain number of hits before the timer ends. All the while, experience points, gold, and unlockable content pile up. There’s a constant sense of progression in Weapon Master, and when combined with the addictive nature of the fighting, I ended up getting ensnared in the mode all over again.
Gold in particular is alluring because it allowed me to purchase weapons, which serve as a way to customize my characters. These days SoulCalibur is known for its robust character creator, but this was the start of it. Every character has about a dozen weapons, each with their own unique properties like longer attack reach or the inability to block. After being purchased, the weapons are then free to be used in both Weapon Master and unlockable versions of the other modes like Arcade and Survival. They add uniqueness to the characters, as well as some extra depth for those bored with the vanilla game. Unlocking all of the weapons is a driving force for making progress in single player mode.
Something to note: the AI is a lot more brutal than I remember. This is a game where a few mistakes can easily end a match (or even just one, depending on how close one is to the edge of the stage) which makes it easy for the AI to dominate. For many of the later missions in the game, I found myself having to repeatedly attempt a mission until my opponents took pity on me and became dumb enough to even the odds. As I bought more weapons and developed better strategies this became less of a problem, but getting stuck can make the game feel like a grind.
An experienced player might notice that I’m not talking about anything new this port has to offer. Simply put, there isn’t much. There is of course the HD part of the title, and while it’s nice, SoulCalibur II never looked bad to begin with, and it doesn’t feel like a huge upgrade. Really, the best thing HD Online brings to the table is the return of two of the three console-exclusive guest characters: Spawn and Heihachi. As someone who mostly played the Gamecube version of the original (featuring Link, who understandably sits this one out), it was nice to see what I was missing.
What should be the biggest feature, though, is the addition of online play—emphasis on “should”.
The Online part of SoulCalibur II HD Online implies that the online component was a focus, but compared to Namco Bandai’s previous efforts it feels surprisingly like an afterthought. There are no lobbies to be found in HD Online, instead only single, two round matches against one person before being booted back to the menu. No customization is allowed for rounds, time limit, or finding someone at your skill level. There isn’t even an option to rematch with the same person; something I assumed was standard for online fighting games.
Finding a good match is in direct opposition to the quick, addictive nature of the game. Every match had to be searched for individually, I had to sit through the opening dialogues (which cannot be skipped online), hope the connection is playable, and do it all over again every few minutes. To put this all in perspective: SoulCalibur IV came out five years ago and had a vastly more robust online system.
Worst of all is that the netcode doesn’t seem very stable. Every single match I played had noticeable input lag. I’m not entirely sure if it was just the connections of people I was playing or not, but the game sure doesn’t make it easy to find good ones. I went all out and searched for the best connections possible, and was getting paired with people from Japan and France. I’m from the Midwestern United States, so I doubt the accuracy of those results. Even when I actually was fighting people in the same country, however, it still never felt that great.
I have some issues with this update, but they do drive home an unfortunate truth: this game is ten years old, and its time has mostly passed. Even if the online was stellar, the communities for these rereleases rarely last long. What’s left is a very strong game, but one that its fans could have played without a $20 ‘upgrade’. This isn’t really a revival of an old classic; it’s more like a shiny new memorial. It was nice to go back and relive some nostalgic memories, and for those interested in SoulCalibur’s origins it’s still a very well made game. Sadly, the improvements this port offers are ill-equipped for transcending history.
Food for Thought:
1. One thing that really makes the multiplayer suffer is that all of the secret characters and stages are locked. While I don’t mind having unlockable characters, it’s not like they’re spoiling any surprises at this point. Going through the entirety of Weapon Master is a lot to ask of someone who just wants to wreck people as Lizardman.
2. Spawn is up there for most bizarre guest characters in a video game to me. It’s pretty surreal to see him walking around like he’s (semi)relevant again. My favorite part about him is that he will occasionally yell “What is Soul Edge!?” upon victory, as if he has no idea why he’s even in the game.
3. There’s no option for Japanese voice acting here, despite it being offered in the original versions. Personally I prefer the English dub because it’s hilarious, but the choice would have been nice.