Retro Respawn – Soul Month Part One – Soul Blade

Soul Blade (Soul Edge if you lived outside Europe, Australia and North America) is the first game in the Soul series of games, created by internal Namco development team Project Soul. I’ve decided that I’ll be looking at the fifth and sixth gen Soul games over the coming month in a feature that I’ll be imaginatively calling “Soul Month” (creative sod, aren’t I?). I would have also looked at Soulcalibur IV as I have played it in the past, but I don’t currently have a working seventh gen console on which to play it again for a refresh, so we’ll be going up to Soulcalibur III (a game I’ve never actually played before) and then calling it a day, I’m afraid. That does mean I’ll be able to squeeze out 4 columns worth of content though, so huzzah!

I actually played Soul Blade in the arcade back when it came out in the mid-90s. I actually remember a pub near Grand Central Station in Stockport had it randomly set up, which was likely the first time I ever got my grubby mitts on it. Being someone who has always enjoyed a good fighting game now and then, I was immediately intrigued by Soul Blade due to its impressive (for the time) 3D graphics and the fact that the characters were all armed to the teeth with a variety of nasty looking weaponry. I didn’t actually get to play it on the PlayStation until many years after it had been released for the console, due to being a really late adapter to the fifth gen consoles.

Anyone who owned the much beloved Demo-1 that came with the PlayStation console itself will remember that the demo disc came with a Soul Blade trailer, which would likely be the first time most of us heard the fantastic “The Edge of Soul” song from the opening cinematic (that intro still looks pretty good even today, actually). This face-slapping trailer combined with the positive memories of playing the game in the arcade gave me the impetus to borrow a copy of Soul Blade from a friend when I finally had my PSX all set up and ready to go, which led to me finally experiencing the game in my own home.

I decided to play as Siegfried due to always thinking it was cool that he had a ludicrously massive sword, and I was suitably impressed by the graphics and gameplay. What I hadn’t taken into account was the Soul franchise’s penchant for freaking out audiences with an unexpected and unpleasant ending. Thus, when Siegfried picked up the cursed Soul Edge sword and transformed into the demonic Nightmare, I’m kind of ashamed to say that Young Mike was suitably freaked out enough to no longer play the game anymore and quickly returned it to his friend.

However, I’m a big boy now (I can even tie my own shoes and everything), so I decided to not only revisit Soul Blade but also strive to complete the arcade mode with all ten characters, creepy endings be darned! Thankfully, one thing I learnt in the years since is that Soul Blade has a neat little twist where each character actually has two endings, with the second one usually (but not always) being a tad less depressing or outright terrifying. To get the different endings, you need to press a button prompt at a certain point during the ending itself, at which point the different ending will kick in.

To use Siegfried as an example, his alternate ending sees him smashing the evil sword to bits before standing atop a mountain pondering what to do next and not being sure how to move on with his life. Sadly, for him his original ending is the actual canon one, but it’s nice that the game gives you a chance to have a hand in how a character’s story plays out, even if it is only minor. In certain cases you actually need to do more than just press a single button (such as in Mitsurugi’s ending where you take part in what amounts to being a wacky first-person boss battle), and it can be really annoying when you get it wrong as you have to go ahead and complete the arcade mode again to get another chance, but I guess there should be a price for failure, eh?

The actual story of Soul Blade sees all of the characters going after the Soul Edge sword, which is currently held by the pirate Cervantes who is also a playable character from the start, with each of them having different motivations. Each character’s story is actually fleshed out a bit more in Edge Master Mode, which is an additional gameplay mode that sees you collecting weapons by defeating opposing fighters under certain conditions. What’s fun about the game is that it’s set in the 1500s, which gives it a different feel and aesthetic to other fighting games with more modern settings, like Namco’s other popular PSX fighter Tekken.

Each character wielding a weapon also changes the gameplay, making Soul Blade feel very different from Tekken, even though in later games in the series, it’s confirmed that they share the same universe. Whereas in Tekken each character has four attacks, with each attack corresponding to one of the character’s limbs, Soul Blade instead goes with a different system where each character has three specific attack buttons and one button for blocking. The square and triangle buttons are used to swing your weapon in different ways, whereas circle is used for kicking, and cross is used for blocking.

I’m on record as saying that I really don’t like it when a fighting game assigns a specific button to blocking. This is mostly because the two fighting games I played the most when I was getting to grips with the genre were Street Fighter II and Tekken, which both allow you a “free” block by walking backwards. Once you’ve got into the habit of that being how you block, it becomes a bit of an annoyance to have to retrain yourself to press a button instead. This led to many instances during my playthrough of Soul Blade where I would stupidly walk backwards whilst an opponent was swinging a blade in my direction, thinking I’d block it, only to end up getting a chunk of sharpened metal in my bonce.

After I’d managed to retrain myself though, I found the gameplay in Soul Blade to be pretty enjoyable, with it often proving to be more prudent to sit back sometimes and fight defensively, which is a tactic I’m fine with. There is something satisfying about waiting for just the right moment before getting in the slice or combo you need to finally empty your opponent’s health bar to zero. Soul Blade also takes a nod to Virtua Fighter by allowing you to win via ring out should you manage to knock someone off the stage with an attack. This meant that on a few occasions I was able to rescue a match in the closing moments by getting in a good shot to send the opposing fighter tumbling down to the arena floor in order to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.

As it’s a Namco fighting game from the early fifth gen, the main boss fighters can be all kinds of cheap sometimes, which led to some serious cheesing from me on more than one occasion against Cervantes especially, but in general Soul Blade is a fun fighting game. The lack of blood is surprising considering the fact that each fight involves both competitors seemingly slicing one another to pieces with a host of vicious weaponry, but I guess that’s why Bushido Blade exists. If you fancy a weapons-filled gore fest, then that will be the game for you, but if you’re cool with a slightly less visceral slice em’ up, then you should have no problems getting into a game of Soul Blade.

Graphically, the game shows its age a bit these days, but for the time, it was pretty impressive, especially taking into account that the fights can take place at different times of the day, and the lighting effects will change as the fight wears on to reflect that. For a game originally released to arcades in 1995, Soul Blade holds up extraordinarily well for an early 3D fifth gen game from a cosmetic perspective. The game has the typically great Namco soundtrack when it comes to music, although some of the English voice acting can be hilariously stilted and poorly delivered.

Overall, I enjoyed going back to Soul Blade, and I’d say it was a strong opening thrust from Project Soul. A copy of the game should set you back between £5 and £10, and I’d say that’s a perfectly reasonable price to pay to have this in your collection. For a while Namco were packing it in with Tekken 2 in a double case, so if you have a look around, you might be able to find that and get two great games for the price of one. We’ll see how the series progressed next week when it hit the SEGA Dreamcast with the first Soulcalibur game. I hope you’ll join me for that trip down memory lane!

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