Retro Respawn – Soul Month Part Three – Soulcalibur II

We keep “Soul Month” chugging along with our penultimate part where we will look at the third game in the Soul series of games, which is somewhat confusingly named Soulcalibur II. Yes, rather than sticking with the theme of going with a different name each time, Project Soul decided that they liked the Soulcalibur name and to just keep adding Roman numerals on with every release. What was interesting about Soulcalibur II though was that it would see a multiplatform release to all of the currently active sixth gen consoles. This meant that PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube would all be getting their own version of the game with an extra little twist.

For you see, Soulcalbur II would start the trend of including a special “guest” character, with each console getting its own unique visiting weapon wielder. The PS2 was originally intended to get Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife, but the licensing deal fell through, and instead Tekken’s Heihachi Mishima got the call, making him the first character in a Soul game to not actually have a weapon. For most people, that would lead to bad tidings, but old Hach is no mere mortal, and he holds his own just fine in this sort of environment. It’s a shame that they couldn’t seal the deal with Cloud, but Heihachi is still a fun addition to the ranks.

The GameCube got probably the most interesting character in the form of Link from the The Legend of Zelda series, but it probably made the most sense seeing as he already has the sword and shield look going on. That being said, I would have popped if they’d gone a bit left field and stuck Samus from Metroid in there instead. The Xbox ended up getting probably the most boring of the three guest characters in the form of Spawn from the Spawn series of graphic novels and movies. This was mostly because his creator, Todd McFarlane, also created a special character for the game itself in the form of Necrid. I’ve never really been into Spawn, although I know the character has its fans, and Spawn himself isn’t that bad to play as. I suppose getting Master Chief to rock up might not have been feasible due to him mostly being known for gunplay, but I personally would have found him to be a more enjoyable guest character.

The story of Soulcalibur II picks up in 1590, with fragments of the cursed sword Soul Edge being found all over the world, leading to warriors collecting them in an effort to locate Soul Edge and either take it for themselves or destroy it once and for all. This leads to a number of previous characters making their return to the game in the form of series favourites like Misturugi and Taki, along with new characters, such as Raphael and Cassandra. Outside of Raphael (who matches rapier wit with an actual rapier blade), most of the newbie characters are based on previous characters in the series, with Cassandra being the sister of Sophitia and essentially just mirroring her fighting style.

I ended up playing the Xbox version of Soulcalibur II for the purpose of this write up. That isn’t because I personally think it’s the best version or anything but more because it’s the only one I currently have in my collection after picking it up for a mere £1.50 from CEX back before the world went to heck in a handbasket. I actually rented the game from the video shop (remember those?) for my PS2 back when it came out, and I enjoyed it fine enough, but it didn’t captivate me, and I was never moved to actually purchase it once my rental period was over. After revisiting it for the purpose of this feature, it’s still yet to really win me over, though it has its plus points. It still scored very well when it came out though, so it wouldn’t surprise me if it had its fair share of fans.

I don’t know if it’s down to Soul fatigue or the fact that Soulcalibur II is just generally the lesser of the first three games in the series, but regardless, I just didn’t take to this one like I did the other two. I think Soulcalibur II probably plays better in comparison to Soul Blade due to the return of eight-way movement from the previous game, and it certainly looks better too, but it just didn’t have that specialness to it that really made me fall in love with it. It felt after a while that I was completing it out of obligation rather than because I was actually enjoying it. It certainly looks nice, and the gameplay is fast-paced fun, for the most part, but there’s a piece missing in the puzzle for me that I struggle to put into words.

One thing I don’t like about it is how the difficulty spikes so severely when you get down to the last couple of battles in arcade mode, with the computer seemingly blocking every single attack you make and almost always getting the better of you in a 50/50 clash when you both swing your weapon. This gets especially annoying when you are trying to complete arcade mode as quickly as possible in order to rank as high as you can because losing one fight and having to continue means you can no longer finish on the leaderboard. Say what you want about how punishing Soul Blade could get sometimes (especially when fighting Cervantes), but at least it was kind enough to let your time count if you had to continue a bunch of times.

Can we take a moment as well to consider that Inferno is a pretty rubbish end boss? I could live with it for one or maybe two games, but this is the third time that Inferno closes out the arcade mode, and it’s just a boring character to do battle with. Not only does Inferno not have its own move list, instead doing the gimmick where it randomly borrows the moves of another character like Mokujin in the Tekken series of games, but it’s just quite a boring character to look at that doesn’t really have much personality other than being a skeletal thing that shrieks a bit. The specialness of it being a chameleon fighter is lessened too by the fact that the game has another character that does that called Charade, which is basically an eyeball with limbs, so Inferno is not only a weird looking character that steals other fighters’ moves, but it’s not even the most interesting weird looking character that steals other fighters’ moves!

Combine that with the screen getting covered in flames whenever you fight it, meaning it’s sometimes hard to actually know how close you are when you try to swing your weapon, and Inferno just becomes a tedious show closer that just makes you want to see the end of the game so you can move on with your life. Tekken is no stranger to overly difficult (and sometimes outright cheap) final boss battles in arcade mode, but at least the Tekken games mix it up a bit, and bosses like Devil and Jinpachi are memorable characters that are actually interesting to look at. Inferno is bereft of personality, annoying to fight and just boring from a design perspective. I put up with it for the first couple of games, but by the time Soulcalibur II rolled around, I was beyond bored of it as a character, and I really hope Soulcalibur III goes with a different end boss (spoiler, it does).

Annoyance with arcade mode aside, I did quite enjoy Weapon Master Mode though, which sees you take part in specific missions in order to advance into a new part of the map, with the missions getting progressively more difficult as you move on. You start off doing the basics and then move on to facing opponents in unique settings, such as in a booby-trapped temple where the fighting arena keeps changing from slippery ice that can see you flying off the fighting stage to toxic quicksand that slows you down and leaves you a sitting duck for an enemy attack. I enjoyed the variety on offer here, and you can consistently change your character throughout to find ones that best suit the mission you are tackling at any given time. By winning bouts you gain experience points and also earn precious gold that you can use to purchase more dangerous weaponry.

The only downside to the mode is that, outside of a few occasions, you often have to do battle with the existing characters in the game, which sometimes doesn’t really make sense when you consider that Weapon Master has its own storyline separate from the main game. This leads to strange situations where we’re supposed to believe the scantily clad Ivy is actually a monk because that part of the story demands that you battle five monks in quick succession. In some cases they do have special generic characters for you to fight, such as having you take on a slew of axe-wielding Berserkers (sadly, not the character from early 90s WWF) when you have to fight your way through a dungeon, but they could have probably done with adding some more just to give the mode some variety. Despite that though, Weapon Master is a fun additional mode that adds some longevity to the Soulcalibur II single-player experience.

I should stress that, even though I’ve thrown some shade its way, that I don’t think Soulcalibur II is a bad game. I certainly got my money’s worth for the paltry amount I paid for it, and the combat is pretty smooth overall. Had I just played it on its own, then I might possibly have some more praise for it, but the little annoyances within it rankled perhaps more than they should have done due to how good Soulcalibur on the Dreamcast was. It could just be that any game would face an uphill battle if it had to follow on from one that good, but I think even with sober eyes and mind, you could argue that Soulcalibur II isn’t as polished as its elder sibling. Still, if you find it for as cheap as I did, then I’d have to strongly recommend picking it up because it is a good fighter overall.

Hopefully, I’ll see you all next week when we return to the PS2 for the final addition of Soul Month!

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