Review: Namco SoulCalibur
Rating an early 2012 port of a mid 1998 arcade game isn't easy, particularly when the title in question was ambitious at the time but has been surpassed numerous times by subsequent releases. Namco's universal iOS release SoulCalibur ($15/$12, aka Soul Calibur) is that game -- the first of many sequels to Soul Edge, a breakthrough one-on-one fighter that broke from convention by giving its polygonal combatants weapons, and successfully created medieval backdrops in which they could battle. By looking, sounding, and playing roughly as well on Apple's latest devices as it did on Sega's Dreamcast console 13 years ago, the semi-3-D SoulCalibur manages to become the most advanced game of its kind in the App Store, though it's hard to miss the small bugs, high price, and other ways in which the title falls short of iOS perfection.
Soul Edge’s cast of characters felt like a largely serious bunch, marking the debut of the beautiful Greek swordstress Sophitia, vaguely monsterous dagger-wielding Voldo, classical German longsword warrior Siegfried, and Japanese-inspired samurai/ninja pair Mitsurugi and Taki, amongst others. SoulCalibur strategically tweaked the fighters to include more youthful and fantasy influences, adding characters such as the expanding sword-wielding Ivy, the Korean Elvis-alike nunchuck master Maxi, and the Chinese swordgirl Xianghua, while transforming the blonde Siegfried into the masked warrior Nightmare—one of several costume and identity swaps.
Between the ten initially selectable fighters—each unlocking another as you complete the game—you have the opportunity to battle with all sorts of different medieval weapons, and their on-screen interactions are amazingly impressive: Namco managed to make their glowing swipes, sparking collisions, and occasional bursts of energy look convincing—no easy feat back then, and one only Epic’s Infinity Blade games have done better on iOS devices today. The level of interactivity and engagement between fighters here, however, is much higher: you have an eight-way joystick and four buttons, tons of secret moves to learn, and the ability to walk around your opponent while swinging weapons at him or her. This isn’t just a swipe and tap exercise: you can swing your weapon horizontally or vertically, kick, guard, jump, and sidestep attacks, skills that will all be necessary as you make your way to the deadly final boss.
SoulCalibur falls way short in the graphics department relative to the Infinity Blade titles, but it’s so much better than most one-on-one fighting game rivals that it’s hard to complain too much. In keeping with the original game’s use of 3-D platforms with scant 3-D background elements overlaid atop flat 2-D scrolling backgrounds, the iOS version uses the same tricks to simulate 3-D environments; if you’re playing SoulCalibur on an iPad, you’ll notice the separations between 3-D and 2-D elements right away—arguably more than the upgrades that enable SoulCalibur’s polygons to enjoy higher resolutions than they originally did in arcades and the Dreamcast. While some of the special effects have been downgraded for iOS devices, they’re hardly noticeable.
On Apple’s smaller-screened devices, this title looks so much more detailed than Capcom’s Street Fighter titles, SNK’s King of Fighters, and EA’s Mortal Kombat that there’s no question as to which is more impressive technically; Namco’s soft-edged 3-D character models and special effects are in a class of their own by iOS fighting game standards, with only Unreal Engine-powered rivals looking significantly better. Multiple costumes complete with flowing fabrics really make the combatants look cool, as do early attempts at hair and wind animations. Sonically, SoulCalibur is packed with all the same epic music and occasionally overpowering voice samples found in the original game—that’s a lot of truly very good audio content by comparison with most fighters.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are some issues to contend with. The first five combatants in each play-through are almost pushovers thanks to unaggressive AI, stepping up in difficulty only halfway through the game. Defeated characters sometimes stood up and blocked the victor during end-of-round victory posing. Buttons stopped working one at a time during our playtesting, requiring us to exit and resume the game—thankfully not ending the current playthrough in the process. The current state of progress was lost entirely when we left the game for too long during another match, suggesting that SoulCalibur doesn’t do enough to preserve individual fights in progress when the app is quit. And there’s no two-player support; SoulCalibur is only a one-player game.
Given the huge size of their back catalogs and the challenges of porting from old platforms to iOS, developers such as Namco don’t have it easy when bringing once-great titles such as SoulCalibur to the App Store—issues of pricing, performance, and even residual appeal of a franchise’s earliest entries are all minefields just waiting to be explored by players. At its $15 “regular” asking price, SoulCalibur is a bit too expensive of a purchase given its age, and with its current set of bugs and limitations, Namco has given most players every reason to wait for updates and price drops. That said, players who buy in will find this to be a highly competent one-on-one fighting game, more aggressive and iOS universalized than most of its direct peers, and plenty of fun as a single-player experience. Hopefully it will inspire Namco to release newer SoulCalibur games in the App Store, as well.