When the original SoulCalibur II appeared on the PlayStation 2, it was universally praised for its fantastic 3D fighting engine, its diverse cast of characters, and its plethora of modes. Even today, Namco's brawler is remembered fondly by many as the series' greatest achievement. SoulCalibur II HD Online attempts to breathe new life into the classic by, as the game's title may suggest, adding high-definition graphics and online functionality. But does the weapons-based fighter retain its marvellous shine, or has time dulled its once near-perfect blade?
Fortunately, it's immediately apparent that the core gameplay has held up well – brilliantly, in fact. Aside from some relatively clunky animations, the franchise's trademark formula of directional attacks and quick movement is still enough to make you think twice about how far the genre has progressed since.
As with any great brawler, its mechanics are accessible yet deep. It should take newcomers no time at all to get to grips with traversal and basic attacks, while the game's more nuanced systems will keep technical players busy for as long as they see fit. Perhaps most importantly, the game still feels fast and edgy – make too many mistakes and battles against a skilled adversary can be over in a flash. As such, health bars usually don't last very long when compared to other titles in the genre – it's an acquired taste, but one that forces you to act with instinct more often than not, resulting in tense, brutal, and satisfying duels.
SoulCalibur has never been as technically demanding as something like Tekken – there are no massive strings of button inputs to remember, or juggling combos to work into your muscle memory. Instead, your success here is largely dependent on knowing which attack or technique is best for the current situation, and then executing it as quickly as possible. Horizontal blows quickly put a stop to any strafing enemy, but they tend to lose out against vertical slices. Meanwhile, grabs break through guards, and sidestepping allows you to dodge any linear offensive given the right timing. Every standard manoeuvre is easy to pull off, but incredibly rewarding when you manage to get it just right.
The release's cast also remains well-balanced and full of memorable personalities. From the stern Japanese swordsman Mitsurugi to the cursed pirate Cervantes, there's still a lot of diversity on offer. And, since the series is now multiplatform, you'll be able to enjoy playing as both the weapon-less Heihachi of Tekken fame, and formerly Xbox-exclusive comic book icon, Spawn – although those of you who first experienced the title on the GameCube will be sad to see the disappearance of Link from the selection screen. It's difficult to pick just one favourite from the colourful cast, but doing so can pay off – after all, battle experience and getting to know the ins-and-outs of your chosen warrior is crucial because of the varied fighting styles on offer. A hulking brute like Astaroth, for instance, is slow moving, but his attacks have huge range and deal out hefty chunks of damage. Get in close, however, and a quick combatant like female ninja Taki can turn him into a pincushion.
Unfortunately, as with almost any fighting game, there are some moves that can be exploited – and it's perhaps a bit of a shame that the attacks haven't been balanced for this HD remaster. Some characters like Berserker, Ivy, and Cervantes can unleash strikes that seemingly do far too much damage for how safe they are to execute, and it goes without saying that these issues bleed into the online modes.
Encountering the same warriors over and over again is something that competitive players will have gotten used to over the years, but even so, it's disappointing to see so many online opponents settle for just a handful of characters. It's even more disappointing, however, that the title's multiplayer component isn't quite up to scratch. While setting up matches and finding opponents is both easy and quick – if incredibly basic - many of our bouts were all but ruined by lag, even if we had chosen to look for well-connected opponents. At its worst, the problem would lead to duels that seemed unplayable for both sides, as we struggled to even land a single blow. Of course, it goes without saying that even the slightest latency can have a profound effect on a battle – and sadly, we encountered some jitters at the most inconvenient times, leading to match-ups that were lost solely because the game couldn't read our inputs fast enough.
It's technical errors like this that can turn a satisfying brawler into a frustrating one, and it's a shame that these problems exist in what is a re-mastered PS2 title. That said, the bouts of lag that we came across were thankfully inconsistent. Numerous fights were completed with no issues whatsoever, although this proved to make the battles that did go wrong that much more infuriating, especially when trying to rise through the tiers in a ranked match.
It's probably a good job, then, that the release features a large array of single player modes, from the typical mainstays like Arcade and Time Attack, to the addictive Weapon Master campaign. The latter remains one of the most unique additions to the series, and provides the means to unlock new characters and stages. This is also where you'll find and buy weapons to add to your collection, which can then be used in the title's other modes.
Told through reams of text, the story of your hunt for the legendary sword can feel very old fashioned, but it does carry a certain charm as you progress across a map, taking on challengers. However, it's not quite a straightforward set-up, as you'll also need to contend with various troublesome conditions as you fight. These twists can range from simple alterations like increased throw damage, to more outlandish changes like being constantly blown towards the edge of a stage by a strong gust of wind. At other points, you'll need to progress through dungeons made up of several fights which end with a boss, or you'll be tasked with taking on groups of enemies without a break.
These scenarios do a good job of keeping gameplay feeling fresh as you systematically work your way from one challenge to the next, but there are times when the odds are stacked so high against you that it takes away from the enjoyable sense of progression. You can have countless wins under your belt and the best weapon in your hands, but sometimes the sweet taste of victory can seem completely out of reach because of the restrictions that some challenges place upon you. How about having to take on several tough opponents with no health recovery, or having to fight your way through an enemy that regenerates health at an alarming rate while yours slowly drains away due to poisoning? At times it can all be a bit much, and it's made worse by the fact that there's only ever one round per duel, often making it impossible to adapt to the situation before it's too late.
Nevertheless, even with its shortcomings, Weapon Master mode is still a difficult slice of content to ignore, especially when there's so much to unlock. But at the end of the day, SoulCalibur II's truly addictive qualities continue to reside in its local multiplayer. Whether you're playing singular matches or team brawls, it still makes for fantastic fun with friends. The game's fast-paced and accessible combat allows for lengthy sessions that refuse to become tedious or boring, and there are plenty of laughs to be had at the dated voice work and hilarious accidental ring outs that will undoubtedly occur.
Elsewhere, the release's visuals have benefited from the HD treatment – but not to any great degree. Many of the game's textures look horribly blurry, and stage backgrounds appear messy, detracting from their otherwise brilliant 3D designs. The cast, meanwhile, remain nice to look at, their unique appearances still showcasing the flair for character design that Namco has come to be known for. The title's soundtrack, however, is still one of its greatest assets, and features some suitably epic-sounding scores that really set the tone for intense clashes.
SoulCalibur II may have lost a bit of its sheen, but its timeless combat system and range of great single player content prove that this blade is still a worthy match for its more modern sparring partners. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the title's basic and unreliable online multiplayer addition, meaning that you'd do well to consider what it is that you want from this remaster before embarking on your quest for Soul Edge.