The last time I reviewed a Soul Calibur game was in 2012, just a month or so after I started this site. My reviews for Soul Calibur 4 on the PS3 (because my PS3 could still read discs back then) and the Dreamcast original were awful 400-600 word abominations that completely missed the point—as was the case with so many reviews from those days—but while my opinions and review style have evolved over time, there are certain games that I feel as strongly about as I did back then. Case in point, Soul Calibur 2. Awhile back, someone caught me yelling at the game and asked why I was so frustrated given my love of Soul Calibur, to which I instinctively replied, “I love the original, but this is the sequel and I hate this f***ing game.” The fact that I went into both Soul Calibur 2 and its basically identical HD remaster with a totally open mind and came out hating it more than ever speaks volumes about how bad the game really is, and while I’m sure a large number of nostalgia-fueled apologists would be willing to put on their love goggles and argue that I’m wrong about its quality, this is an objectively worse game than what came before and after.
Soul Calibur 2 is weapon master mode
Usually I start off by talking about the story, but this is a Soul Calibur game. The plot is therefore a confused mess of barely coherent back stories and motivations that invariably boil down to “person wants sword for one reason or another,” but that’s not to say that the game doesn’t at least make an effort here. Outside of arcade mode and various unlockable variants of arcade mode, there’s a mode called weapon master mode in which you move from stage to stage, with each group of stages being a chapter, and each chapter providing one to three pages of story justification for what’s happening. The writing is too inept for this to add anything of value, honestly, but the attempt at a story highlights weapon master mode being the heart of Soul Calibur 2. Further confirmation comes by virtue of the fact that it’s in weapon master mode that you unlock new characters, stages, and game modes.
Weapon master mode isn’t too bad at first
The first thing you’re bound to notice about weapon master mode is that it’s incredibly gimmicky. Stages are rarely straightforward fights, instead being peppered with random conditions that often come out of nowhere. Some stages push you and your opponent around with wind to increase the chance of a ring out, while other stages have enemy health gradually restore over time. That can be intermittently annoying, but it’s not too bad when you’re first going through it. And the inclusion of experience (which doesn’t appear to do anything but change your rank name) and money (which allows you to buy new weapons from the shop that come with pluses and minuses) is initially interesting, giving you another reason to continue playing.
And then it becomes an awful grind
The first time you finish weapon master mode, you get a short ending about on par with the rest of the writing (which is to say not great) and are kicked back to the map screen. Thing is, all of the stages that were completed become unfinished again, and the difficulty is cranked up. Saying that the difficulty is increased is a bit misleading, though—instead, Soul Calibur 2 decides that the most fun thing to do would be to force you to do the stages again with the rules balanced against you. Whereas a stage was covered in mines before that caused both you and your opponent to instantly lose upon being knocked down, now it only applies to you. Stages that required beating several enemies in a row now force you to do so within a certain time limit, and one in particular that has to be finished three times includes a character who blocks almost all of your attacks solely to waste time and make beating the timer more luck-based than it should be. Enemy health regenerates left and right, and stages randomly remain red after being completed, forcing you to finish them multiple times before finally showing up as cleared. For unfair stages, that’s irritating. For dungeons that consist of 20-30 fights, it’s an unbearable grind.
Everything here has been designed to waste your time without providing anything resembling entertainment value, and the cracks in the mechanics quickly start to show. In stages that give your enemy too much health to realistically KO them, it’s possible to fall out of the ring and lose after kicking them off of a ledge because your kick knocked them slightly higher than you. Stages covered in ice are purely luck-based because of the strange physics and inconsistent enemy blocking. Dungeons rarely communicate their gimmicks ahead of time, leading to discoveries such as one random dungeon fight slowly causing your health to deplete, this being something that it’s unlikely that you’ll notice while focusing on, you know, actually fighting. Gimmicks come and go without warning like that, and that’s the game.
Cheap victories are prudent victories
Getting through these moments of “difficulty” requires leveraging certain types of weapons to counteract the cheapness (where possible), but this never feels satisfying. At one point I got stuck on a stage where you had to beat an enemy who blocked all of your attacks by parrying and then attacking, but it attacked rarely enough that I never did enough damage to beat it. Then I equipped a weapon that damaged enemies slightly through their blocks and killed it with a barrage of attacks. This isn’t always possible, and there won’t be a weapon that, for example, counteracts the game’s inexplicable love of making enemies invisible, but it helps somewhat even if it’s not enough to make weapon master mode worthwhile.
The clarity of the HD version is nice
I played through Soul Calibur 2 on the Playstation 2 and Soul Calibur 2 HD on the Xbox 360, and it’s worth mentioning that the gameplay is exactly the same in both of them. The only thing that appears to have changed is the resolution, but that can make a difference. The final boss of both the arcade and weapon master modes is an enemy who’s on fire, and their stage is also on fire, which turns into a mess of visual effects given the PS2’s lower resolution. The higher resolution of the HD version, on the other hand, makes it much easier to see attack cues and respond appropriately. The HD version doesn’t have the edge in all respects, however, as the general art style tends to be more cohesive at a lower resolution. Once everything is sharp enough to see everyone’s dead eyes and plastic skin, you start to get into serious uncanny valley territory. As for the music, it’s fine. It tends to be bombastic and orchestral, but it’s also the type of background fluff that’s easily forgettable.