Games 8/13/08: SoulCalibur IV, PixelJunk Eden

SoulCalibur IV
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, partial nudity, sexual themes, violence)

The recent rerelease of the original “SoulCalibur” as a downloadable game not only provided fighting game fans with some well-aged nostalgia, but also reminded them just how much the series has changed in 10 years’ time.

For those who give those changes two big thumbs down, “SoulCalibur IV” provides no comfort. Gaudily designed characters look more garish than ever (and, in the case of female fighters, disproportionate to a sometimes embarrassing degree). The ability to destroy your opponent’s outfit is one of the gimmicky hallmarks of the game’s polished and pretty fighting engine — believe it or not, there’s a strategic element to it — and Namco Bandai’s artists hammer that nail home by going nuts in the area of costume design.

“SC4” also advances the series’ continued reliance on gimmicky guest characters, with no less than Yoda (Xbox 360), Darth Vader (PS3) and Vader’s Sith apprentice (both) making star turns. That’s fabulous news to “Star Wars” fans, but it also accentuates the franchise’s problem with balancing character strengths and weaknesses. If you thought Link was overpowering in “SoulCalibur II,” wait until you see the havoc this threesome can wreak.

Again, though, these are problems only if you want “SC4” to be the straight-laced fighter its great-grandfather was. Namco Bandai feels differently, and to its credit, the series has found its niche as a weapons-based fighting game both casual and serious players can feasibly enjoy. “SC4’s” fighting science can’t approach “Virtua Fighter’s” level, but those who wish to master its intricacies will be rewarded, just as those who’d rather mash buttons will be entertained in their own way.

For those won over by the gameplay, little about “SC4’s” feature set should disappoint. The game’s character creation tool, though confusing at first, is surprisingly robust, and the degree to which you can enhance fighters with unlockable items and abilities provides more than enough compensation for the fighting engine’s shortcomings. Just in case the employment of weapons didn’t give the “SoulCalibur” brand enough distinction, this puts it over the top.

To no surprise, “SC4” also introduces online play to the series, and it does so without incident or issue. A tournament option of some kind would have been nice, but nothing beyond two-player support is included. As per series tradition, the game’s focus remains on single-player content, and the wealth of unlockables — along with the inclusion of three separate single-player modes — does that custom proud.


PixelJunk Eden
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Q-Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

Serenity and hair-chewing madness collide in unprecedented ways in “PixelJunk Eden,” a game so completely in its own world that downloading the demo is probably the only way to even remotely understand it. The object of “Eden” is to restore Eden, which you do by collecting Spectra, which you get by swinging and leaping between plants that you grow by utilizing pollen, which you collect by defeating enemies. Huh? Absurd though it sounds on paper, “Eden” captivates — in part due to its minimalist, vector art-laden visual style, but also because it’s so uncompromisingly different in its approach to gameplay. “Eden’s” objectives make sense once you start playing, but the unconventional control scheme, floaty physics and rather unforgiving approach to level design and progress indication will take longer to appreciate — if you even can appreciate them at all. The easily frustrated will not: “Eden’s” relaxing exterior belies how maddeningly (and sometimes unfairly) difficult it can be even early on, and those without saintly levels of patience should just avoid this one altogether. Q-Games’ latest is addictive, original and refreshingly stubborn, but only if you take the time to understand its philosophy and forget, at least temporarily, everything you know about game design’s status quo.