There's a lot to be said for watching humans whack each other with swords. Soul Calibur IV doesn't exactly refine that simple formula; it just packs in more pathos and fewer clothes. Three dozen characters fight one-on-one in lush environments, all for glory, or a demonic sword, or something. The anemic story mode, built from a set of one-round bouts, is brief and eminently forgettable. But who plays Soul Calibur for the story?
Combat is less frenetic than in some fighters. Speed reduction allows slightly more time to think about attacks, which is a pleasant surprise. That gives button-mashers some leeway; flailing on the attack buttons will still unleash an amazing move as often as not. Even theatrical finishing moves don't require arcane button combinations; players simply beat enemies until their armor falls off, then tap one button. Yet those without serious knowledge of advanced moves and defensive timing will cruise along until the CPU quietly shifts into overdrive, at which point battles quickly end in failure.
Lucasfilm inexplicably invades with the balanced Darth Vader (on the PS3), a too-small-to-hit Yoda (Xbox 360), and Vader's wildly overpowered apprentice (both platforms), a bizarre meta-advert for the forthcoming game The Force Unleashed. But look past such oddities to the character editor, in which gold earned in the story mode builds wild, unique combatants.
Beyond the game: The console wars continue. PS3 owners might experience slightly smoother, faster play by installing to the hard drive, and Vader is a more balanced character than Yoda. Yet the 360 will gain hard-drive-install options this fall, Vader is likely to arrive as downloadable content, and Xbox Live is undeniably a more fertile ground for online play.
Worth playing for: The deep character editor, which has already facilitated the appearance of Barack Obama, Kill Bill's Gogo Yubari, and Batman in online matches. Many user-created knockoffs of popular characters look like the cast of a 1976 Turkish adventure movie, which only adds to the fun.
Frustration sets in when: The difficulty level on the Tower Of Lost Souls—the most robust solo mode, and the source of many items for use in the character editor—becomes far too demanding to accommodate.
Final judgment: A near champion primed for obsessive fighters and courageous button-mashers.