Soul Calibur, in its heyday, was one of the most respected fighting series. However, after Soul Calibur II, the series seems to have lost its way and lost focus. Soul Calibur IV is in many ways a victim of that lost focus.
The core mechanics remain roughly the same. Each character has a different weapon, ranging from axes to swords to staves. Each character has different moves that are based on a combination of vertical and horizontal-based attacks. There's also a system of parrying and dodging, as well as traditional guarding. In previous games, the system was fun and balanced, allowing for fast-paced but highly technical fights. However, in Soul Calibur IV, while the basic system has been carried over, in a lot of places it feels much less technical and much more like "hit them with the same attacks that you know work". One specific example of this is Mitsurugi's standard one-two vertical combo, which hits fast enough that if you catch someone in it, they won't be able to counter with any move because it hits so fast that it interrupts any move they try. I have literally been part of a battle online that consisted of my opponent and me (both Mitsurugi) either attacking with that move or guarding against it and hoping for a lucky parry so that it would be our turn to attack with that move. It's also possible to get a "Ring Out" by knocking the enemy out of the arena, but in SC4 this option feels really cheap - what's supposed to be a detailed swordfight quickly becomes "who can throw the opponent out first" due to SC4's poorly handled physics. In one team match, I won consecutive battles by simply standing near the edge and using the same throw any time a new challenger appeared on screen.
The major new game mechanic introduced for SC4 is the "Critical Finish" mode. Both fighters in a match have a "soul gauge" that increases when they hit their opponent and decreases when they guard against enemy attacks. When a character's soul gauge decreases enough, they go through a "soul crush", which is a short window for the other player to perform a Critical Finish. The Critical Finish is an instant-kill attack; however, the shortness of the life bars and the rarity of finding someone who guards enough to actually lose their soul gauge means that it's not an over-spammed attack that gets used all the time, but rather a way to finish off a long and difficult battle with a tide-turning attack. In most cases, it's usually easier to just kill an opponent than to try to hit them while they guard enough times to cause them to lose their soul gauge. In addition to the Critical Finish, the other new game mechanic is breakable armor. Each character has three "segments" - high, middle, and low. Repeated attacks to an area will break off the upper layer of armor on that area (leaving undergarments intact, of course) and make that area more vulnerable. It doesn't really add much to the game, and as a game mechanic feels kind of useless.
There are a few new characters in the game. Hilde is the only real "new" Soul Calibur character; she's a female knight with a neat fighting style that uses both a sword and a spear, and she's fun to play as. Raphael's adopted daughter Amy returns from SC3, where she was a guest character; she uses a style similar to the Rapier style from SC3. There are also 2 guest characters from Star Wars in each game - both game modes have The Apprentice from the upcoming "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed", the PS3 version has Darth Vader, and the XBOX 360 version has Master Yoda. Vader and Yoda are both decent characters, but The Apprentice is ridiculously overpowered, possessing one of the highest speeds in the game as well as high damage and force powers. When encountered in arcade mode, he is far more difficult to defeat than any other character in the game, and it's even worse when someone picks him in online mode. Finally, there are five characters guest-designed by prominent Japanese artists. None of these have a unique style; each simply takes the style of an established character and uses their own unique weapons. These include a dual-sword Samurai woman, a club-wielding ogre girl, and a bizarre moon person. None of them are particularly well-designed, though, and they're not even that fun to play. They don't even have the unique styles of the Star Wars characters to make up for it. All in all, the new characters for this game, other than Hilde, feel like wastes of time and space.
There are a couple different modes for single-player. The basic story mode consists of going through five fights against various opponents. The new mode used in most of SC4's single player game types is a tag-team mode, where if you have multiple characters on your team, you can swap them out in the middle of a battle and let the swapped-out character regenerate health. In story mode, you're usually fighting teams of 3 enemies, and depending on the character you play as, you may get allies of your own. The story mode is much shorter due to the fact that there are multiple enemies in each fight. In addition to story mode, there's also a more traditional arcade mode where you fight eight single enemies in a row; this more resembles the single-player mode of previous Soul Calibur games. The other new single-player mode is the Tower of Lost Souls. This is a mode where you go through floors of a tower, two or three at a time. Each set of floors has a different "gimmick" and a different boss; for example, one set of floors has a "clown" or "harlequin" gimmick, while another has a "knight" gimmick. There is a secret goal on each floor that is hinted at when you start the floor; completing this objective unlocks a new piece of clothing for use in creating characters.
The multiplayer modes in this game took the largest hit. In previous SC games, there were a wide variety of match styles and gameplay styles that could be used for multiplayer. In SC4, the two styles are limited to a regular match, with or without bonuses provided by equipping different weapons and items. The team-based system used for single player does not get used for multiplayer, despite its prominence in the single-player mode. The new addition for multiplayer is online mode, which functions the same as regular versus mode in that it only has two modes. The online mechanics are, at least, smooth and relatively problem-free, if a bit simple. There are levels in online play, but unlike games like Halo 3 and Metal Gear Online, it's not an average of how good a player you are, but rather a tally of how many times you've won (like an RPG). It's possible to look for a player within your level range, but it doesn't really matter that much, since levels have nothing to do with ability. The game plays smoothly if your connection is four or five bars, but starts to lag insufferably at 3 bars and lower.
Create-a-Character is in many ways the heart of this game's unlockable content. Creating a character has been simplified and improved in many ways. The unique Create-a-Character styles from SC3 have been removed, so every CaC now uses a regular fighter's style (however, you don't have to go unlocking styles like you did in SC3, either). Another addition in creating a character is physique customization. It's possible to determine how muscular a character is and how much physique they have. For men, a high physique means that they are bulky and wide-chested, while a low physique means they are thin and scrawny. For women, a high physique means that they are busty and curvy, and a low physique means that they are thin and flat. The difference between the extremes is clear and easy to see (something that's fairly rare for this type of "sliding bar adjustment"), and it's neat that they let you change it. There's a variety of faces and voices, but it seems like there's too many "extremes" (really young faces and voices, really old faces and voices) and not enough average stuff. There's 8 faces for males and 8 for females, but two of each are really young and two of each are really old, which really means there's 4 average faces for males and 4 average faces for females. The same goes for voices, as well, except that the personalities of each voice are also very different. The hairstyles, at least, are relatively diverse and cover a wide range of styles, short and long. Supposedly, there's an alignment system in SC4 that changes how good/evil your character is (or, at least, there's different endings in story mode where a custom character will either claim Soul Calibur, Soul Edge, or both, depending on his or her alignment), but unlike SC3 it's not visible, and the voices don't change either. I had a character who had a kindly voice and only said kind things, but who still claimed Soul Edge (the evil sword) in the end.
The clothes for Create a Character deserve special mention. The only nice-looking clothes in the game is the armor, which is all intricately designed and looks really fantastic. However, a lot of basic clothes that would make sense in the game - for example, a set of tights that covers the whole body, so that the armor isn't just sitting on bare skin - aren't actually in the game. It seems like the costume creators spread themselves too thin; while there's only a few armor sets for female characters, there are at least four uniforms that are just there to be goofy - a maid uniform, a waitress uniform, a stewardess uniform, and a nurse uniform. None of these make sense in the game's context; they're just there so you can play dress-up. Furthermore, there are only two ways to unlock new clothes - either by going through the Tower of Souls (and unlocking only a single piece of clothing per floor) or by getting "honors", SCIV's version of achievements, which range from simple tasks like "beat story mode" to more complex ones like "land 10,000 total attacks on an opponent". In SC3, it was enough to go through the strategy-like sub-mode to unlock new clothes; in SC4, it feels a lot more limited, and since Create-a-Character is one of the most emphasized modes in the game, it feels really unusual.
Customizing a character also adds stat bonuses and skills. For this reason, you can customize regular characters with Create-a-Character, too. You can either add items and change weapons for their default costumes (to give them stat increases) or you can give them their own costume made up from Create-a-Character parts, though for whatever reason you can't use their "normal" hairstyle and have to use their 2P hairstyle (or any of the other create-a-character hairstyles) if you want to customize them. Different clothes in the game provide different bonuses, either to stats (attack, defense, and health) or to skill points. Skill points are used to assign skills of various categories, ranging from things like "automatic guard impact" or "automatic unblockable attack" that will randomly aid you in battle, to "health drain" that sucks health out of enemies and gives it to you, to skills that increase your stats when fighting enemies of a certain gender or alignment. The skills and stats are kind of neat, but they also affect the character-creation process, when you feel like you have to buy stuff that gives good stats, instead of just getting stuff that looks neat. Thankfully, in versus mode (regular and online) there is an option to play the game without any stat modifiers or skills, which means that you can just have fights between characters without worrying about that stuff.
The graphics in this game are really good - as mentioned, the armor in particular looks really nice. The costumes for the main characters have gotten a bit more ridiculous in most cases, but the new character, Hilde, has a really neat set of armor, and the create-a-character option allow for a lot of good armor choices as well. While the other clothes look okay, only the armor and the weapons really show off the game's graphics, with their reflective properties and intricate detailing. The game's backgrounds are pretty good, as well, but nothing particularly noteworthy or epic like some of the stages from SC2 and SC3. The audio is decent, but there's nothing really worth pointing out in terms of music or voicing.
As a whole, Soul Calibur 4 is a disappointment that can be fun, but for the most part isn't. SC4 took all the complaints about SC3 and made them worse, and lost most of the things that made the series fun in SC1 and SC2. A lot of the systems and gameplay modes are really poorly handled. The only really fun thing in the game is messing with create-a-character, but despite the physique customization options, the incredibly limited number of faces, voices, and clothing sets kind of puts a damper on the whole experience. Really, it feels like SC4 is trying to do too many things at once, and isn't accomplishing any of them. If the game consisted wholly of a more fleshed-out character maker and a multiplayer game with some more game types, it might be better. As it is, though, Soul Calibur 4 only deserves a 7/10.