Version tested: PSP
It's been a good year for the 2D fighter crowd, not least because Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue have shown how dragon-punch and charge motions still have what it takes to thrill and enthral. Step back a year and the console scene was again being dominated by the 3D behemoths. From January to December we saw the cleanest fatalities ever in Marvel vs. DC Universe as well as a revamped Super Smash Bros. on the Wii. But the fighter highlight of 2008 was arguably SoulCalibur IV - heralding the return of demonic swords and cheap bojutsu.
SoulCalibur IV wasn't a massive evolution as Namco kept the stage of history very similar to its previous outing. The move to the next-generation nonetheless looked and played superbly. We can't imagine most people's first thoughts of SoulCalibur IV were "Hmmm… Shame it's not portable," but as it did with Tekken: Dark Resurrection, Namco has brought SoulCalibur to the PSP in the form of Broken Destiny. Some might see the inclusion of the word "broken" in the title as a bad omen, but we're happy to say that SoulCalibur has lost little in translation.
A noticeable downgrade in the quality of the visuals was inevitable. In spite of this, Namco has done a very impressive job of replicating the SoulCalibur IV visuals onto the smaller screen. Indeed, although comparing both games side by side highlights a chasm of aesthetical difference - Siegfried's armour is certainly less shiny and more angular in Broken Destiny -character animation is equally fluid on either platform. Also, most of SoulCalibur IV's stages have found their way into Broken Destiny. Namco has renamed a few, presumably so they'll seem newer, but SoulCalibur vets will find themselves in mostly familiar surroundings.
Many will be pleased to hear that Namco has completely dropped the Star Wars trio. SoulCalibur IV's other 24 main characters all return in Broken Destiny, complete with virtually identical command lists. So if you know how to play Kilik, Taki or Cervantes in IV, then you know how to play them in Broken Destiny.
But that's not to say changes haven't been made. Certain characters have had their recovery times and hit boxes tweaked to make the game more balanced, and a few names also have a new move or two. But for those who couldn't write an essay on how Sophitia is different to Cassandra, the changes will mostly go unnoticed.
What won't go unnoticed is the Ghost of Sparta. With Soul Calibur IV not only did Yoda and Vader fail to fit in with the tone, the fact that they played a tad cheaply didn't help. But with Kratos it's different. For a start, he's a bloodthirsty Spartan steeped in Greek mythology who wields a pair of flaming swords… Which are chained to his arms. You almost wonder why this character isn't already in SoulCalibur.
Namco has wisely made Kratos a solid character for beginners with easy to perform combos which do good damage. He is lacking a bit in the speed stakes, but thanks to the Blades of Chaos he's an effective midrange fighter with some nasty aerial combos.
Broken Destiny's other new character is Dampierre. The story portrays him as a silver-tongued conman who fights with concealed daggers. His appearance leans towards SoulCalibur's more irregular side as he sports a yellow jacket, bowtie, handlebar moustache and top hat - although it's hard to diss a guy who evades via moonwalk.
Unlike Kratos, Dampierre is targeted towards the more advanced player. His individual attacks do minor damage but his speed allows him to keep on the offensive. His play style also revolves around his ability to feign injury and fall to the ground, where he has access to various throws and wakeup techniques which make him difficult to pin down. His Critical Finish is suitably absurd.
In terms of the battle mechanics, Broken Destiny is the same Soul Calibur it was on the PS3 and 360. Players use the 8-Way Run to dance around their opponent, the Guard Impact system to repel and parry attacks and tactical Ukemi to avoid being pummelled on the ground. But the one major change is how the Soul Gauge and Critical Finish work.
In Broken Destiny every character has a new move which is activated by pressing all three attacks. As an example, Mitsurugi's Demon Slayer makes him flash for a split second before launching his opponent into the air. However, connect this new attack whilst the opponents Soul Gauge is flashing red and you'll automatically perform a round-winning Critical Finish.
The old method of achieving a Critical Finish - i.e. Soul Crushing your opponent and immediately pressing all four buttons - is still available, but the new technique makes Critical Finishing a turtling (guard happy) opponent all the more possible. However, to balance things out Namco have also included the Active Purge system.
Once per match a player can restore their Soul Gauge by pressing down three times followed by all three attacks - the trade off being that you lose all your remaining armour and take more damage. This gives defensive players a way to avoid a Critical Finish and stage a flukey comeback. That said, although these new systems rarely affect the outcome of a battle, they do make the Critical Finish less redundant.
But now we come to the question which all fighters on the PSP face: how much do the control ergonomics impede play? Well, because SoulCalibur is a 3D fighter it avoids the frustration of Street Fighter Alpha 3 MAX, and is instead on par with the excellent Dark Resurrection. It's not perfect - I had to map Guard and Vertical Strike to the right shoulder as my thumb is way too big to press them independently - but in most cases it's manageable. However, if you play a high-level Hilde ring-out machine you may find yourself whiffing the odd combo.
Broken Destiny gets all the important stuff right during combat, but the available modes are disappointing. The main menu houses the familiar Training, Versus and character Creation modes, and to Namco's credit, the latter retains many of the features from SoulCalibur IV. Also included are the new Quick Match, Gauntlet and Trials modes.
Quick Match is relatively self explanatory and involves picking fights against a simulated lobby of AI opponents. The better the opponent's win/loss ratio, the more challenging they'll be. Trial meanwhile is Broken Destiny's survival mode and is split between Trial of Attack, Trial of Defence and Endless Trial. Each tests the player differently with the Trial of Attack awarding players a higher score for longer combos.
Lastly we have Broken Destiny's answer to a story mode - The Gauntlet. Initially I'd hoped this was going to be similar to the classic Edge Master Mode from Soul Edge, i.e. fighting opponents for new weapons in different scenarios, but the reality turned out to be 34 chapters of advanced tutorial.
You play as a member of Hilde's party as she travels in search of a cure for her sick father. Every chapter opens with a brief piece of narrative told through text and static manga images. The whole thing is pretty offbeat, with one typical chapter being a battle against Cassandra to determine who cooks dinner.
The story is cheery enough but the problem is how the battles play out. On average, each chapter is themed around a specific opponent and split between three stages - with each stage comprised of five rounds of combat. Virtually every round lasts three seconds with the player having a slither of health. The objective is simply to land a hit or survive the opponent's assault.
That's Gauntlet in a nutshell. It's all about teaching the player advanced techniques like guaranteed hits, inserts and interrupts, and how and when to effectively counterattack. But without a few normal matches spliced in-between, the whole thing gets very dull very quickly. If Namco had just included a normal arcade mode on top, this wouldn't be such an issue.
Broken Destiny is an accomplished achievement because in gameplay terms it's no less than SoulCalibur IV in your pocket. Ad-hoc functionality lets you fight anywhere but unlike with Dark Resurrection, Namco has been stingy by not including a game share option - so players will each need a copy to battle.
If you already own SoulCalibur IV and aren't interested in a portable version then Broken Destiny is hard to recommend, because you're essentially buying the same game. But much like Link in the Gamecube version of SoulCalibur II, the inclusion of Kratos will be hard for fighter fans to pass up. Defying the God of War is rarely a good idea.
8 / 10