Outside of the fighting game community, a lot of beat 'em ups are considered mere button mashers that require no real skill. Although I've played several fighting games over the years, I'm still quite the newbie at them. I tend to find one character I'm good as, figure out their special attacks and then stick with them. In the context of today's review of Soul Calibur 2, I should point out that my main character is Ivy, who thanks to her whip-sword has decent mid-range attacks that help to keep out of harm's way.
The “hook” of the Soul Calibur games is that instead of hand-to-hand combat, the characters use melee weapons such as swords. Each character has a unique weapon that gives them a distinct play style. When fighting opponents the player will pick up on how they attack and move around the arena, allowing the player to quickly figure out an optimal attack strategy. While the camera is fixed at an angle traditionally associated with fighting games, the player and their opponent can move around the arena in 3D, which gives fights a dynamic edge. The combat itself is fluid and nuanced. The player has two basic weapon attacks, a block/jump button, a button that allows them to kick (which breaks an opponent's block) and of course plenty of special moves they can pull off by pressing an attack button in conjunction with a tilt of the analogue stick.
There are plenty of game-play modes to keep the player occupied. My personal favourites are Arcade and Survival. Arcade mode fits into the traditional fighting game formula: eight fights against CPU opponents with a “first to two” element. Naturally, opponents become increasingly tougher the further the player gets into this mode. This mode can be completed within half an hour (or quicker for particularly skilled players), but since there are dozens of characters to play as, there is immediate replay value. As for Survival, the player has to defeat 50 CPU opponents with only one Life, though every time an opponent is defeated the player is rewarded by having some of their health replenished. This mode is great for players looking for a tough challenge.
The aesthetics for Soul Calibur 2 are phenomenal, certainly holding up after 13 years. The character costume designs are suitably over-the-top cheesecake, fitting in with the grandiose setting and narrative (like I said earlier, I mostly play as Ivy). The animation of the characters is smooth, complimenting and enhancing the fluid game-play. The arena designs are highly detailed, bringing the medieval/fantasy setting to life. The music is equally extravagant, making fights feel more epic. The voice acting is admittedly quite cheesy, especially the announcer at the beginning of each fight; I set the character voices to Japanese, which makes the game feel like a typically over-the-top anime. Each version of Soul Calibur 2 features a console-specific guest character (in the GameCube version it's Link), starting a trend with the series.
Whether you're a pro or a newbie at fighting games, Soul Calibur 2 is highly recommended and a good place to start if you want to get into the series. It's available on GameCube, Playstation 2 and the original Xbox.