Create-A-Soul is the work of mad genius. Based in over a dozen classes, these can all be leveled to allow access to more weapon styles, including the "souls" of the more traditional SC characters. The flavor comes from the hundreds of parts, most of which need to be earned or unlocked, that you can use to dress your personal fighter in. Everything from kimonos, to pirate hats, to clown suits...if you can imagine it, it's probably an option in there someplace. Combined with the ability to color the larger sections of each accessory as you want, you have the power to create some very unique warriors, or copy some familiar faces from other videogames. There's even an option in certain game modes to randomly generate characters, producing some fantastically bizarre results, though the main use for all of this is the new Chronicles mode.
Chronicles of the Sword is a mock RTS that's closer to a board game. Move your units along set lines across the map, taking over enemy forts to ultimately conquer their base to score a victory. In order to do that, however, you'll need to defeat enemy soldiers in team-based brawls to take over their forts or protect your own. Besides your own created main character, you can devise up to four more troops, or make use of the various NPCs that will pop up in story mode, which can also be dressed as you wish. Success or failure in battle means experience points for leveling your characters and improving their stats, and even if you fail a mission you'll still keep any exp and gold that you've earned; enough maybe to grab the improved katana that you just unlocked.
Unfortunately, what begins as one of the most engaging and original modes ever added to a fighting game starts to crumble around the halfway point. Instead of protecting their various forts, enemies begin rushing towards your base en masse, leaving you to fight over and over against foes normally double your own level. If you manage to survive this onslaught, you have the tedium of taking over their now unoccupied forts to clear a path towards your final confrontation of that chapter, where the odds are bound to be further stacked against you with special effects like poison or slippery floors that effect you and not your opponent. You're left chipping away at their lifebars, spamming the same cheap attack over and over, because your weapons hardly do any damage while theirs can kill you in 2-3 hits. What happened to the idea of a fair fight?
Though if you get frustrated with CotS, there are even more modes to keep you occupied. Aside from quick play for pure fighting action and tournament mode that does a somewhat poor job of emulating the tourneys from VF4, there's an extensive tutorial and practice system that can bring even a Soulcalibur neophyte up to speed, and a mission mode with easy, normal, and hard difficulties to put those skills to the test. The galleries hold everything that isn't directly playable, from character profiles to production sketches, while the smiling shop girls will sell you everything from weapons, to character accessories, to art packs as long as you have the gold. Perhaps most important are the various versus modes to wash away the aftertaste of the psychic AI.
The true evil of Soulcalibur III is not in Nightmare or Voldo...at least not unless you're playing against them at higher difficulties, when the AI suddenly pulls a Psycho Mantis on you. One of the worst aspects for racing games for me has always been the concept of "rubber-banding" when AI cars suddenly teleport to fly past you after a small stumble when you lapped them two laps ago. It's a short-cut for already overworked developers, but it manages to sap any feeling of accomplishment from a game. At higher difficulties, Soulcalibur III features the fighting game equivalent, where the AI gains the ability to read your button presses, making slower moves and slower characters almost useless. With throws being broken nine times out of ten and Guard Impacts nearly always GI-ed right back at you, you'll be left spamming a single attack over and over that the AI seems blind to. As you might have guessed, this isn't very fun.
Soulcalibur III is a hard one to score. It's a game that offers far more content than anyone can hope to expect from the 3D fighting genre, but those few flaws it has are hard to ignore. If they had just spent a little more time and energy with it SC3 would have been gleaming perfection, but it's still got plenty of soul.
··· Aaron Drewniak