What happens when you take the weapon based gameplay style of Soul Blade and mix in the full 3d and roaming features of Bushido Blade? You'd get something similar to Cardinal Syn, a 3d fighter with a dungeons and dragons atmosphere. Although the concept's a great one, the execution falls just short, leaving the title swimming in the overcrowded sea of average fighters.
Graphically, the presentation is above average, and the action runs at a smooth 30fps throughout. The camera does tend to stay zoomed out a bit so you never get any real good closeups of the combat or your fighters like you would in Soul Blade or Tekken. The maximum size of the characters onscreen is about equal to the size of the characters in the psx port of Mortal Kombat 4, although the fighters here have alot more beef to them compared to MK4's skinny characters. The textures are pretty clean, the polygons are pretty smooth, no appearant blockiness, and each character and stage carries it's own individual medieval theme. There's even light sourcing from certain stage fixtures. Although the effect is subtle, you can see see the shade of it on your character change as you move around the stage.
An added graphical effect, and something that Syn does well, is it's use of blood. Attacks will cause blood to spray in the air, similar to Mortal Kombat except not as overdone, however this blood will also stain the floor and stay there. During combat you can see where you or your opponent received the most hammering by looking at how stained the floor is with blood. As a player's health is dimished, his/her fighter will reflect how beaten they are. Although it's hard to tell during combat and easier to see during a victory sequence, armor will appear cracked, and faces will appear bloodied. The blood option can be toggled off in the options if desired.
There's 18 characters and stages with 8 being initially available. Among the more colorful character designs are a valiant knight, a cannibalistic cyclops, a winged faerie, a voodoo priest, a crazed jester, a reanimated corpse(who's victory dance is quite amusing), a hermaphrodite(right side's a woman, left side's a man), and a skeleton with a dragon skull for a head. Fortunately, the unlockable characters aren't blatant clones of existing ones. There's a Tekken2-ish approach to this as they usually share most of the same general body characteristics. For example, finishing with the portly dwarf releases the equally portly lizard man. Many of the moves for the unlocked characters are the same as the character you unlocked it with, but some of the key inputs are different, plus they have a good helping of their own moves thrown in for good measure.
Fighters vary in speed and power although the differences don't vary enough to be immediately noticable. The smallest of fighters are quicker, pushed around easier, and have longer attack strings but have less offensive power. The larger of fighters are slower, can't be pushed as far, have shorter attack strings but have more offensive power. And of course, there's all the fighters inbetween. The overall design of the characters and stages is very good and pretty well thought out, conveying a variety of medieval atmospheres.
Each of the 18 characters has his/her own FMV intro, which is shown when you start a tournament, as well as a unique FMV ending. There's also a lengthy FMV intro, and some last battles sequences of Syn taunting you before you fight her, and then later transforming into a dragon when you defeat her. The FMV's of high quality and letterboxed to give it a cinematic feeling. The only complaint I can think of here is that the endings, although they do make sense and convey a storyline, could have been a wee bit longer. They're about the same in length as the longer endings in Tekken 2. Since there's a unique and equally long intro for the characters, this is forgivable. Unfortunately, there is no theater mode to view accomplished endings.
Background music for each stage is quite good. It's instrumental and fitting for the pace of medieval combat. Sound effects, however, are mainly average consisting of your normal swing, hit, and grunts. Each character has some sound specific effects aside of their grunting, such as Hecklar's bells jingling as he runs or Juni's wings flapping as she hovers away, but it's all pretty minimal. More is always better, and character speech, during combat or victory sequences, would have been welcomed.
Gameplay takes a spin on the Soul Blade game engine. There's 3 attack buttons, high, medim, and low. Tapping a button more than once will produce a combo, but the key is in mixing up the attack buttons along with a d-pad direction or two so the combo comes out in a variety of heights to get through your opponent's blocking. Where Soul Blade's maximum canned combos would stay between 3-4 attacks, Syn's canned combos are longer and go between 4-6 depending on the character.
What makes Syn similar and at the same time different from Bushido Blade, and which gives it it's own gimmick, are it's free-roaming 3d stages which have powerup chests and their own unique dangers. Using the roam button, you can run to any section of the stage. Stages vary in size and shape, and they aren't nearly as large as those in Bushido. They're all flat, no multiple planes, but they are ample sized for Syn's style of combat. Dangers include puddles of poisonous sludge, a mine cart on rails, a rolling boulder, wall-mounted crossbows, and even a bubble blowing clown head. Such hazardous elements usually stay at fixed or predictable positions within a stage, so getting hit randomly doesn't occur.
An intregal part of play is the shove button which pushes your opponent into a wall or into one of the aformentioned dangers. It not only takes away health from your opponent, it also helps to disorient them, leaving them open for attack. This element of the gameplay is somewhat alien to fighting fans and adds to the rather steep learning curve of the game. The computer AI on later levels is adept at pushing you into awkward positions which is frustrating to new players.
There's normally 3 powerup chests on a stage, although some stages have more, and some even have them hidden in breakable walls. To open up a powerup chest, you either run over it, or hit one of your attack buttons while near it. Powerups include a health boost(self explanatory), offensive boost (increases the damage of your attacks), traps (a bomb that will explode a few seconds after chest is opened), and magic potions.
Magic potions allow your character to perform an offensive attack unique to that character. For many of the fighters, the magic attack is just a more powerful version of their projectile, but for a small faction, they give more definition to the character. Hecklar can string you up like a marionette, Voduu can shrink your head, Juni can turn your arms into useless twigs, etc.
If you don't like the idea or the way the stage dangers or powerups are implimented, you can toggle either of them off or on in the options menu.
Although the game engine has very good ideas at work, the execution is somewhat flawed. For starters, there's the AI. The computer is a frustrating opponent. His blocking abilities are far too good which leads to a problem with the attack system itself. The attack strings are too long and it's pretty hard to predict the variance in an onslaught of attacks and be able to adjust your blocking stance to ward off each blow because either the attacks happen too fast or an attack looks like a low block when it's actually a high one. With quite a bit of experience against each character, you can get better at adjusting your blocking stance to counter their combos. For new and even experienced players, you're usually best off just assuming a single block position that works best against your current opponent and just accept whatever attacks do slip through until the computer's finished with it's full combo attack. Only change your blocking stance if you're certain of the oncoming attack. This helps to avoid most of the attacks that will land your fighter on his/her back. Once the computer's finished with it's assault, you can reply with your own.
This in turn leads to another problem with the gameplay. Too many types of attacks can land you flat on your back which leaves you open to a normally unavoidable jump attack. To add some cheapness to this problem, for many of the characters there's a follow up button to the jump attack which can add further injury. This aspect should have been removed or it should have been tweaked so it didn't cause as much damage.
And this in turn leads to a complaint about projectile attacks in this type of game. Almost all of them knock you off of your feet, and the computer at later levels is very willing to use them often. There should have been a penalty ala Tobal 2 for projectiles, you should lose health for using them.
The main problem is that there's a learning curve in being successful with the 1p game as well as the above flaws in the game engine itself which coupled together make the experience feel cheap and frustrating to new players. If the normal cpu AI was knocked down a notch and the attack system made more predictable, it'd be a much more enjoyable game overall, for new and experienced players alike.
Compared to other barely average fighters, it's heads above Star Wars:MOTK and Vs., and leagues above Kronos's previous effort, Criticom. But compared to any Namco fighter, it lacks fluidity and playability. Namco fighters have a certain pick-up-and-play feeling to it that Syn lacks. Once you learn how to play Syn and how to deal with the game engine and the AI of the computer, you can have fun with it, but is it $40 fun?
The graphics, sound, and theme in this game are very good. For the average gamer though, it's a bargain bin title that they wouldn't want to pay more than $20 for, especially since better fighting titles are available. Had the load times been better or a shortcut mode available it'd be easier to recommend it as a 2p game. The 2p'r game is a much more satisfying experience, as is the case in all fighters, but 8-9 seconds for a 3d fighter is a bit steep. Syn enters into the fray of weapon based fighters, but Soul Blade's position as the king of weapon fighting remains undisputed.
Reviewed by Peter Bott, email@example.com
Graphics - 7 + Polygonal Characters and stages are fairly detailed. + High quality cinematic FMV intro & ending for each character. + Blood stains the floors and your characters. + Barbarian/Medieval theme is carried sufficiently throughout the game. - Minimal character animation for standing and walking. - Camera stays slightly zoomed out. No real good closeups. Sound - 7 + Excellent orchestrated background music fits the theme of each stage. +/- Average slash, hit, and grunt noises. - No character speech, save for the FMV. Gameplay - 5 + Roam anywhere, full 3d combat. + You do notice the difficulty increase from level to level. +/- Soul Blade-ish controls. +/- Power ups and level hazards on each stage(can be toggled on/off). +/- Aggressive computer opponents. +/- Computer is too efficient at blocking. - Too many attack types land your fighter flat on his/her back, leaving you vulnerable to followup ground attacks. - Hard to predict attacks, making blocking difficult. Replayability - 5 + 8 unique characters and stages with 10 more to unlock. + Team Battle, Vs, Survival and Training modes. +/- Much better as a 2 player Vs game. - Aggressive and efficient computer opponents can make the game frustrating in normal difficulty. - 8-9 second load times. - No record keeping.