Since its inception, the SoulCalibur series has been one of my favorites. I still hum the opening music to Soul Edge on a regular basis, and I am one of those insane people that bought all three versions of SoulCalibur II for every exclusive character. The last iteration was, by far, one of the most impressive the series has seen. The introduction of Create a Soul and the new engine really made SCIV one of the better fighting games of this generation. When SCV was announced I was ecstatic at the progression of the series. To my disappointment though, this chapter in the long-running franchise feels more like a lateral move.
For those outside the loop, SoulCalibur is a 3D, weapons-based fighter that plays out more like a chess match. Waiting for a chance to strike, and knowing when to, are keys to victory. That said, the series has definitely changed for the better over the years. Guard impacts are now standard fare, and executing them is even more difficult in SCV. In the last iteration, you could counter moves by simply getting the timing close, but now the game has been fine tuned to require more skill to pull off these tricky defense maneuvers.
The Critical Edge system also returns, but now feels more catered to casual players. You now have a gauge that fills up over the course of a match by taking and dealing damage. It has two levels, and you can use half of it to perform a special counter or save it for a flashy super move unique to each character. These all have the same input, so seeing each one is simply a matter of playing as each character instead of having to remember a complicated button input. These can be tide turners for matches but they definitely require timing and patience to execute.
While the actual fighting is mostly left untouched, I found the game to feel more aggressive than past iterations. The block break carries over from round to round, meaning if you turtle too much, you will pay for it eventually. That said, I had no issues with the game keeping the same basic play style. SCIV was fine-tuned to near perfection, so the few tweaks were all the doctor ordered.
For me, what makes a fighting game last over time is a combination of things. First off, I want a strong single player offering. I hate to beat a dead horse, but Mortal Kombat really spoiled gamers when it released last year. There was so much content there that it really set the bar at a new high. SoulCalibur has always had a strong offering in the past, but it feels like Project Soul skimped out on this chapter. The story mode is the main attraction, offering up 20 episodes of fighting with cut scenes mixed in. As usual, the story of SoulCalibur is confusing at best. The game takes place 17 years after the last and involves Sophitia’s children struggling with the two swords.
The cut scenes are fantastic, even if a bit confusing, but the still image interstitials feel cheap and tacked on. You spend most of your time fighting as Patroklos and Pyrrha, two new characters that feel like clones of past characters. It falls apart when the game attempts to introduce the rest of the cast in a quick skirmish late in the story. It feels sloppy and rushed, and it really didn’t do much for my understanding of the universe. It is also criminally short and the meatiest addition to the offline play.
There is also an arcade mode, which is now a stripped down version of the classic. Instead of fighting a tier, ending with a boss, you now just fight six random battles at different difficulties. Once you complete story mode, you unlock Legendary Souls. This mode bumps up the challenge to extreme levels and requires the utmost skill to progress. Finally, you have quick battle, where you face off against a host of random created characters by the developers and earn titles. None of these modes are intricately deep, failing to flesh out the offline experience.
Returning this time around, though, is the Create a Soul feature, which allows you to fabricate some of the most outlandish creations you will ever see. Gamers create sites and forums dedicated to their creations, and you can really piece together some familiar and distinctive fighters. Not much has changed in this mode outside of new options and features. You unlock more pieces by completing the story and other offline accomplishments. You can even unlock Devil Jin’s style from Tekken, which is a neat bonus. This is where the limits come from, though. Even though you may have created Kratos from God of War, he still has to mimic one of the stock fighters’ styles. Taking creations online is where the fun is, not to mention you can let the game randomly piece together a character on-the-fly for hilarious results.
The focus of SoulCalibur V seems to be online, which makes sense. Where else are you going to find great competition no matter the time of day? Well, the online options are definitely robust and in my sessions the lag, while noticeable at times, was rarely an issue. You can now have lobbies with up to six players, complete with spectator mode to watch and chat about the fights. There is also the Global Colloseo mode, which hosts up to fifty players in a lobby where you can chat, discuss tactics and, of course, pick a fight. Online is also a great place to show off your creations, download replays and even register rivals to compare stats to. If you intend to pick up the game to play online, you certainly have plenty to keep you busy for quite some time.
Probably my favorite new addition to SCV, though, is Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed games. SC is known for its cameo appearances, and Ezio is the best I have seen since Link. He is fast and nimble, and fits into the universe and fighting style well. The rest of the new cast really feels like character doppelgangers from past iterations. Natsu is a younger Taki, Xiba is the new Kilik and the main story protagonists are clones of Sophitia. It really just feels like SC Generations or something, there are no truly new styles outside of Ezio and newcomer Z.W.E.I. (by the way, that wolf is truly awesome)
Visually the game is stunning. Characters look fantastic and, outside of some odd clipping from some of the created character accessories, the game is smooth. The arenas now feature infinite scrolling, much like Tekken, as well as multi-tiered arenas a la Dead or Alive. The frame rate is rock solid, and the effects during Critical Edges are slick. The music is fantastic, mixing the traditional SC score with some remixed tunes. I could do without the announcer and his nonsensical musings and the ridiculous comments and voice acting from the fighters, but outside of that, the game presents itself very nicely.
SoulCalibur V was a disappointment to me. Not because it lacked polish, but more because it felt like it didn’t take any steps forward to advance the series. Everything here feels old-hat and reused. I was expecting more from a series that has defined itself over the years as being progressive. Still, if you are in it for the solid fighting mechanics and awesome create-a-fighter, this game has more than enough to warrant your purchase dollars. You could literally spend months online mastering the ins and outs of the system. If you were expecting the next evolution of the series, though, you might come away a little disappointed.
Review copy of the game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.