Don’t let the dashing, hooded Italian on Soul Calibur V‘s boxart fool you. Namco and their rivals aren’t in the business of trying to squeeze a big release out every single year. They understand the value of leaving land fallow. It has been nearly three years since the last Tekken, dead on three years since we entered the fourth Street Fighter era. And Soul Calibur IV? Nearly four years old. The Soul series’ sixth instalment arrives this week, and it’s a game that reaffirms the series’ position as a major fighting game franchise whilst reacting to the less-than sweeping changes that have been wrought by its alternatives.
Superficially, the biggest change in Soul Calibur V is in the character roster. After years of advancing carefully a few months and years at a time, the series has leapt forward a full 17 years to allow for a new generation of characters. Sons, daughters, apprentices, disciples, successors: most of your favourite characters have spawned a fresh-faced, younger version of themselves. In practice, they play like slightly tweaked versions of their predecessors, changes that are no more radical than you might expect between any other numbered game in the franchise.
This is no bad thing: seasoned Soul Calibur players will likely find themselves right at home. Newcomers meanwhile, feel that little less disadvantaged in those crucial first minutes of contact. Not that the backstory gets in the way of the action. The basics of the game and the universe are explained through the game’s main story mode, wherein the player controls Patroklos Alexander (and guests) in his search for sister Pyrrha, eventually becoming embroiled in a battle between the two swords, Soul Edge and Soul Calibur.
Thankfully, these solid but derivative characters aren’t all that is on offer, as there are several new styles to get to grips with. Z.W.E.I. is a bare-chested swordsman who calls upon a wolf-spirit for supplementary pummelling. Viola is the token Gothic Lolita, commanding a floating orb for spectacular ranged effects. Assassin’s Creed’s Ezio is also playable, offering a fusion of high powered close-range and weak, disruptive long range moves. The rest of the roster is filled up with series regulars, mysteriously saved from the ravages of age: controversial pin-up dominatrix Ivy remains, alongside crab-like bondage gimp Voldo, Toshiro Mifune tribute act Mitsurugi, and other familiars including Siegfried, Nightmare, Raphael, Cervantes and so on.
Some characters inevitably didn’t make the cut, and the availability of three unlockable characters that do essentially the same thing (round by round randomisation of styles) is disappointing. But there’s more than enough fighting hours to be had out of this roster. The fundamentals are all down pat: the controls are beautifully responsive, the loading times are unobtrusive and even the series’ trademark interstitials are that little less hammy. Visually, the arenas and the characters are highly detailed and very well animated, a clear step above the content of their predecessor.
Of course, if we’re talking visually, it would be remiss of me not to at least mention that the game features ridiculous amounts of exposed flesh, and boob physics that would make Einstein go back to the drawing board. T+A = Sex Sells, I guess, and of all the innovations Soul Calibur V could have brought, the removal of the genre’s perpetual male gaze was always the most unlikely. Soul Calibur V, consider yourself scolded. Also, even if your spiffy character creation mode has hours of dress-up, colour miscoordination fun, labeling a body type as ‘normal’ is probably a no-no.
Soul Calibur is usually counted among the more accessible fighting series out there, and whilst I’d argue this remains true, the genre is perhaps fundamentally hostile to new blood. The truth ought to come out this point: I’m not terrible at fighting games, but there are certainly times when ‘mediocre’ would be a generous description of my skills. But will Soul Calibur V be the game to make me more of a contender? I’m open to the idea, but not really convinced.
Why? Because SCV‘s training mode is simultaneously incredibly robust and utterly impenetrable. You can set up the state of the battle in any way you want, flick through pages of movement instructions and grind away to your heart’s content. It can genuinely make you a better player. And yet, the game never gives you something so simple as an acknowledgement that you’ve achieved the combo it’s telling you to perform. By comparison, Street Fighter IV‘s challenge mode – which feeds you moves to attempt and won’t let you progress until you get them right – is an obvious yet elegant solution. True, it’s probably also a lot more work. But so long as you’re in the business of creating games that players need to learn, you really should invest in the tools to make that possible.
SCV even puts some of its most essential information into a one-time pop up accessed in the story mode (i.e. the single place where it’s most likely to be encountered by a fresh player and thus be skipped or improperly understood). Among this information are the most essential core mechanics that Soul Calibur V introduces, including the Critical Edge attack, a simple showy high impact combo move that drains 100% of your critical gauge and is basically Namco’s response to SFIV‘s Ultra combos. Considering that even a single run-through of the game’s single player modes will involve facing AI opponents who use (and abuse) these moves, missing how to execute them is a severe handicap, and potentially disastrous for future play. At the very least, you’d expect a tutorial covering these new additions.
There’s also the matter of multiplayer, and how that’s changing the way that offline fighters are structured. The network element of Soul Calibur V seems to have received due attention: play is smooth even when the reported signal strength is low and the Global Colloseo’s system of regional lobbies containing tournament sign-ups, random match-ups and chat / personal lobby space has great potential. Then, ranked matches, a more traditional winner-stays on lobby system, replays and a ‘rival’ system that integrates with stats on- and offline give you pretty much everything you could ask for. Whilst the stress-test of thousands of simultaneous players has yet to prove the system, this could be a watershed moment for the online competitive scene.
These modes are good enough that they remind you how the offline game actually looks a little thin. Featuring just 20 fights, the story mode compares poorly to modes in preceding games, and they were far from perfect to begin with (but at least they featured objectives and branching paths). The substance is instead in the Quick Match mode, which is ultimately a place to grind titles for your online profile. Otherwise you’re left with the Arcade mode (and its different difficulty settings and opponent ‘routes’) and the tough as nails ‘Legendary Souls’ boss-rush mode.
Whilst undoubtedly an accomplished game, time will tell whether Soul Calibur V is actually for anyone but the fighting game aficionado and the controller-passing group of friends. The casual dabbler going solo will have to go online to get their money’s worth, and the experience will depend entirely on whether there’s anyone of comparable skill to challenge them. But at least this is an experience that deserves that much.
Verdict – Head Shot
Platforms Available – PS3, Xbox 360
Platform Reviewed – PS3
For more information on our scoring system, please read this post.