Soul Calibur V Review
When it comes to fighting game franchises, Street Fighter is the one that will likely be the most fondly remembered for at least the next couple of decades, but for those who owned the doomed Sega Dreamcast console, Soul Calibur will live on forever in our hearts. Namco has had its ups and downs in continuing this franchise - one that, if you count the original Soul Edge back in its initial arcade release, has been around for sixteen years - but Soul Calibur V brings the franchise to its best and brightest point since at least SC2
SOULCALIBUR V (yes, that's how the name is officially spelled) brings back a wealth of interesting characters and some tried-and-true fighting styles dating back to the originals, along with new ones with some of the most original weapons seen yet. As a one-on-one fighting game, it's decidedly more offense-oriented than Street Fighter IV, but it's not as fast or chaotic as the Marvel vs. Capcom games. The game relies on the same four buttons as before, but most players will likely appreciate the shortcuts that are assigned to the shoulder buttons on most controllers - of course, if you're planning on using an arcade stick, well, that won't matter nearly as much.
The game's single player story follows the adventures of Patroklos, a young man with a short sword and shield, and his sister Pyrrha, an update to Sophitia or Cassandra from previous games. Patroklos' fighting style is pretty new, though, and you'll also play a weird dude named Z.W.E.I. that summons spirits through a portal with many of his power attacks. You'll be playing as those three throughout the story, and you never get a choice as to who you play in each of the game's twenty "episodes". The story mode is laid out in linear fashion with hand-drawn concept art and half-decent voice acting in between episodes, as well as the occasional pre-rendered cutscene created from in-game models. While that may not seem like it'd be terribly great considering the looks of past SC games and how wooden they would have looked in cutscenes, everything's gotten a layer of polish here that puts quite a bit more detail onto each character, along with some nice eye candy in the backgrounds of most of the arenas - and the game still runs at an impeccable 60fps.
The fighters have been shuffled, re-worked, and changed around a bit since SCIV, with some characters getting replaced with eerily similar new entrants, or just adjusted to be more unique and interesting. The crazy crossover characters this time include Ezio from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise and Devil Jin from Namco's own Tekken games (but he has to be unlocked separately and his style can only be used with a created character), and they match the style and tone of the rest of SCV better than most of their past crossover characters - and they fit in far better than the Star Wars characters in the last game ever did.
It is odd to see some characters replaced with new ones that have the original's move set: Xiba is like Kilik (who is still in the game, but now is an Edge Master-like character that changes move sets every round), Natsu replaces Taki, Pyrrha sort of replaces Sophitia, and Leixia replaces Xianghua. It's a bit off-putting if you were really attached to a character that's since been removed or replaced, but with that said, in terms of fighting styles, I'm finding this to be the most diverse Soul Calibur yet - even if it doesn't have a sheer volume of characters.
One big difference in the fighting system this year is the inclusion of a Critical meter which fuels two levels of super combo-like attacks as well as a couple of other features. There are two ways to enhance your blocks against incoming attacks: pressing your block button right as an attack comes in shortens your block recovery window and allows you to retaliate quickly, and now you can also press towards the enemy and hit all three attack buttons to use a part of your Critical meter (super meter) to perform a Guard Impact and also set up counterattacks. Overall, I can't say I mastered these in the short time I had to play this game before posting the review, but my experiments in using these showed me that they'll be useful in punishing players that get predictable - just the same way that SF3's parries and SFIV's focus attacks have done in the past.
The single player mode in this game is better than the crappy Arcade mode you get in many barebones fighting games - including flagship Capcom titles - although there's also a very basic Arcade mode in here, too, if that's what you want. Overall, though, I found that the rather short story mode and its mediocre integration of cutscenes with actual fights falls far behind that of Mortal Kombat 9, which has pretty much set the bar for what a good single player fighting game's story should be doing. If it was more like the original Soul Calibur's story mode, where players had to deal with a ton of modifiers on different battles, and if you could have either been able to choose your character or at least be given more fighters to be forced to swap between, I think it'd be more entertaining. Still, SCV's story mode is decent enough to warm you up with the game mechanics and get you in there with a couple of the easier-to-use fighters. After that, well, that's up to you - according to the game's own charts, nearly all of the rest of the game's characters are tougher to use than Patroklos and Pyrrha. I am not actually sure I agree, especially in the case of Patroklos, whose moves seem to have been designed to have almost no reach. Opinions will likely differ, though.
One thing I'm going to start harping on in every fighting game review until some developer makes a big change is the lack of a training mode that actually, well, trains people how to play. Sure, there's a mode with that name, but it doesn't teach you how to play, doesn't stop you and point out where you're messing up a given combo (or even just a powerful sequence of moves), and leaves you to go and find experts' videos or replays to essentially reverse-engineer a solid style of play. No, other fighting games don't do any of what I'm describing either - not one that I can think of has actually taught people how to play properly - but it's high time that someone did it. Whether it comes from a traditional Japanese fighting game developer or someone relatively new (like Ed Boon's NetherRealm studios, creators of MK9), I don't care, but until then, I feel like fighting games' potential to bring in new players will always be limited. Admittedly, it seems like many fighting game veterans actually want to limit the influx of new and learning players, so maybe I've got it all wrong.
Past options in the SC series like character creation are back, and now you can actually mildly tweak the nuts and bolts of how fighters work - although none of the RPG-like stats and equipment is in, but I actually like this change, especially with regard to long-term balance in online play. As before, you can modify an existing character's appearance for a bit of fun, or or build a new one using the weapon and moves of an existing character - which is also a fun way to make a female with a male's fighting style or vice versa. When creating a new fighter, you can also tweak the character's size, which slightly adjusts his or her reach and damage. For example, you could make a smaller version of Astaroth if you can deal with less reach and want a tad more power in your attacks. Does it make a huge difference? Well, I'm not exactly internationally known on the Soul Calibur scene - I'm not known at all, in fact - but no, I don't think it's a big deal. For the most part, the move set you pick is overhwhelmingly the biggest choice you'll make in character creation.
Street Fighter IV wasn't the first fighting game to include native online play, nor has it had the absolute best implementation of it, but it did the most to bring fighting games into the current generation of Xbox Live and PSN friend lists and competitive online battles. Namco has really upped their game here in SCV with a solid implementation of lobbies, spectating current matches, replay downloads, and more, with a functional if slightly ugly interface. Actual play has been smooth in the relative few matches I've played, but I've seen some people streaming games online that wound up seeing serious issues. But from what I saw, the game generally warned these players about bad connections before they got into a session. Ranked and non-ranked play are implemented quite a bit differently as far as how the lobbies work, and I do think the non-ranked setup works nicely. I was also impressed to see the game also includes CPU-powered AI profiles that fulfill a range of fighting styles and, in some cases, even mimic the fighting styles of past players of Soul Calibur tournament fame.
While I'm mildly disappointed in the linear and rather limited single player mode here in Soul Calibur V, the simple fact that Namco caught up to Capcom's feature sets in the online department is a pretty big deal. I'm far from a pro player, but I do think that SCV offers fast, offense-oriented action without the ridiculously frenetic pace and utter chaos of the Marvel vs. Capcom series. The character creation mode is fun to goof around in, and the wealth of offline non-story modes will keep you playing for quite a while, especially since the fighting has such a smooth learning curve to it. (Not that you can expect the game to lead you up that curve in the slightest, which is a shame.) Soul Calibur V is the best entry in the series in years, but it's also important to point out that Capcom and other developers have improved their games as well; that leaves Namco's latest effort as worthy to stand alongside tournament-quality games like Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Street Fighter IV 2012 Edition, but it doesn't exactly stand above them.