Review Shooter: SoulCalibur V
“A Tale of Swords and Souls Eternally Retold.” So goes the mantra for the weapon-based fighting series SoulCalibur, for which publisher Namco and in-house dev team Project Soul recently released a fifth numbered installment. SoulCalibur V aims to modernize the formula with its version of Street Fighter IV‘s “Supers” while also making changes to the structure of its single-player modes and online play. Unfortunately, while some changes do improve the game, there are far more that keep it from achieving the quality expected in a SoulCalibur game.
As with any game in the fighting genre, SoulCalibur V will live and die by its mechanics above all else. The basic mechanics are still characteristically SoulCalibur–you have four face buttons corresponding to horizontal attack, vertical attack, kick, and guard (block), and playing with combinations of these buttons, movements with the D-pad/thumbstick, and rhythmicÂ timingÂ forms the heart of the experience. This approach has been with the Soul series since the beginning and has allowed it to flourish in that “easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master” equilibrium. Add in other series staples like the 8-way run and you have the basics in terms of what makes a SoulCalibur game…with one very controversial exception: Guard Impact.
Guard Impact, as it used to exist, was critical in the way the series used to be balanced. By timing the press of the guard button with a directional motion of the stick at exactly the moment an opponent’s weapon strikes, the player could execute what is effectively a parry that leaves the would-be attacker vulnerable to counter attacks. This mechanic was a highly-effective, well-balanced tool that could be deployed to neutralize “cheap” combos that often ruin other fighting experiences. Unfortunately, the developers decided that despite being at the heart of the series’ balance, it was time to update Guard Impact. The result is borderline game-breaking.
In SoulCalibur V, Guard Impact has been tied to the new Critical Gauge (more on that in a minute), which must be at least half full before Guard Impact can even be used. Thus, Guard Impact has immediately been relegated from a staple mechanic to a largely useless one since it is literally unusable early in bouts, and even once it becomes “available” it comes at the great risk of losing precious Critical Gauge (in addition to the existing risk of mistiming and taking damage). In its place, Project Soul has implemented a new mechanic they call Just Guard, which is executed by briefly tapping and instantly releasing the guard button–no direction necessary. While it sounds similar to the old version of Guard Impact, in practice it is extremely difficult to nail the miniscule window in which it must be used, and even if succesfully pulled off does not counter as much as it simply resets the frame count. New-to-intermediate players will struggle greatly with Just Guard and get pummeled in the process, while adept pros will likely pull off the move with relative ease. For pros, this means Just Guard will probably completely replace the now-useless Guard Impact, while other players will simply be subjected to frequent cheap combos without the vital parry to fall back on. It might sound like a lot of noise to make over one little mechanical tweak, but as a SoulCalibur veteran, it was a jarring change that broke the balance of combat.
As alluded to previously, the death of Guard Impact was not the only change to the fighting system. In place of the rarely-used Critical Finish (instant kill) move from SoulCalibur IV, Project Soul has created a new system that consists of two tiers of “special” attacks: Brave Edge and Critical Edge. Both use up some portion of the Critical Gauge, which builds up as you fight (the same meter that Guard Impact uses, which is what makes it too risky to use). Most characters have three or four Brave Edge moves and one Critical Edge move, and all are visually impressive and competitively satisfying. Both types of Edge moves feel well-balanced in combat in that they do hefty damage but not enough to tip the fight by themselves, and they add a new layer to the fighting system that changes the tactics on a fight-by-fight basis.
The rest of the gameplay changes come to specific characters, which yields mixed results. While not an objective fault with the game, I found myself frustrated with the total re-writing of Ivy’s fighting style since she was my “main” character in past titles. Ivy remains an effective dueler, but she must be totally re-learned. Other familiar characters return, though some in ways that are…questionable, to say the least. There are several “clone” characters in the game that take old fighting styles and supplant them into new characters. As a veteran of the series, I found this practice to be disorientating and unnecessary. The clones simply broke any emotional attachment to existing characters while it’s not as if newcomers get any more level of a playing field since the actual move sets are largely intact. Even more peculiar than clones is the notable reinterpretation of Kilik, the staff-wielding “noob character” from previous games. Though he has a clone of his fighting style in newbie Xiba, Kilik still appears as a playable character–with the catch that he is a Charade-type super clone who he uses a different character’s fighting style every round of every match.
Most of the characters who are wholly,Â unequivocally new (not just new faces on old styles) are actually welcome additions both visually and in fighting style. Viola is a notable standout of this bunch as she combines a Freddy Krueger-like claw weapon with a deadly magic orb. Ezio Auditore, SC5‘s signature guest character, also fits in perfectly with the cast and features a move set that translates his assassination talents very admirably. Of course, the character creation suite has also returned, which could lead to a never-ending stream of personalized clone fighters. There have been a few additions to the customization options, but overall this is largely the same robust utility seen in SoulCalibur IV. It would have been nice to see Project Soul take significant strides with the character creator, but it’s hard to fault them for “only” minor tweaksÂ when it remains peerless.
In terms of gameplay modes, SoulCalibur V offers the standard fighting fare of Training, Versus, and Arcade options. There is nothing much else to say about any of these modes other than to acknowledge that they exist and behave the same as in every other fighting game in the last two decades. SC5Â does implement a more thorough progression tracking system, complete with now-requisite experience points and unlockables, such as badges and titles. They serve to add a small element of replayability for completionists, but will be inconsequential for most players. Of all the standard gameplay options, the beefed up online play particularly stands out. Whereas SoulCalibur IV–the first entry in the series with online fights–struggled immensely with lag, SoulCalibur V regularly offers a buttery-smooth framerate, which is ever so critical when it comes to this genre. The upgrade is partly due to an improved matchmaking engine that can seek out only high-fidelity connections, as well as other useful search parameters. Additionally, Project Soul has introduced a new ranking system where players progress through lettered divisions and numbered subdivisions as they gain experience. For example, a new player will start at rank E5 and progress to E4, E3, E2, and E1, after which point they will then advance to D5, and so on. It’s a slightly different take on a standard leveling system, but it is well-implemented.
There is one final aspect of SoulCalibur V that has yet to be discussed, and that is the game’s Story Mode. Project Soul has toyed heavily with this mode in the past, from Soul Calibur II‘s branching “quests” up to SoulCalibur IV‘s Tower of Lost Souls, which was completely devoid of any story at all. The Story Mode in SoulCalibur V represent’s the developers most earnest attempt at crafting an actual narrative, even if it was farmed out to CyberConnect2. Unfortunately, to put it quite bluntly, the story is an abominable mess on all fronts. It was a novel effort, but the execution is not only lacking, but just plain awful.
The story centers around newcomers Patroklos and Pyrrha, children of series old-timer Sophitia, as their paths intersect with the legendary swords Soul Calibur and Soul Edge. Buried somewhere in there is an intriguing story about redemption, family, love, and the eternal struggle of good versus evil. Unfortunately, any semblance of that narrative is repeatedly torn to shreds and trampled on. The plot is a chaotic mess, especially in the back half when it starts recklessly jumping around its own timeline, further convoluting an already ridiculous plot progression. The cheesy, whiny characters only harp on the plot’s problems, as does the painfully bad dialogue. The writing in this game–all aspects of it, from plot to prose to dialogue–is easily among the worst this entire console generation. It is horribly misguided to the point where it feels like any junior high writing novice could craft a more believable and engaging story.
The visual presentation is split between occasional pre-rendered cutscenes, which are often impressive, and more frequently a series of narrated sketches. It is these sketches that truly leave a bad taste in the player’s mouth and further add to the plot’s problems as they are difficult to follow and just plain boring. The story would have been instantly better served (but still far from salvaged) if these sketch scenes were instead depicted in-engine, or even in an actual animated style, like an anime. There are understandably costs to consider when implementing a more robust presentation, but this half-assed storyboard approach just doesn’t cut it. An entire essay could be written on the specific faults in the story, but in the interest of not wasting your time, I’ll simply reiterate that it’s not very good.
Astonishingly, even Story Mode has its silver linings. Ignoring the quality of the narrative itself, believable circumstances are created for the actual fights; that is to say, it makes sense that two people are fighting in most situations, even if the underlying motivations are totally absurd. Additionally, the story works in one-round bouts against run-of-the-mill thugs that serve as a welcome change in pace and often reflect the story’s settings appropriately. Fighters’ pre- and post-fight dialogue is also tailored to the events in the story, which is a nice touch. Â Aside from these minor accomplishments, however, the story’s gameplay suffers nearly as many problems as its narrative and presentation. Players are locked in to playing Patroklos, Pyrrha, or Zwei (another newcomer) depending on the specific “episode” in question. It’s a shame that the player is so limited in fighting styles when one of the strengths of any fighting game is finding the right character(s) to fit a player’s personal style. Inconvenience becomes a more apparent problem later on as difficulty escalates and it becomes frustrating to be forced to play as a character that is both disliked and who doesn’t play to my tendencies. Even a “suped-up” version of Patroklos fails to be interesting as his lack of power, speed, OR range makes for a truly infuriating endgame.
Now, story should never be what defines a fighting game. If it defined SoulCalibur V, the game would be instantly cast into the steaming pile that is this generation’s most forgettable experiences. Nevertheless, Namco tried to make story a central aspect of this game, so ignoring it altogether would not be fair either. Somebody out there will love the story just for the utterly laughable cheese factor; for the purposes of an objective review, it must be considered the most painful part of the experience.
Recommendation: Rent It! or wait for a bargain. SouCalibur V is easily the weakest entry in what has been an otherwise stellar fighting franchise. It brings a familiar brand of rhythm-driven weapon-based fighting and adds a cool new system for super attacks, but also makes a few critical missteps. The return of the strong (if largely unimproved) Character Creator is welcome, as is the fluidity of fighting online. However, one of the worst single-player experiences in recent memory ensures that only those who enjoy the base mechanics will find any joy in this game, and considering some of the baffling changes in that area–most significantly the nerfing of Guard Impact–it’s really hard to recommend SC5Â for purchase.