Fighting game sequels are very similar in many ways to the annual sports franchise releases that we see each year. Evaluating either genre really boils down to looking at the various roster changes and control/feature tweaks, but the basic framework of what’s made the game in question enough of a success to support multiple releases is always unchanged. That thought kept rattling through my head as I played through Namco Bandai’s just-released SoulCalibur V for this review. It’s really not so different from SoulCalibur II, a game that I poured many tens of hours into on my old Nintendo GameCube. There are some big changes on the presentation side, as you’ll soon learn, but the actual combat is much the same as it’s always been.
A Tangled Tale Of Good Vs. Evil
Let’s get the ugliest bits out of the way first. The story mode in SoulCalibur V follows a single narrative thread in which, over the course of three hours, you’ll be forced to switch between several different characters and try out different fighting styles. I suppose there’s an argument for the “sampler plate”-style approach being taken with this mode, but the result is actually a rather wretched crawl through a series of fights that force you to use weapons/fighting styles that you might, as a long time fan, prefer to avoid.
It gets worse though. For one, the story isn’t even a comprehensive sampler plate, since you’ll only be using a handful of the fighting styles that the game offers as you plow through the 20 episodes. More than that, the story is an incomprehensible mess. I can’t tell if it’s poorly written or just poorly translated, but I don’t ever want to hear a line like “Crossing swords is the best way to get to know someone” uttered unironically in a video game ever again.
The presentation of the story is also pretty poor. At this point in the genre’s evolution, I expect a fighting game story to intentionally embrace its own over-the-top hilarity. SoulCalibur V seems to be taking itself seriously at every turn; you’re not laughing with it, you’re laughing AT it. This would be okay if the non-combat bits of storytelling were short and to the point. They’re not. Each episode begins and ends with a series of motion comic-style storyboard sequences (plus the occasional cutscene); all of them run longer than you want them to. There’s even an episode where you don’t fight at all, it’s JUST exposition. Baffling.
The final insult is, by far, the worst. There’s no way to adjust the global difficulty setting on the story. If you lose a match, you have the option to retry at a lower difficulty. That difficulty then resets to whatever the standard level is for the story mode. It’s a ridiculously clunky bit of design that, for some unknown reason, restricts the player’s freedom when it really didn’t have to in the first place.
(Overly) Lean Mean Fighting Machine
Leaving the story mode behind, you’ll quickly find… well… not a whole lot. Gone is anything resembling SC2‘s Weapon Master mode and SC4‘s Tower of Lost Souls mode. Also gone are the unlockable weapon variants that can be used to boost your fighter in one way or another. There are a handful of characters to unlock — Assassin’s Creed guest star Ezio Auditore is, thankfully, not among them as he is available from the start — and plenty of vanity items for use in the Character Creation mode. But the unlocks stop there.
There’s an arcade mode in which you can play through several sets of six-match tournaments, with unlockable classic fighters waiting at the end of each one. Finishing out the story also unlocks Legendary Souls mode, an Arcade Mode doppelganger that stands apart for being ridiculously challenging. You’ll need to master the game’s various advanced systems if you really want to make a dent in this mode. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just unfortunate that Legendary Souls is the closest we get to something other than arcade and story, since it so clearly caters to expert players, rather than everyone.
Really, that’s where my big beef with SC5 lies. It doesn’t feel like there’s anything built into the game to give newcomers or even just amateur-level genre fans the feeling that they’ve got a fighting chance. There’s a training mode where you can try out and hopefully master moves and combos in a non-hostile environment, but some people actually enjoy just button-mashing their way to success and unlockable rewards. None of that seems to be evident in SC5, and it’s a lesser game in the series for that absence.
There are, of course, also online play modes. You can match up with similarly ranked players in a variety of match types, with the coolest of the options being Global Colosseo mode. Instead of putting your faith in a faceless matchmaker, you’re dumped into a large lobby filled with people for you to banter with, trash talk and slap with the proverbial challenge gauntlet. There’s still little here that caters to a newbie or amateur players, but there’s no denying that it’s more fun to set up a fight after you’ve traded a few verbal barbs with someone you’ve never met.
The Sweet Science
It’s here we come back to the analogy that I kicked off this review with, comparing fighting game sequels with annual sports franchise releases. For all of the complaints lodged above, there is a sizable saving grace keeping SoulCalibur V from being a total disaster: the actual blow-for-blow combat is still one of the best in the business. It’s still driven by combos and juggling around with different fighting stances. If you were an unbeatable monster in SC2 whenever you took the controls with Nightmare, you’ll quickly find that you still have the same edge you always did.
The combat system continues to be tweaked. Critical Edge attacks return, in much-altered form, from the very first entry in the series. Brave Edge allows certain character combos to be further enhanced, at the cost of some of your Soul Edge gauge. The easiest to get a handle on is the new Just Guard feature which, much like Guard Impacts in the past, allows players to turn aside incoming heavy attacks and combos by timing the block button press to the exact moment of impact. These are all relatively high-level play mechanics, however.
On the roster side of things, the new characters add quite a lot. Ezio is downright fun to use, a quick-moving fighter who is capable both at range and up close. Viola and Z.W.E.I. also bring some new combat styles into the mix, with the former wielding a floating magical orb and the latter able to summon the power of E.I.N. the werewolf. The rest of the roster updates don’t feel quite as fresh, though that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with the children and/or disciples of fighters from previous games. Patroklos and Pyrrha, the story’s protagonists, manage to avoid feeling like total carbon copies of their mother and former fighter, Sophitia, but it’s a close call. That’s fine though. The roster newcomers, even those that are slightly recycled, all fit right in and manage to feel at least somewhat unique.
And so we’re left with a SoulCalibur game that feels divided against itself. Gone are some of the fan-favorite series elements that keep people coming back for more even when there’s no friend handy to spar against on the couch or online. Gone too is any sense that a newcomer to the series can find much to enjoy without really investing the time to master the game’s systems. Fortunately, those systems are as fun to play with as they’ve ever been, and longtime fans will ease into the action immediately. In an era where games are increasingly being tailored to accept all types of players, SoulCalibur V instead holds tightly to its roots as a gamers’ game. Overall it’s a lesser experience than any of its predecessors, but longtime fans will have an easy time overlooking any shortfalls once they’ve settled in to fight.
Score: 7 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Namco Bandai)