Review: Soul Calibur V / Developer: Project Soul / Publisher: Namco Bandai Games / Format: PS3, Xbox 360 / Release Date: Out Now
First coming to mainstream prominence with the pre-millennium Dreamcast favourite Soul Calibur, Namco’s series has won many fans with its unique weapon based combat and anachronistic historical setting that pitches a fascinatingly varied cast of characters (that includes a knight, a contortionist gimp and an axe-wielding bipedal reptile) into battle against each other to claim the ultimate power - Soul Edge.
Theres always been something immensely satisfying about the simple but effective basic gameplay of Soul Calibur. Its core mechanics of highly stylized horizontal, vertical weapon strokes provides a visually dazzling and entertaining melee. New players can easily get into the combat system and achieve success with some frenzied button bashing, but like the greats of the genre, time and practice will uncover a deep well of possibilities. The undeniably enjoyable initial combinations of flailing weaponry speculatively swiping and poking at an enemy give way to nuanced techniques involving tactics and timing for those that feel the desire to learn more and develop as a more serious, competitive player. As proven in the genres wilderness years however, accessibility is everything, and Soul Calibur V continues the series wonderful trend for appealing to the many rather than the competition level few.
In terms of mechanics, not much has changed over the main series releases. Gone are less popular features such as the Critical Finish moves implemented in Soul Calibur IV. In its place, the players Critical Gauge can be spent to perform new techniques cribbed directly (and cleverly) from Street Fighter IV. High damage Critical Edge moves (comparable to SFIV’s Ultra combo attacks) can serve to gain an early health advantage in the round or finish off an opponent in the final moments of the match-up. The gauge can also be purged in order to boost the offensive capability of the characters standard weapon attacks, increasing damage or breaking an enemies block stance should they turtle up for too long. Thankfully, they don't play like a direct lift from SFIV, and are well integrated into the combat system while increasing the sense of scale and drama to proceedings when combined with the games already blinding effects.
While the Soul team have borrowed well from Street Fighter IV, it's a shame they didn't take a page from last years Mortal Kombat franchise reboot. While there was much to dislike in Mortal Kombat, it did feature a brilliantly constructed single player story progression, and while Soul Calibur V does indeed feature a story mode, it's more akin to fighting games of old. Only more confusing. Descendent of series veteran Sophitia, Patrolkos is on the hunt for things called Malfested that I never really came to understand, but lead him on a path to the fabled sword of souls. The sorry tale plays out in the form of hilariously nonsensical dialogue accompanied by visual novel style stills, and is a big disappointment considering that the series has always had fun (if bewildering) fiction. Mercifully, the mode only takes a short time to complete, and exemplifies what amounts to an anaemic package for solo player aside from the infinitely useful training mode.
It would be wrong to hold a poor single player mode against a game like Soul Calibur V however, as the real draw lies in competitive play, and in its defence matches against AI controlled combatants can prove to be very challenging - certainly good practice if taken outside of the story mode. Once you've committed some combos to memory and taken the time to get to grips with the games three dimensional arena movements it's time to take your fight online. While some of the menus can get confusing, Soul Calibur V’s online modes are very well put together, and most importantly connect to servers consistently and smoothly. Nothing quite beats the feeling of playing against somebody in the physical realm, but as online approximations go, Soul Calibur V provides one of the best combination of features and reliability I have encountered in the genre. Lag is always going to be an issue of course, but for the most part my time online with SCV was a fast and frustration free experience with little in the way of connection errors and dropped matches.
Character selections cover the standard archetypes for the series, varying in attack speed, strength and range, but most players will make their choices purely on an aesthetic level and learn to play as they go. Ever presents like Cervantes and Mitsurugi return along with many of the series more recognisable faces such as Ivy and Yoshimitsu. While some characters have been left out of the cast, their replacements most commonly take the form of descendants who fight in an eerily similar style to their forbears so dissapointment will be limited. Unlike the previous games clumsy addition of Darth Vader and Yoda as guest characters, Soul Calibur V invites everybody's favourite italian assassin, Ezio Auditore to the fray, and his pseudo-historical backstory and fighting style fits in perfectly. Unlike many games in the genre, the character range is once again brilliantly varied, with something to appeal to all tastes - the character creation mode just adds to the flavour. It looks and sounds great too, with highly detailed on-screen characters that move with fluidity and nicely varied themed stages.
Aside from the disappointing single player modes and content, there's very little on display to take to task. Whether a long term fan or casual newcomer, there's only really been one better fighting game this generation - high praise considering the quality and my own personal love for Super Street Fighter IV. If SCV can sustain its popularity online as it deserves to, this is a game that could provide months of competitive action and represents a challenge that is well worthy of the players time investment to get the very most out of. Soul Calibur and Soul Calibur II are still the highlight, perhaps owing more to the time in which they were released, and while the series may never recapture the feeling of excitement found in its exceptional first two releases, Soul Calibur V is a triumphant and unquestionable return to form for the franchise.
Welcome back to the stage of history, round five.