Even though fighting games are enjoying a new renaissance of popularity — a "second coming," if you will — updating a popular franchise still carries a healthy amount of risk. Change too much and risk alienating your loyal fanbase; change too little and you're mid-90s Capcom, famous for pseudo-sequels that added more subtitles than content. Project Soul chose not to err on the side of caution this time around, and its newly renovated franchise fares quite well in its newest instalment.
SoulCalibur V, at first glance, is a radical departure for the series, gutting its roster and replacing nearly half the cast with fresh new faces. If your favorite character from past games is gone, don't fret, as the majority of the new characters inherit the move list and play style of an absent combatant. The game takes place 17 years after the events of SoulCalibur IV, so in some cases it's a character's child taking their place.
Mechanically, the biggest change in SoulCalibur V is the Critical Gauge, which is essentially the SoulCalibur version of the “super meter” in other fighting games that fills as you deal and absorb damage. A full Critical Gauge allows you to unleash a Critical Edge attack – a flashy, cinematic move that deals substantial damage. Thankfully Critical Edges aren’t overpowered and are an exciting new flavour to add to the mix; they’re easy to pull off but sometimes tricky to land, which balances them out nicely.
Guard Impacts, a commonly used defensive manoeuvre that would momentarily stun an attacker, now drain away from the Critical Gauge as well. It’s a puzzling alteration, forcing you to choose between a highly effective defence and using a Critical Edge. The game already seems to penalise defensive players: you have a hidden meter that decreases the more you block; block too much and you suffer from a Guard Break, leaving you vulnerable. The only way to replenish the meter is to deal damage, so attaching Guard Impacts to a resource that must be managed seems like a bad idea.
Even if phrases like Guard Impact and Critical Edge aren’t your vernacular, SoulCalibur V still shines as a fighter that is inviting enough for button mashers but deep enough for the hardcore. The action is still as fast and fierce as ever, and there’s no mistaking that this is still SoulCalibur from top to bottom.
While the real meat of the gameplay is as succulent as fans had hoped, unfortunately the side dishes do little to highlight the entrée. The offline modes have taken a gigantic step back from SoulCalibur IV, almost insultingly so, and with no good reason.
As previously mentioned, SoulCalibur V sports a wide variety of brand-new characters. If you had hoped to learn about them through the game’s story mode you’re in for a world of disappointment: it focuses entirely on newcomers Patroklos and Pyrrha, son and daughter of (former) series mainstay Sophitia, and their encounters with blades Soul Calibur and Soul Edge. A few other characters make short appearances, but it’s really about the two of them.
In a lot of ways, the story mode is like the Star Wars prequels: they abandon a likeable cast and replace them with a bland story about a far less entertaining group. For a main character, Patroklos is incredibly abrasive and is so dense that the other characters he encounters are constantly having to remind him he’s an idiot, while Pyrrha cries the whole time. While the story (which is only a couple of hours long, if that) does come into its own at the end, it’s a bit of a chore to get through.
Perhaps the worst part about the story mode is the way it’s presented. Rather than feature in-game cut scenes or traditional 2D animation, the entire story is told using still images with voiceovers. It looks as though storyboards were prepared for something larger, but they weren’t able to go through with it and just used what they had as the finished product. By itself it wouldn’t be a huge deal, but combined with the aforementioned characters it makes staying interested in the story mode perhaps the hardest part of the game.
Arcade Mode doesn't feature any character specific endings, either. Once you beat the sixth stage, you’re given an option to restart or choose another character. That’s it. Want to know why Ivy still looks so young? Curious about the enigmatic Z.W.E.I. and his companion Viola? Keep wondering, as SoulCalibur V has no answers for you. While fighting games are never really about story, the Soul series has always had a comparitively rich mythology that’s really wasted in this instalment. With such a dramatic change in personnel compared to the last game they could have done so much more.
The game’s guest fighter this time around is Assassin’s Creed series star Ezio Auditore da Firenze. While Ezio might not have the same “wow” factor as Darth Vader, Yoda or Link, he certainly fits in with the game’s historical theme much better. While gamers will continue to argue how “this character from this game would have been way better,” the way Ezio naturally meshes with both the rest of the cast and the established SoulCalibur art style cement him as a fantastic addition.
In online play, genre staples of ranked match and player match options are available, but joined by the exciting new Global Colosseo. Global Colosseo creates permanent hubs based on geographic locations, allowing for a large group of players to text chat, participate in random player matches and even battle in tournament settings all from the same hub. During our North American play test, however, it seems like most players were just crowded into the New York and Los Angeles hubs, but hopefully as more people join the online community the populations will balance out. Still, it’s an incredibly exciting idea and something that will, ideally, add a bit more personality and community to the normal anonymous online experience.
Create-a-Soul mode is back, allowing you to tweak the outfits of the game’s fighters or make your own abominations. It ditches the “stats” that were attached to customisation options in SoulCalibur IV, a welcome change from the previously flawed system. In some ways the mode is more robust than before, but more limited in others; now instead of purchasing items with in-game currency, new customisation offerings are unlocked as you increase your player level, simply by playing the game more often.
The game is a joy to look at, which should come as no surprise. Characters are large and well-animated as they clash weapons in front of gorgeous backdrops. Different weapons produce colourful light trails, and attacks that connect produce flashy hit effects. Visually, there’s a lot to take in, but each new fight is a tasty dessert for your eyeballs.
The music doesn’t pack the same “oomph” as some older tracks do, which Project Soul and Namco Bandai must have known, because song packs from previous games are coming soon as paid DLC. Music aside, the sound design is phenomenal as the sounds of clashing steel and breaking rubble assault your ears. The English voice acting is serviceable, but for those who prefer there is a Japanese option.
SoulCalibur V stumbles in several big ways, but luckily what counts the most – gameplay – shines as brightly as the holy blade the game is named after. If stubborn fans can get past the new cast and gameplay tweaks, they’ll find that what made previous SoulCalibur games so great is all still there. For series newcomers, there’s never been a better time to jump in. While the way it’s all presented isn’t perfect, the core of SoulCalibur is rock solid. The soul still burns.