Soul Calibur V Review
Sony PlayStation 3Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360
Four years is a long time in the videogame industry. In the case of beat ‘em ups when looking back from 2012 it’s a very long time. 2008 saw the release of Soul Calibur IV with each platform distinguished by the Star Wars character included in the fighting roster - Darth Vader or Yoda. Whilst there is a crossover character included in Soul Calibur V (Ezio Auditore from the Assassin’s Creed series) it’s not such a prominent selling point. It doesn't need to be anymore. Soul Calibur is a revered series in and of itself but thanks to 2009’s Street Fighter IV and subsequent fighting games the genre is riding a wave of popularity founded upon innovative mechanics and downright fun - for newbies and the hardcore alike.
Soul Calibur V arrives with a roster of twenty-eight characters and is centered around a new story set seventeen years after Soul Calibur IV. The stars of this narrative are two new fighters, Patroklos and Pyrrha, separated brother and sister, each with a destiny entwined with the other’s and the famed Soul Calibur and Soul Edge weapons. The story is a good introduction to this installment in the series, allowing you to learn the basics of the fighting if you’ve not played it before, or in the case of experienced players, learn the fighting styles and move-set of these two key new characters (there are ten characters unique to this game). It’ll take most players around three hours to complete the story, and if one particular battle is too much for you it asks if you want to drop the difficulty before trying again. Each round (~20 in total) is a fight against a character, or set of characters, moving you through the fiction and towards the final destiny of the aforementioned Patroklos and Pyrrha. The story is enjoyable enough hokum - superior to that of many other fighting games thanks to the mythology which has been built up by Namco over the years - but it is quite jarring when after seeing some wonderfully rendered cut-scenes the majority of the story is told via static sepia frames. Proper cut-scenes pop up at times but why is this not all the time? It really enhances the cinematic effect and makes things much easier to follow with many characters being difficult to distinguish at the best of times.
The cut-scenes are an indicator to the overall graphical quality of the game. On the whole it’s excellent with quality art evident throughout the entire range of fighters in terms of how they look, and move thanks to the fluid animations. There are multiple costumes available for each character from the start and there’s even the option to create your own and kit them out however you see fit (more on this later). The arenas are many and varied and each has its own feel and atmosphere but always melds well with the universe. There is a tangible undercurrent of anime in the drawing styles. Sound is also superb with a wide setlist of background music options, a heavy-voiced announcer and realistic sound effects.
In updating Soul Calibur in the post Street Fighter IV world weapons, of course, remain a constant. As does the freedom of movement around the Y-axis. Timing also feels relaxed allowing for even the most limited of players to string some moves together if they can manage the inputs for a given set of moves linearly. As with any fighting game a fightstick really enhances the enjoyment of the game and any individual’s apparent skill level.
What has been done instead to make the game seem fresh and on a level playing field with those around it is to integrate a mechanic eerily similar to the super and ultra combo moves known and loved for their ability to deal pain, entertain via the character-specific animation and allow for a ‘flashy background’ on knock-out if executed when health is sufficiently depleted. In this case we have Brave Edge - similar to EX type moves - and Critical Edge moves which are very much an ultra by another name. Input two quarter circles and hit a button in many cases, then see the character ready themselves, give some kind of war-cry and then launch into a multi-hit barrage dealing a significant chunk of damage to the unfortunate soul who didn’t get their guard up in time. Although useful as game-enders or saves, they just aren’t as exciting as those seen in the game the concept’s taken from. Street Fighter IV is more entertaining and enjoyable here, and it’s not the only example.
The fighting mechanics in Soul Calibur V are not going to be familiar to newcomers. There are three basic types of move - a horizontal and vertical weapon strike plus kick. To block you need to tap a specific button rather than just pull away from your opponent - less to do than in the fourth iteration of this series when a directional movement and button press was needed - and it takes a while to get used to and even when muscle memory accepts that’s what’s needed to defend (and hopefully execute with perfect timing ensuring an advantage over your opponent similar to that gained by parrying in Street Fighter III) it still requires you to move your hand away from your preferred attack position. This does complicate fights, or at least allows a greater number of mistakes to permeate any one round thanks to the extra movement and delay associated with that.
The complexity can be seen throughout all fights. Playable characters and opponents are armoured, naturally leading to a slower movement. There is also the ability to dodge attacks thanks to true rotational freedom around each arena (8-way movement) and the option to quick step away if caught unawares! Each character’s move-set is centered around their weapon, so although there are long and short-range attacks you’re likely to levitate towards one style when using a given character. It’s not easy to master both. On the fighter selection screen there’s a useful spider graph detailing the ease of use, power, speed of attack and so on which is very helpful as it really is appreciably noticeable how much more successful you can be as a novice with an easy to use character. After a few rounds you will become familiar with the types of moves they can perform, how to execute them and how to build them into a routine which allows you to attack, evade and at times, block, your opponent. Try an easy to use option like Ezio, or Pyrrha and you’ll see success early on. Try a more difficult champion like Z.W.E.I and it’ll be tough going for a while.
The game has enough content to entertain fans for an extended period of time. Story mode, arcade mode, legendary souls mode (like arcade the aim is to fight a number of competitors, only this time the difficulty is increased each round) and online play, plus a training mode allowing you to monitor exactly what you’re doing (inputs recorded onscreen) and informing you how to perform each move. Perhaps most interesting of all is a character creation mode whereby you can build a unique fighter from scratch, or base it upon an existing one, using any style, weapon and get-up you so desire. They can be used online or offline and will add longevity and ensure emotional investment on a higher level than perhaps expected otherwise.
The online play is standard fare. Ranked matches are where you’ll want to spend your time, at least once you feel you’re ready for that level of play. Win matches, level up your player rank with wins and keep searching for players of an equal or higher level. You can filter by region, by rank and by connection status. When the connection status is listed as good then the netcode copes with aplomb. Not a single piece of evident lag. This is the single most important thing regarding the online play. If you’re after a more relaxing learning experience player matches are possible and you can create your own lobbies, or join other ones including some based on locations around the globe. Want to fight in the London or Paris lobbies? Go for it. The lobbies are done well, too. A big area where people can plonk themselves (or rectangular cards anyway) or move around and challenge those already waiting is how they’re setup. You can save and upload replays of your own fighting or watch replays of others.
Soul Calibur V is an extremely well refined fighting game which re-imagines the weapons based fighter for the modern age where one on one beat ‘em ups are once again King. After a short while fumbling around the fighting arena of choice anyone will start to grasp how to play - watch your opponent, rotate, evade and attack. Vary the order and ultimately prevail. You will feel in control and be able to pull off the attack you want, spot a response in time to move and combine everything to deliver the fatal blow. The problem is it’s very dry. Very formalised. There’s very little apparent flair and this translates into a soulless experience. The game is fundamentally very well done. It just doesn’t provide the spark, the joy, the fun it needs to do to obtain a recommendation over and above its peers.
This review is based on the PS3 version