It was a bright Saturday afternoon when I'd first realised that I didn't like the direction that the Soul Calibur series had taken. I'd just finished an hour long session against a skilled opponent who'd bested me five times straight with Edge Master's feminine duplicate, Elysium. Cycling through a series of move sets - both old and new- and coupled with a near-unblockable Critical Edge attack, I had found my match for the day. I persisted, however: another five fights until a breakthrough - and not to mention, painfully-close - fifth round win. In spite of this achievement, I felt nothing but apathy for a series that I'd loved since my final years of High School.
It was a combination of all of the above, plus a few other minor annoyances that I had encountered throughout my twenty-something hours with Project Soul's latest weapon-based fighter. The overriding feeling I got was that what was added wasn't substantial enough to mask the features that were watered-down or taken away.
As with Tekken 6, the first thing that your gaze will be thrust toward is the new Story mode. Set in 1607 A.D (seventeen years since the last instalment), players will control a handful of characters in a (roughly) four hour quest to destroy the cursed sword Soul Edge. You'll spend most of your time with protagonist, Patroklos (and his Alpha variant), but you'll also get some time with his whiny sister and the mysterious Z.W.E.I. Fights are tied together with hand-drawn stills overdubbed with melodramatic voice acting. All comments about the predictable, woefully-told story aside, it's odd that the developers opted to use a central character that is so difficult to use (this observation is true for his variant as well). Patroklos' attacks don't seem to flow like that of series veterans like Cervantes or Mitsurugi, so the later chapters are actually quite difficult. I would have much preferred a more traditional Edge Master mode or even Soul Calibur IV's towers, as opposed to this narrative-driven mess.
Next time on Soul Calibur V: Patroklos gets broody.. and even more self-indulgent
Apart from the aforementioned Story mode, there's very little else to keep solo players engaged for a sustained period of time. To their credit, Project Soul have implemented some practical elements to the genre staple Training mode; with the ability to enable prompts that offer advice as to when you should use specific attacks as well as the more common move lists. Quick Battle is very similar to Ghost Battle from the more recent Tekken games, with the exception that you can earn titles for the new License system (more on that later). Arcade mode follows the standard time attack formula and has no hints of story for those intrigued by the rest of the game's cast. Finally, there's Legendary Souls mode which will be a welcome addition for the more skilled players amongst you, as it sets the CPU difficulty to near unbeatable levels (read: be prepared to face off against perpetual combo machines). After about eight hours, you'll have seen all that Soul Calibur V can offer you without engaging in online competition.
Before I get to what the cruel world can do to a game like Soul Calibur V, it's worth going over the roster. There's quite a few new faces: front and centre being Patroklos and Pyrrha, series veteran Sophitia's children. Pyrrha handles similarly to her mother and her Omega variant's move set is nothing short of deadly. Viola is an interesting addition, being able to place her weapon behind you to juggle and otherwise continue combos. Z.W.E.I is similar to Patroklos in that he's pretty hard to read, and even harder to use. Natsu, Leixia and Xiba are ring-ins for Taki, Xianghua and Kilik respectively, and handle somewhat like their predecessors. There are also several returning characters with minor tweaks; but some have stood to benefit more from the passage of time than others. Ezio Auditore - of Assassin's Creed fame - also makes an appearance, and he's a perfect fit for the series. Dampierre, the bumbling thief from the PSP instalment, Broken Destiny is present as EBGames-exclusive DLC. It's a shame that this lively character is held to retail ransom, but I'm glad that he made it all the same. Puzzlingly, there's now three Edge Masters (read: characters that switch move set in every round) available in this instalment: Edge Master himself, Kilik and Elysium. Edge Master and Kilik inherit everything - including Critical Edge maneuvers - from the characters that they imitate. Elysium, however, has the edge (ha!) with a clutch move that can juggle airborne characters and even damage you while you're down. It may sound like sour grapes, but there's a distinct lack of balance in this roster and it's also missing some characters that have endeared themselves to the series faithful (Zelasamel and Talim are the most notable omissions). This is made worse when you consider that three characters perform what is essentially the same function.
It may not be apparent at first, but new mechanics inspired by (or derived from) Capcom's recent revival of the fighting game genre have significant implications for the Soul Calibur formula as we know it. Firstly, there's Critical Edge moves that act as your Ultra Combos (for those experienced with Street Fighter IV and its subsequent releases). Performing a double quarter circle motion in concert with pressing all three attack buttons will trigger a flashy, multi-hit attack that can either turn the tide of a match, or at least help you keep up depending on your choice of character. While all of these moves are expertly animated and awesome to behold, some of them are grossly overpowered. Characters like Yoshimitsu, Elysium and Siegfried can take - in some scenarios - more than fifty percent of their opponent's life with a carefully timed Critical Edge maneuver; turning what could have been a close contest into a series of one-sided affairs. I liked the concept initially: a last minute gambit that could help newcomers (or those like me with lesser skills) to get back into the match, but it's been poorly implemented across the board with some being neutered by range or lacking comparable power. Also new are Brave Edge attacks which serve to power up selected regular moves, much like EX Specials from Street Fighter IV. Brave Edge attacks and series staple Guard Impacts (read: parry) use energy from the same gauge that powers your Critical Edge attacks, so this does add an extra element of strategy to the formula.
OMG! Where did you get that necklace?
Project Soul have also lifted the License system from Marvel Vs Capcom 3 and have implemented it with similar aplomb. You can customize your license with titles that you've unlocked in Quick Battle and icons (pictures of the cast and your custom characters). Your license will also track your stats across single player and online activities and you can compare your accomplishments with any players that you encounter. The developers have also managed to put their own spin on this with the Rival system which allows players to compare vital stats (time played offline/online, best Arcade time, win/loss ratios and more) with up to three registered players. It's a great idea and it managed to ignite my competitive side for a few speedy playthroughs of Arcade at the very least. Soul Calibur V benefits from the blend of old and new book-keeping techniques.
The shift to a more fully-featured online suite also appears to be inspired somewhat by Capcom's recent successes. There's the option to play Ranked and Player matches and join the Global Colosseo: a series of large lobbies sorted by region that allow players to converse, challenge each other, and partake in random fights and tournaments. I had great trouble finding Ranked matches, but the Player Match function allows you to host six players at a time: so you'll rarely be left wanting for competition. Global Colosseo is a great idea, but I encountered so many connection issues while in the Sydney-based lobby that I hesitate to partake any longer. One in every four matches ended in connection failure, and the shame of meeting your opponent in the lobby after being disconnected from a near thrashing is unbearable. I can't remember a single match - using either of the three matchmaking systems - where I got any more than zero bar connection quality. That may sound as though it would be unplayable, but the action itself holds up remarkably well in these conditions; I usually lost my opponents in the transition from a replay to the following round. Speaking of replays, you can upload replays of your own victories as well as view those of your rivals. All things considered, it's a far meatier offering than that of its predecessor; it's just a shame that this improvement has come at the expense of the single player component.
The character creator returns in Soul Calibur V, with the ability to customize the look of your favourite fighters or deliver your own spawn to the dueling grounds. Gone from this instalment is the quasi RPG weapon and ability selection, this time it's all about looks. I've fought everything from provocatively-dressed lingerie models to pixel perfect likenesses of comic book heroes. I've also been tasked with defending myself against some more abhorrent creations, like a horse dressed in a pink g-string, sporting a conical dongle and bright white, spherical testicles. This is what you get when the default placement area for waist accessories is directly over a character's crotch. In any case, Soul Calibur V's creation suite showcases the most creative and deviant elements of a fledgling fighting community.
In terms of presentation, Soul Calibur V features what are easily the most technically-impressive visuals in a fighter on this generation of hardware. Minor clipping issues through clothing aside, the game is achingly beautiful; even when showing duels between the most loathsome of cast members. It must be said that in this iteration more than any other, Project Soul has the camera squarely pointed up the skirts of the feminine cast members and this can be off-putting; particularly when you manage to break some of these characters' armour. I also found it odd that Mitsurugi is perhaps the only cast member - male or female - to show the effects of seventeen years away from the spotlight. Still, the game is truly wonderful to behold and a new standard-bearer for the genre at large. The soundtrack is also reminiscent of the series' high standards and features a wonderful rendition of the Assassin's Creed theme. Soul Calibur V truly is a feast for the senses!
Behold! Voldo's puzzling crotch adornments in stunning HD!
Despite the spirit of negativity that permeates throughout this review, you should know that the 8-Way Run system and weapon-based combat still holds up well after all these years. The new additions may cheapen some contentious battles, but Soul Calibur V is still a competent fighting game. It's just that the game has drifted so far from its point of difference that I yearn for the days of the Dreamcast original. The visuals are just as striking as any of its predecessors, the soundtrack rousing, the cast varied, but Project Soul have taken too much from the competition and omitted features and characters that endeared the series to me all those years ago. A great game, though merely a solid entry in an otherwise distinguished series.