When it comes to the fighting game genre the numerous and varied franchises are as competitive as the fighters within each title and boast just as many special and exclusive moves to try and lure you into their camp. Over the years Tekken, Dead or Alive, and Soulcalibur have emerged as the top three reigning champs Ė nothing against Mortal Kombat or those Capcom fighters. Iíve been playing Soulcalibur since the Dreamcast days, and while it might not be my favorite franchise in the genre I certainly admire Namcoís tenacity in creating clever ways to make their game stand out.
In 2003 they were one of the few developers ever to actually encourage multi-system purchases of the same title by offering Link, Spawn, and Heihachi as exclusive characters in Soulcalibur II on the GameCube, Xbox, and PS2 systems respectively. They pulled the same clever stunt in 2008 with Soulcalibur IV when Darth Vader and Yoda would become exclusive characters to the PS3 and 360 systems, although gamers would eventually be able to download the other character as DLC. And here we are, nearly four years and another installment later, this time with Assassinís Creed leading man, Ezio Auditore, making his fighting game debut.
All marketing schemes and guest cameos aside, Soulcalibur V continues the fine tradition of Namco fighting games that has been alive for nearly two decades. A few things have been added to the mix and a few things you might have enjoyed previously are mysteriously missing. While most fighters rely on individual stories for each of their characters told through a handful of CG cutscenes, Soulcalibur V takes a more unique approach, offering a full-fledged story mode incorporating several of the most popular fighters and introducing two new ones; brother and sister, Patroklos and Pyrrha.
Personally, I didnít enjoy this mode at all for two main reasons. First, the story sucks, plain and simple. The drama unfolds like some bad Japanese daytime drama with overly emotional characters delivering their contrived dialogue before engaging in the inevitable arena battle. Secondly, since you are at the mercy of the story you are forced to play characters you might not like, going up against, what at times, seems to be mismatched opponents. This was the first time in 20+ years of playing fighting games where I actually had to lower the difficulty on two fights just to progress the story. Admittedly, I was playing the story mode right out of the box, so I hadnít had time with each of the various fighters to learn their specific moves and individual tactics, but stillÖ At least with games that offer individual stories you get to take the same fighter through a dozen or so fights, master his moves, and see some cool cinematics. Soulcalibur Vís story mode and its focus on one recurring character, Patroklos, pales in comparison to its competition.
Aside from the Story mode, solo gameplay is pretty much reduced to the Arcade mode consisting of six timed battles with no stories, and a Quick Battle option that has you fighting in over 200 matches (hardly ďquickĒ if you ask meĒ) in order to unlock all sorts of online extras. Plus, once you beat the Story mode youíll unlock Legendary Souls mode just in case it wasnít already hard enough for you.
Thankfully, most people wonít be coming into the game for the story but rather the local two-play couch competition and the robust online offering that supports up to six players and some of the most intense fighting competition youíre likely to experience anytime soon Ė at least until Tekken Tag Tournament 2 arrives. The game engine is ultra-responsive with all of your inputs being realized on the screen with no lag. Combos chain together seamlessly with visual perfection in animation and smooth framerates that truly put you in touch with your chosen fighter. While the core of the move list remains intact there have been a few changes and additions that will require you to spend at least a few hours with your favorite characters in order to play competitively. Critical Edge attacks are totally brutal and a lot more fun and accessible than they were in the previous game, so now itís more about when to use them than how.
The one thing that still grinds my gears after 15 years and five titles is that the manual and onscreen tutorials still insist on using codes rather than console-specific buttons to create their moves list. It wouldnít be such a big deal if they werenít using letters that already existed on the 360 controller, so I am constantly having to transpose in my head (at least until muscle memory sets in) that A is really the X button and B is the Y button because the A and B buttons are now G and K. Ahhhh! It will be a glorious day when all console manufacturers settle on a matching set of button symbols. Namco seems to be leading the fight, at least from the software side of things, even if itís at the expense of my sanity. At least they are mapping simultaneous button combos to the triggers and shoulder buttons so I donít have to mash two or three buttons at the same time.
With more than 20 characters to choose from including updated favorites, new additions like Patroklos, Pyrrha, Xiba, Z.W.E.I., and Ezio, it will take weeks and likely months to learn and master all their moves, assuming that feat is even possible. If youíre like me, youíll usually settle on your favorite character(s) and focus on learning them, especially if you want to compete with others and win. Sadly, some old favorites were removed from the game, and while a few were replaced with new faces using their same fighting style and moves list, others like Talim, Rock, Zasalamel and Yunseong are just gone. Perhaps they will show up as DLC.
If you simply canít relate to any of the built-in characters you can completely lose yourself in the custom character creator portion of the game where you can either modify the existing cast or create entirely new fighters using a surprisingly robust creation tool with end results looking just as good (sometimes better) than the original cast. Youíll attach specific fighting styles, weapons, and tactics from the established character base but after that, the sky and your imagination is the limit for customizing dozens of options for millions of combinations. Iíve literally spent hours creating characters then taking them to various locations and shooting carefully posed and framed snapshots.
Visually, the game looks great with gorgeous character design and fluid animation, all set against a variety of stunning 3D arena environments. The textures and level of detail, especially on the clothing is marvelous. Faces are a bit bland and there can be some clipping issues with weapons and hair. I spent 15 minutes carefully slinging a bow over my characterís shoulder but as soon as she animated the bow would plunge through her thigh and out her crotch. Ouch! But these rare hiccups are easily masked by the overall visual splendor Soulcalibur V consistently delivers fight after fight.
The audio presentation is hit and miss with some stirring music that will really fuel your fighting frenzy and some great sound effects for the weapons and fight moves. When appropriate, there are plenty of realistic environmental effects to bring the arenas to audible life. What sets the game back however is the voice acting, especially in the story mode where these characters prattle on about nothing in the most annoying voices ever. Just let me fight! Even the casual remarks and one-liners during the other game modes get annoying way too fast.
You can burn through the story mode in 90-120 minutes depending on your skill and perhaps your willingness to shelve your ego and lower the difficulty on a few unfair fights. Bite me Nightmare! The real meat and taters resides in the multiplayer, which is just as good as always and quite possibly a bit better. While there are a few characters who are clearly mismatched, that just gives gamers a reason to practice more to either get better with their fighter or exploit the faults in their opponent.
The online lobby is great and not only allows you to register your own profile and character card but also choose rivals from your friends list to setup competitions. You can head over to the Global Colosseo and challenge any of the 50 players that may or may not be better than you. You even get to watch other players fight their matches in a window while you are waiting for your fight to start. You can also save and share your own video replays and view replays that other players have posted online.
Soulcalibur V has been a long time coming but whether it was worth the wait is up for you to decide. Personally, I missed several elements of gameplay from the previous games and I certainly missed some of my favorite characters, but I also enjoyed the new additions to the cast. The story mode in this game is a complete failure, which is sad because this has always been my way to learn and master each characterís moves and combos. Now Iím left with a rather bland practice mode to figure things out before I challenge my friends locally or online, which is where the real fun is anyway.
Diehard fans will definitely want to check the game out, but they are also the ones who are most likely to come away slightly disappointed. And if you arenít a legacy Soulcalibur fight veteran, you may want to just rent or wait for a price drop. There are a few more fighting games coming this year and Soulcalibur V has left plenty of room for improvement.