The original SoulCalibur on the Dreamcast (and now Xbox Live and, disgustingly, iOS) remains one of the best fighting games of all time. It’s slick, pure, tons of fun, and — a rare thing — welcoming to newcomers and pros alike. But in my opinion, none of its sequels has ever managed to top it. Sure, they’ve added features or changed up the gameplay enough to make it feel partially new, but that hasn’t made them definitively better. It’s the old “less is more” adage: the original SoulCalibur works so well precisely because of its stripped down sleekness.
So here we are with SoulCalibur V, the second entry to hit the current generation of consoles. Can it escape the fate of its direct predecessors? Or does it, too, succumb to the mistake of fixing things that don’t need to be fixed?
Answer: the latter. But it’s more nuanced than that.
You see, SoulCalibur V will still get a good score from me because at the end of the day, it’s still a good game. At its core, the fighting engine remains supremely enjoyable, whether you’re a button-mashing first-timer or a veteran seeking to learn the complex ins and outs of the new characters. Playing against friends or opponents in basic matches is as fun and challenging as it’s ever been.
I’ll return to all that in a moment, but first let’s take a trip down The Changes That Aren’t All That Good Lane.
First up: the story. SoulCalibur has always had a surprisingly meaty number of modes for a fighting game, and its main story mode — usually complete with a map filled with one-off missions — could often be quite engaging. A thorough unlocking system helped add to the longevity.
That’s all gone in SoulCalibur V, and in its place is an absolutely dreadful tale of classic character Sophitia’s two children as they attempt to reunite, kill lots of people, and… I don’t know, destroy the Soul Edge sword, or something. It reads like some people got the Japanese script, stuck it through Google Translate, and left it at that. A handful of animated cutscenes swim amongst a large number of sketched animatics, furthering the feeling of a mode that was left half-finished.
Put aside the actual story part, and you’re left with a linear progression of battles against a variety of foes, some of whom fight you repeatedly. It’s a far cry from the best story modes the series has offered in the past, and one of the biggest disappointments here.
The other, more standard modes fare better, probably because they haven’t changed in the last decade and a half. Arcade and Versus are exactly what you think they are, and at least allow you to enjoy the polished gameplay without much cruft. Legendary Souls, meanwhile, is a punishingly difficult mode that will annoy most people, but please the most fervent fans. It pits you against more and more characters and will eventually wear all but the most skilled players down.
Online play is, happily, a significant improvement from SoulCalibur IV, with a well thought out group lobby system, and netcode that makes most games, if not lag-free, then at least tolerable. Your performance may vary, but I had nary a hiccup getting my ass kicked by superior players over the net.
The Character Creator makes a return from the last game as well, and it’s been fleshed out with even more customisation options. You can spend a long time here if you’re not careful, and as I type this, a friend of mine is sitting on the couch trying to replicate Joker and Harley Quinn.
So what we have in SoulCalibur V is a relatively meagre array of modes. It’s quite a disappointment, but that’s tempered somewhat by the core gameplay, which is still — after all these years — fun, accessible, and deep.
Changes have been made here, though. You now have a gauge that fills up as you attack or defend. Performing Guard Impacts or extra special moves use up a portion of this bar, while a super move can be unleashed whenever the gauge is filled up enough. Basically, it’s a move towards the systems employed in anything from Street Fighter to Mortal Kombat.
It’s a solid system, and — along with guard breaks that shatter pieces of armour — has the effect of further emphasising attack over defence. Depending on your play style, that’s either a good or bad thing. I’m a bit worried about what that does to the more considered characters like Astaroth, who rely on careful blocking and counter-attacking. It’s still possible here, but it’s certainly harder.
In any case, the SoulCalibur you love still beats at the heart of this instalment. It’s faster and more aggressive, sure, but also remains intensely familiar. And hey, maybe that’s the root of the problem for the developers: they arguably perfected this engine years ago, and look like they’re at a loss about what meaningful additions they can make.
But it is a shame that V is largely a backwards step compared to IV, at least in terms of value. Playing this game, I get the overwhelming impression that the developers were phoning it in — who knows, maybe the budget was slashed, or they (somehow) didn’t have much time. Or maybe it’s simply a case of bad design. Either way: this is far from the best SoulCalibur entry, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. SoulCalibur V is still a lot of fun with some mates around, or when you best an online opponent. Just don’t get your hopes up if you’ve enjoyed the single player modes in the past.
P.S. Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed series is by far the best ‘guest’ character to ever be in the series. Keep him around for next time, Namco!