Soul Calibur V: Mechanical Excellence Marred by Shallow Content

Soul Calibur is one of my favorite fighting game series, alongside Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. It’s always occupied a fairly unique niche in the genre, focusing on a wide variety of weapon-based fighting compared to the usual emphasis on martial arts and hand-to-hand combat and aiming to have a story that advances with each installment, something that is becoming a little more common among fighters with time. This emphasis on weaponry, an interesting story, and a very memorable cast of characters has always endeared the game to me, along with some extremely fun gameplay and a very detailed character creation feature. As such, when Soul Calibur V was announced, I followed the teasers and gradually emerging info with great interest and picked the game up almost immediately after it came out to see how it matched up to the previous games I’d enjoyed so much.

The verdict I’ve reached is a bit of a mixed bag; the gameplay I’ve enjoyed so much is here, and dramatically improved. I’m quite confident in saying that mechanically this is by far the best Soul Calibur game yet, and has competition only from Super Smash Bros Brawl for the best fighting game I’ve ever played. However, the great gameplay served to highlight a somewhat worrying downturn in story and content, which is the cause of my mixed feelings towards the game.

The most important part of the fighting game, of course, is the fighting, and anyone that is solely concerned with how well the fighter plays should definitely give Soul Calibur V a try; the gameplay is as fun as it’s ever been, and the mechanics of combat have been shifted towards more aggressive, flashy fights, rewarding well-executed attacks or active, well-timed counters but punishing passive turtling strategies of previous games. Defensive tactics aren’t rendered completely useless, but you get a lot more bang for your buck with perfectly timed guards and counters than you do holding the block button and hoping for a pause in the action. I also particularly enjoyed the addition of the Critical Edge mechanic, where your character gradually builds up a little bar next to their health by giving and taking damage until they can use a unique, special move. All of the Critical Edges look amazing if they connect, but they avoid dominating the gameplay in that they can be dodged and blocked if you use them incautiously. My only complaint about the tweaked combat system is that the Critical Edges could use a little more balancing to avoid one outshining the rest; most of them do a good quarter of the enemy’s health bar in damage when they hit, but a few only do about a tenth and one character’s is so ludicrously overpowered by comparison that it counters any attack and strips away two thirds of the enemy’s health in one hit. That balancing issue aside, however, the fighting is fast, dynamic, and extremely enjoyable, so there the game is a huge success.

Why do I have mixed feelings about the game, then? Well, the fighting was not my only concern in evaluating whether Soul Calibur V measures up to my high expectations from the series; I also pay serious attention to the story, characters, and content of the games, and here I’ve found the game let me down somewhat. Project Soul was only given a year to make Soul Calibur V, and that short deadline really shows in the game’s priorities; while they understandably put most of their focus on making the gameplay as good as possible and including a critically praised online mode for people looking to fight another human player anywhere, anytime, the single-player content of Soul Calibur V is a JOKE compared to previous entries, particularly the last completely offline game in the series, Soul Calibur III.

V’s single player mode harkens back to the older days of the series, where story mode focused on the world as a whole while arcade mode was meant for individual characters’ journeys, but the very strict time constraints are felt sharply here; the story mode is meant to shake up the game’s universe quite a lot, since 17 years have passed since the last game, and a plethora of new characters have debuted while returning veterans have aged or changed in various ways. However, we don’t really get to learn much about the new characters or explore how different things are for the old ones; the story mode focuses pretty much exclusively on Patroklos and Pyrrha Alexandria, the twin children of Sophitia, a heroine of the previous games. And while the story of Patroklos growing from an arrogant, deluded pawn of the bad guys into a more mature hero and reuniting with his long-lost sister is a pretty decent one, my problem with it is that that takes up the entirety of the game’s story. Siegfried, whose character arc from main villain to main hero shaped the entire series up to this game, barely appears in story mode at all except to hand the titular sword over to Patroklos, and Nightmare, Siegfried’s opposite number and the iconic villain of the franchise, is similarly reclusive, actually showing himself only twice in the story’s run. And of the numerous new characters this game introduces, only the badass mercenary werewolf Z.W.E.I (no, we never learn what that stands for) has much screen time. The story’s focus on the Alexandria twins really works to the game’s detriment, since we end the story with their plot neatly tied up and nothing else even close to resolved. This disappointment could have been softened considerably if Arcade mode had returned to its original form, as a method to tell the individual story of each character with an intro and ending for each one, but this doesn’t happen; arcade mode is just four random battles followed by a pair of pre-determined boss fights, with no opening and no ending, and as such Soul Calibur V tells us everything about the Alexandria twins and nothing about anyone else. I learned a lot more about the cast of this game from the creator’s facebook page than I did from the game itself, and that’s just inexcusable.

V also skips out on any single-player mode of note aside from the bare-bones story and arcade modes; aside from “Legendary Souls mode”, which is just playing arcade against AI that would only be more frustratingly unfair to fight against if they programmed your controller to explode when you started fighting, the only remaining single-player mode is Quick Battle, which is admittedly a kind of fun minigame of fighting a variety of original characters from the game’s character creation mode, earning titles for each one you beat. Quick Battle can be enjoyable, and it’s cool to see what the character creator can produce, but it can feel kind of empty compared to single-player content of previous games. There’s no challenge modes like in the previous games, and the alternate single player modes like Weapon Master Mode, which combined a series of special, challenge-based fights with an alternative story, or Chronicles of the Sword, a mixture of the game’s fighting with real-time strategy and a story your own created characters could star in, are sorely missed. The only single-player content that really feels like it had the team’s undivided attention after the gameplay and online modes were out of the way was the series’s ever-excellent character creation workshop, which gets more remarkably detailed with each game and doesn’t disappoint on this one; you can use this to make new, often much cooler-looking costumes for the characters in the game or build your own character, determining their height, appearance, weaponry, and clothing for some really cool-looking original characters. The detail in this part of the game is incredible, and while it can take a long time to unlock all of the content for it, you can have a lot of fun playing around with it. My only complaint about character creation is the same one I had in the previous game; the unique weapons and fighting styles that were included in character creation when it debuted in Soul Calibur III are still nowhere to be found in V, meaning no matter how cool and unique your character looks, they will play as a reskin of your best character instead of having a style to call their own. The creators threw us a little bone here with the Devil Jin style, which lets you copy the movelist of a Tekken character instead of a Soul Calibur character, but I still think that the character creation of recent Soul Calibur games will never be perfect until the created characters have access to weapons and move lists that aren’t copied from characters you’ve already got.

All right, so combat mechanics are good, but content to use them in is not. That leaves the last ingredient in a fighting game; how does Soul Calibur V handle in the characters department? My personal diagnosis; the character selection is good. Not great, but good. I’d probably warm up to the characters more if I knew more about them, but the new roster impressed me a lot in places and disappointed me in others. The good news about the plethora of new characters being brought in to replace old ones is that almost all of the new characters are great and a ton of fun to play as; the only one I didn’t like was Xiba, the replacement of Kilik. While Kilik was a great character that was very friendly to new and advanced players alike and his personality was a likable but serious hero, Xiba’s got a much more fiddly movelist, an irritating voice, and a personality that consists entirely of constant hunger (and the need to talk about food ad nauseam) and being dumber than a sack of particularly vacuous hammers. As much as Xiba irritates me, though, this does have the nice side effect of making him tremendously fun to beat the stupid out of as brutally as I can whenever I run into him in arcade mode. Putting him aside, the new characters are all excellent, with the characters taking over the role of veterans generally offering streamlined and very effective variations on their moves, and the completely new characters like Z.W.E.I being really fun to play as. The returning veterans and Xiba are the areas that I think the roster falls short of being great, particularly in some of the choices for who returned and who didn’t. Talim, an enormously popular fan favorite in previous games, Cassandra, the aunt of the two main characters, and Zasalamel, who previous games were setting up as a morally ambiguous mastermind, are nowhere to be found in the returning crew, but Algol, a broken boss character from the previous game, Mitsurugi, who was screaming for an apprentice to take his place since he lost interest in the story three games ago, and Cervantes, who has been dead for over twenty years in-game at this point and ceased to matter to the progression of the story after the first game, are all back for more. Even ignoring this grandfather-clause inclusion of tired, irrelevant characters with popular move sets, the roster also irritates me because it has not one but three characters whose gimmick is randomly selecting another fighter’s moves and using them for that round. One such character is a core element of the games, but three different variations on hitting the random button every round smacks of laziness or a lack of time on the creators’ part. The roster is decent, but it could stand for some massive improvement.

All in all, it seems like all of my problems with V can be chalked up to a short development time forcing it to try appealing to the part of the fanbase I don’t identify with; none of my gripes matter at all to most of the competitive online crowd, who mostly didn’t buy the games for their single-player content and many of whom hated the original character movesets I keep hoping will make a comeback. From this perspective, which I have made an effort to see, V is fantastic; the online is great and the combat works very effectively. Even irritating things like Cervantes refusing to go away become boons when you stop wondering what reason he has to still be in these games and start wondering how many times you can get away with using his teleport moves before your opponent wises up on how to block them. However, considering the question of great single-player content versus great online play, my reply is better put by Tony Stark: “Is it too much to ask for both?” All things considered, if the online play is good, the online competitive crowd will like the game no matter what the single player’s like. Things do NOT work the same way in reverse, though; if the single player is bad, people that like the single player content of games like III likely will not be placated by good online play. With better production time and effort, both modes can easily be good and appeal to both kinds of player, but I think V was hamstrung by short production time and decided to go the easier route to make the most of their limited time. I understand this, but I will not be so forgiving if they fail to make more of an effort with their next game’s single-player…assuming, of course, that there IS a next game.

The situation with this game’s priorities mean that I feel obligated not to score it as I have previous games. If you’re looking for an awesome-looking, extremely fun fighter with a badass soundtrack to play with your friends or online, Soul Calibur V is worth every penny. If you were looking more for a fighting game with a good story mode and fun single-player content, I’d suggest renting the game and seeing if the gameplay’s good enough to keep you interested after you beat story mode.

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