Review: Soul Calibur V (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Soul Calibur V
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Project Soul
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: 01/31/11

And so, two hundred and twenty nine reviews later, here we are again, on the new stage of history, with Soul Calibur V. Six years ago we took a look at Soul Calibur III together, and found it to be… wanting, for the most part. Three years ago, we took a look at Soul Calibur IV and found it to be a marked improvement and one of the better fighting games to come out of Namco in a while. In the meantime, a PSP release, Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny, was somewhat… less exciting in comparison, but the franchise was generally quiet for a couple years, otherwise, in preparation (one assumes) for the inevitable sixth actual entry in the series (counting Soul Blade). As with its predecessor, it brings some notable mechanical changes, modifications to the character creation system, and several new modes. As with its predecessor, it comes with an interesting special character in Ezio Auditore from the Assassin’s Creed series (in one of the most fitting cameos to date). Unlike its predecessor, it also carries the baggage of having a Japanese advertisement associated with it featuring Ivy’s boobs prominently and little else, asking the question of why this was an advertising focal point. Well, it turns out that, no, the series has not fallen into disrepair with Soul Calibur V, and yes, the game is rather solid in most respects, but as to whether or not it lives up to the promise of its predecessor… well, that’s a harder question to answer.

The storyline of Soul Calibur V takes place, specifically, in the year 1607 AD, across several locations in Europe, mostly across Hungary, Bavaria and Italy, and follows new protagonist Patroklos, son of Sophitia. The game itself takes place seventeen years after the events of Soul Calibur IV, and things are a good bit different from when we left. At the conclusion of that game, Siegfreid apparently managed to defeat Nightmare in a somewhat long-term fashion, putting the Soul Edge and Soul Calibur blades into something of an extended slumber. As the game begins, “malfested”, that is, people under the negative influence of the blade Soul Edge, have begun spawning across the land, and Patroklos is killing them under the orders of Graf Dumas, the leader of Hungary. Patroklos has sworn vengeance against the malfested, due in large part to his believe that a malfested wielding a ring blade had taken his sister, who he’s searching the land for while doing Dumas’ work. During a mission, he encounters Z.W.E.I., and after discussion, questions his holy mission and Dumas… and, as is par for the course, finds himself wrapped up in the confrontation between Soul Edge and Soul Calibur in the most direct way imaginable. As fighting game plots go, Namco Bandai is really starting to go in the direction of creating one uniform narrative for their games over brief intros and endings for everyone, and Soul Calibur V does this acceptably. Patroklos and his sister, Pyrrha, go through a fairly interesting character development path, and for the most part they’re fine enough characters, as are the new and returning characters they meet on their journeys. The ending is somewhat out of nowhere and doesn’t really pay off anything, though it’s cute in its own way, and overall, you won’t feel badly for having seen it through.

Insofar as the game modes are concerned, there’s usually a pretty good amount of options in Namco Bandai fighting games, and Soul Calibur V is no exception. Right from the start, you have available to you five categories: Story Mode, Creation, Xbox Live, Offline Modes and Options. Now, Options is your standard “change settings in the game” listing (though, oddly, it’s missing some things), Story Mode is a twenty plus chapter single player mode where you see through the storyline of the game, and Creation allows you to customize existing characters or make your own creations as you wish. Xbox Live offers the standard Ranked and Player matches, but also offers a large-scale lobby and fighting area dubbed the “Global Colosseo” for online fighting, which is pretty interesting and great for online fans. Offline Modes, meanwhile, offers you the expected Arcade, Versus and Training modes, as well as a Quick Battle mode that allows you to fight custom NPC’s for titles and points, and Legendary Souls (which is unlocked after you clear the story), which is a harder version of Arcade mode and is tailored to experienced players. While the game is missing the Tower from the previous game, with the huge amount of modes available for solo play you’ll hardly miss it, and the online options are robust enough to keep fans coming back for a good long time, giving the game a huge amount of longevity right out of the gate.

As with its predecessors, Soul Calibur V is a very well presented game, from both a visual and aural perspective, that makes great use of the technical power of the 360 console. The character models are very well rendered and high quality, both in their textures and animation, and the environments they fight in look amazing technically and stylistically. The game also makes great use of lighting and special effects, between the excellent lighting in the various fighting arenas and the over-the-top effects that pop up in battle, and the game is generally at its most impressive during the more elaborate combinations and moves. The game still has the same clipping issues as its predecessors, most commonly with created characters, as outfit components can clip into one another both during creation and battle, depending on the circumstances, but this isn’t game breaking in any significant way. The soundtrack is composed of tracks made exclusively for this game and borrowed from prior games in the series, and in general, the orchestral score used in the series is very fitting in tone and concept and works very well. The voice acting once again offers the choice between English and Japanese voice work, and the performances are rather solid on both sides once again, though the lack of a character-based language option, given the different nationalities of those involved, is unfortunate. The sound effects are, as always, top notch, with all sorts of appropriate metal-on-metal and skin effects to indicate blocking and damaging of enemies and more involved effects for special techniques and such to keep things interesting.

So, on a base level, Soul Calibur V plays similarly to its predecessors, and anyone who has played those games should have a decent idea of how to play right from the start. For those who are coming into the series fresh, however, this is the basic idea of how things work. By default, the face buttons are mapped to two weapon strikes (one horizontal, one vertical), a kick and a block button, and you can move the character with the analog stick, the D-pad, or the stick on an arcade stick if you have one. You can grapple opponents with a press of the block button and one of the two weapon strike buttons, though said grabbed opponent can break the grab with a well-timed button press, though late counters cause the grappled victim to lose their balance, leaving them open. Each fight takes place in a ring of some sort or another, either with open side or walls that may or may not be breakable, and should you launch your opponent through an open section of the arena in question, you can knock them out of the ring, causing them to lose instantly. These elements more or less carry over across all of the different games in the series, so most players should be able to jump in and get to fighting if they’ve played the games in the series prior.

The biggest mechanical change to Soul Calibur V comes from the addition of the Critical Gauge. As you fight, you build up power in the Critical Gauge, up to a maximum of two full gauges, or two hundred percent, which you can use for various things. For one, you can perform a Critical Edge by burning one bar, or one hundred percent, of the Critical Gauge. The Critical Edge itself is essentially a super move; your character performs a startup animation and then unleashes a powerful, but blockable, attack or series of attacks on the enemy. Brave Edge attacks can also be performed by burning half of one bar, or fifty percent, to add additional damaging attacks to the end of certain attacks or combo strings. The most interesting change added with this new gauge, however, is that Guard Impact actions have also been tied to it. Unlike in previous games, there is one universal motion to perform a Guard Impact, which drains half of one bar, or fifty percent, and repels an incoming attack from an enemy, allowing the player to counterattack. Guard Impacts can repel basically anything if they connect from any height, including unblockables, and have a longer window in this game than in prior games, but can also be countered by an opponent with their own Guard Impact if they have power in the Critical Gauge to do so. This does not affect characters who have moves that mimic the effects of Guard Impact, however, so those characters can still perform those moves for free, though said moves are ultimately not as effective as Guard Impact at this point.

The game also features some additional changes to the game mechanics that, in the hands of a skilled player, can really change the dynamic of the game. Just Guard, a guarding mechanic similar to that of Parrying in Street Fighter III, allows you to block attacks if you initiate the block at the instant the attack would make contact in a way that massively reduces the block animation frames and allows you to quickly counter-attack. It requires a good amount of practice to perform properly, but if mastered, is substantially more useful than Guard Impact at this point and doesn’t leave you open if you fail to make proper use of it. Quick Step allows you to double-tap up or down to quickly dodge into the foreground or background to avoid vertical attacks and counter; it’s useless against horizontal attacks (for obvious reasons) but can be incredibly useful for closing the distance against characters with longer reaches. Soul Crush makes a return to punish players who block heavily by breaking their guard, which also causes said armor breaks, and leaves the affected player open to attack, but the subsequent Critical Finish option from the prior game has been removed, so instead of leaving characters open to instant death, this merely leaves them open to massive punishment. The bottom line, on a mechanical front, is that there’s a pretty good amount to learn about the game for new players and veterans alike, and several of the newly added mechanics are quite interesting for leveling the playing field between the different characters.

Another change comes in through the roster; there are twenty eight total possible characters (six are locked and one is DLC only) in the game, of which sixteen are returning characters (to an extent) and twelve are all new for the game (to an extent). In theory, this means that there are a bunch of new play styles to learn and understand; in practice, however, things are a little more complicated. Most returning characters, like Siegfried, Mitsurugi, Maxi and Ivy are changed up a bit but left more or less intact, though Kilik is actually just a Edge Master who only uses male fighting styles for some bizarre reason, and Lizardman now wields dual axes, changing him up a good bit. Of the new characters, many are simply replacements for older characters in the series, such as Natsu (replacing Taki), Yan Leixia (replacing Xianghua) and Xiba (replacing Kilik). Even Patroklos and Pyrrha are essentially substitutions for Sophitia and Cassandra (and, in on case, Sestuka), in many respects. The point here is that the roster change has, in some respects, changed up what’s available to you, as players who were especially good with, say, Talim might find themselves out in the cold, but a lot of the changes here, though interesting, aren’t completely going to mess with franchise fans. Of the truly “new” characters, Z.W.E.I. and Viola are very interesting, mechanically, and Ezio is quite amusing and full of interesting characters, but Elysium is basically another Edge Master, for female movesets, which raises the question of why we needed three characters who fulfill the same function, but otherwise, what’s here is useful for fans and newcomers, overall.

Character creation also makes a return, and as before, you can either choose to dress up a character from the default roster or make your own character with someone’s moveset. As in the prior game, you can equip different items to your characters all over their body, as well as change the various colors, but there are no longer skill benefits tied to your equipment, so you’re not stuck in a position where using specific items will render a characters less useful. You can also use any weapon that might be available to the chosen character type with no potential benefits or penalties, depending on what you’re interested in using. Unlocking new creation options is as simple as leveling up through normal play of the offline modes, as you’ll earn new gear and items as you fight and clear out the offline modes, so you’ll find you have plenty of customization options available if you play the game a bit. In theory, as the statistics-based mechanics have been removed, this reduces some of the complexity of the character creation; in practice, the Tower of Souls mode from the prior game has been excised, and this simplification of the creation aspect allows you to make characters that look however you want with no penalties. The only notable statistical modifications that come out of character creation relate to character height, as taller characters have longer reach, while shorter characters are stronger overall. The mode also allows for the possibility of DLC “souls” to use in character creation, as Devil Jin is an option for players to use as a soul, leaving the door open for additional souls to be added later if the developers find this an interesting idea, though so far this is the only obvious soul available to players that isn’t attached to anyone in the main game.

As noted, the offline modes offer you a good amount of content, and while you can plow through the Story Mode in a couple hours with little problem and there’s only one character available to do so with, this is far from the only single player mode in the game. Arcade Mode allows you to play through one of four paths: Standard, which is just the normal Arcade Mode, Europe, which uses exclusively European foes, Asia, which uses exclusively Asian foes, and Leaderboard, which is used for placing a score on the Leaderboards for others to beat. All of the paths except Leaderboard also allow you to choose your difficulty level, depending on the challenge you want here. Versus Battle allows you to go at it with local friends or the CPU, and Training Mode allows you to learn the ropes, as you’d expect. Quick Battle is basically like an offline online mode; you’ll face down various created characters of varying difficulty and beat them for points and titles, and you can specify the region and difficulty of the enemies you face for laughs depending on what you’re looking for. Legendary Souls is basically a harder Arcade Mode to face down, and acts sort of like a “Boss Rush” mode in an odd sense. Online, you can jump into the standard Ranked and Player matches, as well as check leaderboards, download replays and register rivals to compare your progress to, but the really novel addition here is the Global Colosseo. As noted before, it’s basically a gigantic lobby for players to hang out in, allowing players to join tournaments, fight random battles and just chill if they want. In short: Soul Calibur V comes with a good amount of amusing options built in, making it a nifty game for those who are looking for a fighting game to occupy their time.

Also, let’s take a look at the Collector’s Edition contents for a second:

The Collectors Edition of the game comes in an oversized hard case that is designed to look like a hardbound book, which is cute, if nothing else. In addition to the game and DLC codes for Light and Dark armor sets, the Collector’s Edition also comes with a “Making Of” DVD that fills in some of the background process for the game, a hardbound artbook that features both CG and hand-drawn artwork from the game, and a soundtrack CD featuring various tracks from the game. The Collector’s Edition doesn’t offer much for those who aren’t diehard fans of the series, as the artbook, while interesting, doesn’t add anything for the casual fan, and the soundtrack isn’t something you’ll likely want to listen to outside of the game. For diehard fans, however, this is a sweet collection of novelties you’ll enjoy, and it’s designed in an interesting way that isn’t just another steelbox or cardboard sleeve.

With all that said, while Soul Calibur V is a fun and in-depth fighting game, aside from the core mechanics, it doesn’t really feel like step forward for the series. The offline modes aren’t especially exciting; the Tower of Lost Souls was a bear to play through, sure, but a bunch of different Arcade Modes and a mode that was basically in Virtua Fighter V isn’t even remotely a good replacement for what that mode offered. The tag mechanic that was used sporadically in Soul Calibur IV also is nowhere to be found here, which is disappointing as it was pretty neat and really could have been expanded upon, and there aren’t any interesting extra modes like Team Battles or something similar. There was also the opportunity to include more “souls” as unlockable fighting styles for custom characters as a way of bringing the fighting styles of older characters into the game to add depth to the creation system, if not bring back the unique styles from Soul Calibur III, but, again, nothing of the sort is here. Yes, the mechanical changes are interesting, and yes, the Global Colosseo is neat, but aside from that, the changes made to the game are that some characters were palette swapped and more interesting offline modes were replaced with less interesting modes. Virtually everything the game does differently is either inferior to the prior game, borrowed from another game, or both, and it’s really surprising that Tekken 6 got so much right that Soul Calibur V just… doesn’t.

Which is by no means to say that Soul Calibur V is a bad game, as it’s honestly an excellent fighting game on its mechanical merits, but it’s really a shining beacon of missed opportunities and unfortunate choices. The game does have a pretty good amount of modes available, and as fighting game plotlines go, the one here isn’t bad at all. The visuals are top notch, the audio is excellent, and the core gameplay is as solid as ever, featuring many of the same strong base mechanics the franchise is known for alongside some interesting changes that bring new elements to the gameplay. The offline and online modes offer plenty of options for players to keep them interested on a content level if nothing else, as there’s a fairly good amount of options available to play around with to keep you coming back to the game as long as it interests you. That said, the offline modes aren’t particularly interesting, and amount to a faux online mode, a short story mode and the standard Arcade and Versus mode offerings one expects from such a game, putting most of the weight on the online component to carry the experience. The opportunity to incorporate more modes or options from prior games was on the table, but the game does nothing to pay that concept off, and while the additions the game offers are interesting, they don’t do enough to make the game feel unique in comparison to its predecessors. Soul Calibur V is a fair jumping on point for newcomers and a solid release for franchise fans, but it simply doesn’t offer enough outside of the mechanical changes to appease long time fans, making it harder to recommend than its predecessor as a result.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: GREAT
Graphics: CLASSIC
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: GOOD

Final Score: GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Soul Calibur V makes some interesting changes mechanically and mixes up the roster a bit, making it seem to be a fairly interesting evolution for the franchise, but a lack of new and interesting changes outside of this hampers the game a bit more than expected. The storyline is solid enough given the subject matter and there’s a solid variety of modes available to play with for those concerned with volume above all else. The game looks and sounds as fantastic as ever, and the game features the core game mechanics fans know alongside some potentially exciting mechanical changes that make the game more complex and more accessible simultaneously. The game also offers some solid online and offline play options, alone or with friends, to work with, giving the game some solid appeal, again, on a volume basis alone. However, the game lacks any sort of compelling offline modes beyond the standards, as the Story Mode is lean, the Quick Battle mode is just a ghost fight mode, and the rest of the modes are bog standard Arcade, Versus and Practice modes one expects from the genre. The game lacks any of the innovation and oddity of its predecessors and strips a lot of the variety away, leaving the game fun for online and competitive play but devoid of real single player excitement otherwise, and the massive opportunities for expansion of the experience were largely wasted here. Soul Calibur V is certainly a good game, but it could have been an excellent game, and while the game is fine for fans and newcomers, it’s unfortunate in light of what could have been.