I usually open my reviews with some personal anecdote or story about the game, but in the case of Soul Calibur V, I’m going to tell you a little story about my wife, Laura. When we first got married I got stationed in Panama City, Florida. We were dirt poor, but we would occasionally scrape together 10 bucks and head to the local mall for some arcade action. I’d run off for some Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Tekken, or whichever of the hundreds of versions of Street Fighter 2 was present at the time. I’d run through my 5 dollars in quarters playing some game or other (When will we get a sequel to Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow of Mystara?) and then come back to find a huge crowd around the Soul Edge arcade cabinet. My wife still had her 5 dollars and a stack of quarters placed by red-faced guys lined the cabinet edge. Her skill with Soul Edge was astonishing – even more so given that she had never played a fighting game before it. Fast forward a few years to E3 and her absolute dominance of the guys at the Namco booth, and it is clear that the Soul Calibur games are her wheelhouse.
Soul Calibur V is the latest in the series, taking place 17 years after the previous title. The Project Soul team have pushed the game forward in time, and with that shift, have made some pretty drastic changes to the mechanics of this title. Would Soul Calibur V soul still burn, or has this series finally been struck with a Ring Out?
Ivy: “Let’s see, what shall I cut off first?”
We are going to start off looking at the primary mechanics of Soul Calibur V that have changed. IV brought us stunning graphics, a damage system that included armor that could be damaged and destroyed, and a critical finish system very reminiscent of the finishing moves of other fighting franchises. For some reason, almost all of that is gone. Soul Calibur V still has armor that can be damaged, but the meter to see the status has been removed. Similarly, the critical finish move and its accompanying meter have also been culled. In their place, we have a few new features that change the mechanics of this series in a profound way.
The first and largest change is a drastic adjustment to the block system. Previously you had to guard a low attack with a low block, and a high attack with a high block. In V we see a new system called “Guard Impact” that allows you to defend an attack at any height. This does prevent the awkward ducked-blocking strangeness that has visually plagued previous titles – a welcome change, but a change nonetheless. This guard system is extended further with a new move called “Just Guard”. Replacing the parry system that would allow you to slightly counterbalance and throw off your opponent, you can now intercept an incoming attack to allow you to counterattack nearly instantly. While I do miss stumbling my opponents, it does actually speed up the combat.
If imitation is the best form of flattery, then Soul Calibur V has flattered the Tekken and Mortal Kombat titles with a change to their Ring Out system. Ring Outs, in certain stages, can cause the action to occur on a different section of the level. While it doesn’t impact the gameplay per se, it is a nice visual change to the square box environments of the previous titles.
In a nod back to their own origins, Soul Calibur V has a new Critical Gauge. Operating similar to the multi-tiered special attack meter we’ve seen in games like Street Fighter Alpha 3, this new meter unleashes your character’s super move. Everyone uses the same button / stick combination to unleash this “Critical Edge” attack. Flashy and difficult to block, these are the highlight of the game in a similar way that Fatalities cherry-top the MK games. The Critical Gauge also powers the aforementioned Just Guard moves, as well as the previously-free “Brave Edge” (the golden aura attacks from the previous 2 titles), so keep some in the tank to block and power up!
With the combined changes, the game mechanics feel faster and tighter. The problem is that they didn’t stop there. The Project Soul folks took the difficulty level and just dipped it in angry bees and wasabi oil – it is absolutely painfully ridiculous. In fact, it is difficult enough on the normal level that it isn’t that fun to play against the AI. Even my wife, a nearly peerless Soul Calibur player struggled with this title.
“You know of him, my lord? Is he a malfested?”
A major addition to the series was the inclusion of the Edge Master story mode. It gave some much-needed tightening to the otherwise fragmented storyline to the Soul Calibur series. Players now had a chance to play as several characters as they moved through their own personal story, revealing their ambitions and drive on their quests to capture or defeat the dreaded wielder of the Soul Edge weapon. It, and the weapon demonstration system, were my favorite additions to the series. While the weapon demo is gone, the storyline has returned…but it has become malfested – let me explain.
The game, as I mentioned earlier, starts 17 years after Soul Calibur IV. Siegfried has finally crushed Nightmare, but the “malfested” are now seizing control of the land. I put the word malfested in quotes as it is a word that CyberConnect2 (inexplicably Project Soul has outsourced this section of the game) has decided to absolutely bludgeon us with to something approaching, surpassing, and then horse-beating beyond to death. (either that, or it’s been here all along and just wasn’t so over-focused) As the story is told by CyberConnect2, Sophitia was killed by malfested, and her son Patroklos has taken up the sword to avenge her spirit. Somehow in this process, Patroklos has lost his sister to malfested fighter Tira, with the sole purpose of grooming her to become the new wielder of the ill-fated blade. As their two stories walk different paths, we get to find out over 20 missions what will happen when the two blades clash once again. Unfortunately, the story is just a damned disaster.
Almost exclusively locked to playing as Patroklos, the story strings together battles in a confusing web of plot threads punctuated by hand-drawn slideshow styled pencil sketches. In every single one of these sketches, Patroklos works his hardest to make us hate him with the fury of 1000 suns. When a village is caught on fire, he asks “Is it the Malfested?!” to which my wife and I burst into tears and yelled back “No, dummy..it’s fire”. When you find yourself actively laughing out loud at the storyline, something has gone terribly wrong. If I took a shot every time Patroklos said the word malfested, I would have died of alcohol poisoning before I reached stage 3. I wish I was exaggerating, but it is that bad. The story locks you into playing as Patroklos, with a few detours as Z.W.E.I. and Pyrrha, so you’d better love his fighting style – it’s the only way to unlock certain characters. I feel malfested just thinking about it.
Another fantastic feature that has thankfully returned is the increasingly-robust Character Creation system. Adjusting literally hundreds of aspects including fighting style, height, clothing, voice, weapon, facial features, and much more to create the character of your choosing, you can bring to life almost anything you can imagine. I’ve seen knockoff characters from famous franchises, as well as some horrifying unspeakable monsters (NSFW!) that would make this game rated M in a hurry, and everything in between. Unfortunately, there is no good way to make these characters truly diverge from one another, so you are stuck with selecting a base fighting style from which to build your monstrosity. There is one exception to this, and that’s Tekken throwback Devil Jin – an exclusive to this mode.
Beyond the robust character creation system, you have a time-trial attack mode, a quick-battle system that pits you against a bevy of randomly generated and well-known characters, as well as Legendary Souls mode that unlocks after you complete the “malfested” painful storyline. Soul Caliber V lets you text to your friends courtesy of the Global Colosseo, download your friends battle replays, and work your way through a title system that instantly reminded me of the Call of Duty series. To earn titles, you progress through online battles and potentially unlock hundreds of titles (e.g. Beginner, Master, “Take it Easy”, etc.) that relate to your skill level and play style.
Graphically, Soul Calibur V took what worked in Soul Calibur IV and kicked it up another notch. With an unshakable framerate (an absolute necessity for any fighting game), the title contains even more detail than ever before, both in character models as well as the extremely lush backgrounds. On the audio side, you’ll get the same nonsensical intro voice as in every game before it, and you’ll hear plenty of yap-yap from the 10 new characters to round out the 30 in this title. Some of the series staples are missing including Sophitia and Taki, but we have Natsu and Pyrrha as replacements, as example. Saving the very best for last, the roster is rounded out by powerhouse Ezio Auditore. Voiced by Roger Craig Smith, as he does for the Assassin’s Creed titles, the character comes prepared with his knives, swords, pistol, and enough attitude and swagger to stand among this crew. The fact that he’s extremely balanced with short and long range attacks makes him a blast to play – very much ciliegina sulla torta. (Icing on the cake)
“Some things can only be conveyed through battle.” – Talim
I have a great deal of respect for the folks at Project Soul. They take risks with their products, they add new and exciting modes, and they try new things. While some of the additions were certainly misses (MALFESTED!), there is no doubt that Ezio, the new guard system, and a cleaner graphical presentation deliver a solid, if flawed, product. Hopefully they’ve learned their lesson about outsourcing the storyline. If you are a fan of the series, you’ll likely enjoy the new mechanical improvements. If you are a newcomer to the series, you’ll enjoy the diverse roster and online play. My only suggestion is to avoid the single player mode and don’t get too hung up on cranking down the difficulty level – Project Soul is trolling you by calling it ‘normal’. If I see you online and I’m doing really, really well, make sure you say hi to Laura – she’ll be the one putting boots in your face as Elysium.