Soul Calibur V Review
- Soul Calibur V
- Project Soul
- Namco Bandai
Made2Game Soul Calibur V review score: 8/10
Formats: Xbox 360, PS3
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360
Developer: Project Soul
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Soul Calibur is, at it's best, described as balletic. Soul Calibur, at it's best, depicts a pair of fighters locked in a swirling dance of metal on metal. Parries flow into ripostes, which flow into juggles to ukemis to sidesteps, slash, dodge, backstep, jab, connect, KO. Soul Calibur, at its best, flows - and that's exactly what separates Soul Calibur from the rest of the fighting crowd: the balletic flow of the fight.
So what happened? Why had this franchise which once sat proud at the genre's head table, sipping soup with Street Fighter and trading teriyaki with Tekken, fallen out of favour with the fighting masses? Ignoring more obvious issues such as the genre's recent creative hiatus, most of the blame can be saddled on Soul Calibur IV. This HD debut for Namco Bandai's tale of souls and swords undermined the series' key thrill of flow by becoming stodgy and plodding.
It was the same gears grinding away underneath, the same varied weapon combat, the same guard impacts and the same bloody annoying Kilik with his cheat-y bo-staff, but it was as if Namco Bandai had forgotten to oil said gears whilst applying their fancy HD paint. The camera felt locked in, the arenas small, the action unresponsive. It was still playable but ultimately a shadow of its former self. Soul Calibur was long in the tooth. Over the hill.
Fortunately, after four years of soul searching, and a kick up the jacksie from Street Fighter IV, Soul Calibur V has remembered itself. And it's a glorious sight to behold.
For anyone unacquainted with the series, Soul Calibur is a 3D fighting game which sees two humans/reptilian humanoids/Nightmarish apparitions/gimps rudely plonked into an arena with only one allowed to emerge victorious. The Win may be secured in three ways, through depleting your opponent's health bar and rendering them unconscious, by blasting your rival out of the arena thus causing a 'ring out', or by being the combatant with the most vitality left when the timer reaches zero.
'That's all fine and Barry, but what makes Soul Calibur different to every other fighter out there?' I hear you cry. 'Why should I play this instead of Tekken 6 and Street Fighter IV?' Well simmer down and you might find out, my impatient metaphorical chum.
Soul Calibur V is a weapon based 3D fighter, with emphasis on the weapons and the 3D. Each of the game's 28+ character archetypes wields a unique weapon and thus a unique style of combat. Natsu's short blades make her an adept close range fighter, Mitsurugi's Katana favours the mid distance, whereas Siegfried's giganto sword is designed to keep people five miles away and is clearly compensating for something.
Then there's the 3D. Soul Calibur V stands out due to the importance it places on footwork and movement. Attacks either fly vertically or horizontally, the former has more reach but is easily sidestepped, while the latter is often slower but can snag a character trying to expose your squishy side. Once players start moving around Soul Calibur comes alive, characters sliding around the arena with artistic footing, trading blows and looking for that chink in their rival's armour.
But all that is par for the course, and describing Soul Calibur V in like-for-like terms with its precursors actually does it a disservice. In reality, thanks to some new blood and new ideas, this is the bravest and best entry in the series to date. At a basic fighting level at least.
A chronological leap of seventeen years means the roster has been through a bit of a spring clean and while most of the series' famous faces – and busts - make a reappearance, it's the newcomers that really mix up this ballet for the best. Take new ninja Natsu; initially looking like a re-skin of series stalwart Taki, you'll quickly discover she's much quicker on her feet with a selection of nippy teleports with which to trick and tease your opponent. Then there's Xiba - he may carry a bo-staff akin to previous online favourite and constant series irritation Kilik, but his monkey-like grace offers a fresh spin on that tired style.
The biggest game changers are undoubtedly Z.W.E.I and Viola. Z.W.E.I fights alongside a werewolf familiar that he can use to extend combos and set up unexpected traps. On the other hand Viola uses a magical orb to extend her reach around the arena infinitely. Fighting these two characters adds a necessary ingredient that previous Soul Calibur's were clearly lacking – bravery. These characters aren't dancing the same ballet as the rest of the cast, they're flitting around in a lithe tap dance and stomping out a rowdy, unpredictable Rumba. This is design creativity that takes cues from the BlazBlue book of individuality, and the cast is all the more interesting for them.
Alongside these new fighting styles and characters the other key change comes in the form of a super meter that builds as you fight. On the surface this seems like a cheap way to add to the game - almost every other fighting series in existance added a super meter fifty-something years ago - but in reality it adds another few missing ingredients to the Soul Calibur recipe – reaction and escalation.
Watch a dance or, indeed, a fight and you'll notice that it's not a monotonous experience. A couple doesn't get away with doing the same thing for two minutes, there's an ebb and flow to their actions, a build up, a change of rhythm, and a bit of flair toward the end as it all reaches a head. There's escalation. Soul Calibur V's new super meter is this rhythm changer. No longer can Soul Calibur players rely on a crutch set of moves and techniques to secure victory, in Soul Calibur V you're always thinking.
Meter can be spent in three distinct ways. Way one is to spend a chunk to extend a basic combo. This can often catch an opponent unaware as it adds a layer of unpredictability to the previously one note attack and block trades.
Way two is to spend a chunk on a parry, also known as a 'Guard Impact'. This reworking of the series' staple defensive mechanism is clever in that it takes what was an overly simple technique and turns it into a far more strictly-rationed, again unpredictable crowbar one can employ to break through a relentless offence.
The final use of your meter is in the tried and tested Super Move that, while easily blocked, can tear a hole in an opponents health bar if employed correctly. The meter changes Soul Calibur for the better as, taken on a second by second basis, Soul Calibur V is a far less predictable fighter. You're constantly making snap reactions based on the state of yours and your opponent's meter and because of this the rhythm of the fight is now a wave, not a line. It's hardly original, but then nor was making Bond more like Bourne, and look how satisfying and fresh Casino Royale was.
Alongside this reworked roster and new meter is a Street Fighter III inspired 'Just Guard' technique that rewards a well timed block by letting you reply immediately. While a double tap up or down now activates a quick side step to more effectively avoid vertical attacks. Suffice to say Soul Calibur V's combat has been tweaked and tinkered to a fine polished state and at a hardcore fight-y level, this is the best the series has ever been.
That said, casual fans will find just as much to like. Those new flashy mechanics may put most heads in a daze but this is still one of the most friendly fighters on the market, and anyone can still effectively grab a pad and have a punch around. In fact one would argue that the super moves make the game even more casual-friendly; they're garish, bold, and do a lot of damage.
Then there's the bizarre character creator that has never been so fully featured. Creating your personal cirque du freak still has a compelling allure, and is more entertaining here than ever before. Oh sure, you could make a believable armoured fighter but what about a gentlemanly Voldo? Or a hulked out Nightmare with a chipmunk voice?
What about making a large fat man that wears a tutu and fights with the flamboyant bounce of a schoolgirl? Or re-imagining every fighter as an animal headed weirdo? Inventing and showing off is a hugely entertaining side of the game and Soul Calibur V's creation tool is both intuitive and surprisingly malleable. You could easily waste a hundred hours tinkering with Frankenstein like abominations alone.
Add a robust online mode with effortless replay saving, uploading and downloading and you've got a competitive and fun social brawler that's built to last and appeals at both hardcore and casual levels.
But unfortunately, after so much great, it's with a heavy heart that Soul Calibur V admits that it's not perfect. Not for the solo player at least, as Soul Calibur V's single player offering is startlingly short sighted.
For starters there's a limp story mode that combines a series of basic brawls with some of the most schizophrenic production values to ever grace a video game. Part of the story is presented through well created CGI cutscenes, while the rest is shown in crudely pencilled storyboards. It's an odd sight to behold for the few hours it lasts and, in truth, the whole mode feels like an afterthought.
Alongside this sits a standard Arcade trawl, the brutally difficult Legendary Souls gauntlet, and the 240 opponent strong 'Quick Battle' mode that features CPU controlled rivals of various difficulty that have all been put together in the game's character creator. Oh sure, if you aim to do everything here then there is a lot of challenging content, but it all feels rather basic and lacks the imagination or interest of what the series has done before, with Soul Calibur II's Weapon Master mode being the best example.
It's a real shame but, in all honesty, you shouldn't consider this as serious black mark against Soul Calibur V's name. This is just a warning that should you intend to explore Soul Calibur V's depths alone and offline then you'll likely tire of its creatively anaemic solo content before long. Indeed Soul Calibur V's heart is clearly devoted to competitive play, in both casual and more hardcore varieties, and in this area it truly, triumphantly excels. In basic brawling terms Soul Calibur V is the new series benchmark, and the best 3D fighter available as a result.
With Soul Calibur though, it all comes down to that description - so it remains to be said, would I describe Soul Calibur V as balletic? No I wouldn't. Not simply balletic anyway. Soul Calibur V is also a Waltz, a Tango, a Rumba, it's even Interpretive in some respects. New characters and new mechanics bring new methods of thinking to what had become a dull-witted old man of a franchise and it is all the better for it. Welcome back, Soul Calibur, may your fights flow freely once more.
Words by James Bowden (Twitter: @Dalagonash)
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