Soul Calibur V review

By Garnett Lee, Feb 01, 2012 1:00pm PST

I count Soul Calibur as pretty much my favorite fighting game. "Pretty much," because at this point, its hold on that spot comes from sentimentality for the first two entries in the series. Over the third and fourth outing, its grip grew increasingly tenuous. I wasn't alone in that thought. The developers promised a return to what made the original games legendary. In seeking that elusive quality, Soul Calibur V counts nothing as untouchable--neither the character roster nor the game's fighting system systems. Even with the groundwork for a return to form laid by these bold moves, Soul Calibur V's bid to recapture its mystique renders a split-decision.

It took a little getting used to, but the revisions to the core fighting system make amends for the many missteps of the prior two games. I started, as many likely will, with a quick dip into Arcade mode just to see how the game felt. It left me with one overwhelming impression. This game is fast--very fast, and smooth. It took a few rounds to get my mental metronome running at the right tempo to match, but once I did that mesmerizing ballet of armed gymnastics I craved started happening.

Then, the whole thing came to a screeching halt. While it looked like Soul Calibur, things weren't always translating to the screen as I expected. I kept attempting the signature Guard Impact, with its telltale flash of green. But, it's been moved to make room for one of Soul Calibur V's big additions, a new technique named Just Guard.

Just Guard offers a compromise between the significant advantage a successful Guard Impact offers and the vulnerability of a whiff. Executing it "just" as an opponent attacks results in an opening to counterattack, but missing only leaves the defender with their guard down. It almost sounds too good, except that it takes precise timing to get it right. On the other hand, Guard Impact feels like it's back to being a little more lenient.

Guard Impact has me figuring out new tactics in battle. Guard Impact burns up a charge from the redesigned Critical Gauge. That, in turn, limits my offensive options. Soul Calibur V adds what the game calls a "Critical Edge," a feature that will be quite familiar to fans of 2D fighting games. Following the classic formula for "Supers," once the meter has at least one full charge, inputting two quarter circles forward and attack launches a character's signature super attack.

Comforting as this mechanic may be for some, I found it disruptive to Soul Calibur. The Critical Edge abruptly interrupts an otherwise fluid combat system, as everything comes to a screeching halt while its dramatic animation plays out. Even the game's gymnastic holds stay within the rhythm of the fight; Critical Edges do not.

My unrest grew as it became increasingly clear that some characters--seemingly similar to old favorites--were definitely not the same. This won't present an issue to newcomers, but as a longtime follower, this had me miffed. This is Soul Calibur FIVE, with the expressed intent of recapturing the glory days. Either give me those characters, or don't. Relatives that sort of look like the characters I know and love but don't really play like them only disappoint.

Spending some time with the new roster has somewhat tempered my response. Among them, I have to call out Z.W.E.I. While I was initially skeptical, I enjoyed combining his slick close range swordplay with his wolf powers. Calling in a wolf spirit, he mixes things up and can handle situations at a little longer range.

But rather than being one of the joys of Soul Calibur V, learning the new moves and characters proves a chore and highlights many of the game's weaknesses. The story mode completely misses the opportunity to be a training ground; instead, it attempts a dramatic tale, at which it fails. The linear story follows the story of another newcomer named Patroklos. Many of the playable characters appear as merely one round opponents, to be defeated and summarily forgotten. There are other modes, like Arcade, in which to get familiar with the characters. However, the classic approach of having each character progressing through an increasingly difficult path through the rest of the roster to reach the final boss would have been right at home here.

The story mode also serves as an example of the overall lack of polish in Soul Calibur V's presentation. Its storybook page sketches lack character, and come across as barely storyboards waiting to be made into cinematics. There are a few of those as well, but the in-game characters arguably look better. Mercifully, the narration and voice acting can be switched over to Japanese, avoiding the painful English voice work. It's the same for other details throughout the game. Menus and navigation feel like an anachronism, and nothing is more startling than the bare bones system text that pops on the screen.

I might be inclined to think of it as charm, were it not for the sense that these remnants of the past continue to hold Soul Calibur V back. I come to Soul Calibur for dramatic, dynamic, heart-racing one-on-one combat. To that end, the work put into improving online play appears to pay off in Soul Calibur V. In matches the first night the game was widely available, I had no trouble getting smooth fights against players with three or four (out of four) bars showing for their connection strength. With its virtual arcade mode of winner holding serve while challengers rotate in, I can easily see myself hopping in on a semi-regular basis.

After Soul Calibur 3 and 4, I wanted to just go play 2. After 5, I remember what made 2 great. That's a helluva step forward, finally. For multiplayer, online or off, friendly or competitive, Soul Calibur V hits the combination of tactical options and fluid pace of play that requires nearly instinctual decision making. Learning the ropes in single-player, though, requires dedication to deal with an inferior training system, and the story mode is best left forgotten. Soul Calibur V makes a strong return in the ring, just don't look around too much between the fights.


[This Soul Calibur V review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, provided by publisher Namco Bandai.]

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