In 1999 when the original Soulcalibur debuted on the Dreamcast, it was quickly hailed as one of the greatest fighting games ever made (some would say the greatest). Since then, Soulcalibur has been a staple in the fighting game genre, giving us interesting characters, who often have interesting stories and giving us an easy to grasp concept of fighting. Soulcalibur is one of the few fighting games that is inviting to both newcomers and experts alike. With the series reaching incredible heights right out of the gate, it was only a matter of time before an entry came up short of greatness. Soulcalibur V is, indeed, a fun game, but you'd have to be a real hardcore fighter to really get your moneys worth out of it.
To many people, the story in a fighting game isn't that important. But fans of such games as the newer Mortal Kombat and BlazBlue would probably disagree. Even fighting games have good storylines and can have good complex characters. This was one of the hallmarks of Soulcalibur. It had an interesting story and provided us with interesting characters. Characters each had their own profiles and backstories that told you about them and why they were in pursuit of Soul Edge. Either to destroy it (as Xianghua, Kilik and Sophitia were) or to obtain it for their own desires (Nightmare and Cervantes come to mind). Small snippets in their profile made the characters somewhat interesting. The personalized endings only added to this as well as learning about the relationship they had with other characters. Soulcalibur III in particular, gave characters a well done story mode that really could add depth to some characters. Soulcalibur IV more or less threw its story under the bus. A painfully short story mode. Although the fourth installment still had the character profiles (and even a flow chart to show the relationships) it didn't seem to have as much character.
Soulcalibur V isn't much different. The story mode here isn't about ALL the characters as a whole, and you won't even learn about all of them. Here we're focused primarily on Patroklos, son of Sophitia. He is battling the malfested (those cursed by Soul Edge). He believes in justice and isn't afraid to say so. Boy is he ever not afraid to say so. The other half of the story focuses on Pyrhha, Sophitia's daughter who was kidnapped. She herself is also cursed thanks to her mothers dealings with Soul Edge in the past. Soulcalibur V's story is set seventeen years after the events of the fourth game. This time, however, the story is a lot more linear. There's an actual story mode that basically follows the exploits of Patroklos and his sister. You'll also from time to time play as newcomer Z.W.E.I. There are two major problems with Soulcalibur V's story mode. The first and most obvious is that it's just not any good. It's a pretty tame story that is hardly delivered that well. There are battles, but inbetween are mostly story boards as opposed to cutscenes. It's mostly a lazy effort.
Some would say this is no big deal. That the story in any fighting game isn't particularly important. But in Soulcalibur the developers have often had narrative and character dripping from every facet. Every stage, every character and every weapon had a backstory behind it that helped shape the world and characters within it. Which brings about Soulcalibur V's biggest problem: the characters. New and old alike, none of them really carry individual stories. This is mostly about Patroklos and you'll know it. The story mode doesn't allow you to play as other characters and explore THEIR stories and motivations. You'll only be allowed to play as Patroklos, his sister and Z.W.E.I. at certain moments. As such, if you're say... no good with any of these characters (and Z.W.E.I. has a real steep learning curve) then the story mode will be needlessly difficult or pretty boring. You'll need to get through it once, however, because you'll use the story mode to unlock some characters.
The new characters aren't that exciting and the old ones aren't either. As I said, Soulcalibur V isn't that interested in giving characters personality outside of perhaps what they say in battle when you see them. Yet for what it's worth you'll hardly learn anything about them unless you go to outside sources such as the official strategy guide or (if you picked up the collector's edition) the artbook. Many characters are introduced but with no real story of their own. Old characters are also brought back with no real story. There's not much reason given to us why Cervantes is still here. Or why Aeon (Lizardman) is still running around. Likewise, other characters that were dropped there's little reason to know why. Why are Talim and Yunsung absent? Other characters are replaced either by descendents (Leixia is Xianghua's daughter, Patroklos is Sophitia's son etc.) or by a student (Natsu is Taki's student). They share their fighting styles, but there's not much in the way of knowing where the other characters went. It's kind of disappointing how much less Soulcalibur V focuses on its character and story in a fighting game that series that was, at one point, quite renowned for its meticulous focus on such things.
All this means the gameplay has to be good, right? Well, yes. For the most part Soulcalibur V is fun. You've got a decent size roster of characters. Although three of them are mimic characters (including series favorite, Kilik) and sadly enough, a very toned down moves list. This isn't all bad. Soulcalibur V is easy to pick up and learn. Especially because it has a very good training mode to help those unfamiliar with the series get to know it. You've got your basic horizontal and vertical attacks as well as your kicks and grabs. At first it seems like button mashing can grant anyone a victory, but Soulcalibur manages to appeal to advanced players as well. There has always been a rock-paper-scissors aspect to playing Soulcalibur. If you play against a player that really knows your character, button mashing is a quick road to defeat.
There are some changes to the battling, however. For one, characters now have a gauge which allows them to perform super attacks. This is the critical gauge. Every character can extend some of their basic moves into more powerful types of attacks, referred to as Brave Edges. In some regards this makes some characters slightly easier to use. For instance, Ivy who is known primarily as a difficult character to master now has her Summon's Suffering a simple Brave Edge as opposed to a complex button combination. Other characters benefit from Brave Edges to give them a means of coming back and turning the tide of battle. Likewise, every character also has a critical edge, which is more or less a super attack. Critical Edges have great animations but some of them are horribly unbalanced or unfavored attacks. For instance, some Critical Edges are strangely not that powerful at all (Z.W.E.I.) while others are ridiculously overpowered (Nightmare). This makes for a strangely unbalanced game.
Lastly, it's also a shame that Soulcalibur changed its defensive play system. I always enjoyed that Soulcalibur allowed for guard impacts, but this is now relegated to your critical gauge. It now cost a level of your critical gauge to guard impact. Instead you now have a "Just Guard" which is where you defend just as an attack strikes. It's not an impact, but it acts as one. The timing is a bit hard to master at first. Other than that, one has to hope to master the guard impacts and deflections built into each characters attacks. Lastly, as opposed to just being able to guard all the time, those who block too much will eventually be subjected to a guard burst, giving their opponent a free hit. This is MUCH better than Soulcalibur IV's critical finishes.
All this makes a competent fighting system, although it's a shame just how stripped away it all feels. Not just a lot of moves being taken away from the game, but also that Soulcalibur V has taken away a lot of the options to really customize a fight. There are no handicaps to set, for instance. There is no "infinite time" that you can set for a match anymore. Battles are also incredibly fast and won't last too long. A staple, sure, but the inability to really set handicaps doesn't suit Soulcalibur V. The engine itself is also fast. While this certainly makes it a lot better than Soulcalibur IV's seemingly slow engine, it's no where near as smooth as Soulcalibur II or III. By that I mean, sometimes attacks can be lashed out so fast you'll find yourself unable to do anything in combat. This is especially true when fighting against some AI controlled opponents. The engine is fast, but it isn't always smooth. Especially when some fighters (Nightmare, in particular) can string their attacks together in such rapid succession that even blocking becomes unusually difficult. I didn't feel like previous Soulcalibur titles suffered in this regard.
The fighting isn't bad, however. And playing against friends is definitely a treat. It also helps that you can take the experience online. And Soulcalibur V has a great online interface. Being able to set up tournaments and go into battle rooms. Or just search for random opponents. You can also spectate battles, save replays and even set it up so that when watching a replay you can see your opponents button inputs. This creates a game that actually gives players a chance to truly improve their game. And that's saying a lot because the previous Soulcalibur titles weren't exactly catering toward this.
The problem with all this is that Soulcalibur V certainly lacks a lot of content beyond this. Either that or it's watered down considerably. The Arcade Mode, for instance, has you fighting down one of four tiers (Standard, Europe, Asia or Special) and there are only six battles. None of which are ever really mixed up. It's the same Arcade Mode with no real variety. With only six stages there's not much reason to play it other than to build your player level (which is used to unlock things in character creation). Aside from that there is also a "Quick Battle" which only serves to get you online titles. Lastly there is "Legendary Souls," which is basically just a ridiculously tough Arcade Mode where you battle particular characters from the series who have really made a reputation for themselves over time. It's nothing too exciting and after a while you realize that playing online is the only real reason to have the game in the first place. There's not much of a single player experience to speak of.
Again, for most this is no big deal but... this is Soulcalibur. One of the things that Soulcalibur established (VERY well, might I add) is that there could be something BEYOND just the Arcade Mode. The original included a Missions Mode along with Survival and a Team Battle. There was also a battle theater, exhibitions to look at and artwork. None of that is here. The second game had a very expansive Weapons Master Mode on top of many things already brought back from the first game. But it also included a variety of weapons and "Extras" modes where you could use them. Soulcalibur III had a pretty expansive story mode, missions and various ways to go about them. Even Soulcalibur IV had the Tower of Souls. But Soulcalibur V includes nothing for the solitary gamer to do if they decide they won't want to play online. There's no artwork to unlock, for instance. There are no missions or any sort of challenge mode. No survival mode. No exhibition modes. No character profiles. No different types of weapons with their own effects to collect. All of that stuff is pretty much gone.
There's character creation, but aside from aesthetics there's not much point to doing it. Certainly it's fun, but what's the point of all the various weapons if they don't make me consider how I'm fighting or what to put on? In Soulcalibur IV there was sometimes a point to assigning certain abilities or even using certain weapons. Take away the weapon effects (or don't put an emphasis on the weapons at all) and is Soulcalibur REALLY Soulcalibur in that regard? Character creation is still fun because there's so much to do, but with very few motivations for doing it, it's particularly hard to see why a player really ought to aside from showing off their creations. There's nothing wrong with this, really. It just feels kind of strange that the fourth game put so much of an emphasis on altering your stats and finding the best combination of equipment to get through the Tower of Souls while Soulcalibur V is so stripped down.
Visually, Soulcalibur V is a gorgeous game. Although there are times of clipping, it's hardly a bad looking or running game. It also doesn't sound bad by any stretch. The music is absolutely fantastic. It's still not as memorable as the first couple of games in the series, but still really good nonetheless.
Overall, Soulcalibur V isn't a bad game, but it feels very stripped when compared to the games which preceded it. The collector's edition comes with an artbook and soundtrack selections from all the previous games in the series, but it's probably not really worth the extra money to get those alone. It's not a bad game, but it is a game where you expect just a little bit more because it's Soulcalibur. There ought to be more to the single player experience than what's presented here. This was one of the things that separated Soulcalibur from the pack and made fighting games more worthwhile outside the arcade. The fact that they used to provide such a good single player experience. With so much of that stripped down here, there's not much reason to pick up Soulcalibur V if you don't intend to go online. If you're looking for down time when you're not online (or when you can't find someone online, which WILL happen) there's not much you can do.
It's a fun game to be sure, but at some point I hope beyond hope that Project Soul will remember that Soulcalibur is allowed to include the things that made the series stand out.