Fighting games often get accused of not evolving enough with new iterations. New balancing tweaks, a few new characters, new movesets for old characters. Ultimately, a new entry in a fighting franchise is judged by how it stacks up to its predecessors and whether or not it moves the franchise in a positive direction.
Soul Calibur, one of the first successful 3D fighters, has had a tumultuous history. Always respected and embraced for its addicting and deep blade based combat, where Soul Calibur has struggled is in delivering consistency in its story. To understand the story properly, multiple flow charts threading the array of characters would be needed just to establish relationships. Throw in the problems that arise when canon (anything involving Siegfried) and non-canon (Zalsalamel ending up with Soul Edge after 3) stories collide resulting a trip to a bookstore to pick up a copy of Soul Calibur Cliff Notes.
Story modes in fighting titles have always been difficult to handle well. Multiple competing in similar tournaments all ending with the same end-boss is bound to result in conflicting storylines. Street Fighter handles it by offering no true official storyline short of a bunch of combatants with the same goal in mind. Multiple origin stories yes, but ultimately you always end up fighting Bison or Seth and that’s the end of things. Dead or Alive 5 mixed their story mode up by offering inter-arching storylines across a series of episodes. Kasumi was the main character certainly, but every character had their part to play in the story, resulting in a well directed and satisfying campaign.
Soul Calibur V chose to do something entirely different. Rather than slog through another entry in the seemingly endless quest for Siegfried to defeat Nightmare and trying to discern how exactly the Asian warriors Kilik, Xianghua and Maxi fit into the story, Soul Calibur V fast forwards to the 17th century and focuses on Patroklos and Pyrrha, the twin children of Sophitia. The story is interesting enough, especially when old characters show face to pass the torch to the new generation. But the more I played as Patroklos and Pyrrha, it made me miss playing as Sophitia and Cassandra. Of the two siblings, Patroklos has a refreshing masculine approach to the classic sword and shield style. Conversely, Pyrrha’s timid and frightened nature is in her combat style as she shows a reluctance to engage, even going as far as having a throw where her opponent falls on her sword accidentally.
While the story is well told through voiced sketches and in game cutscenes between battles, the story constantly struggles to shake the standards of its past. Fan favorite characters Xianghua, Taki and Kilik are replaced by their children/successors in Leixia, Natsu and Xiba. Like Patroklos and Pyrrha, the characters are similar to their parents and mentors, but playing as them left me pining to play as the original characters. Confusing things further is series regulars like Maxi, Ivy, Voldo and Astaroth are reduced to minor support roles, marginalizing their importance. It is decisions like these and not even including other characters in the story that makes the campaign feel like a waste, even at the benefit of telling a concise story about the twins.
By playing through the story mode, I was oversaturated with rounds as Patroklos and Pyrrha that I barely want to touch them in the modes left over. There is no strategy side-game to distract this time around, if you purchase Soul Calibur V, be expected to spend a lot of time in basic versus modes. After the story is completed your choices essentially boil down to playing through an arcade campaign of 8 fights, a harder difficulty mode, online play and a quick play mode that mimics the styles of other players.
Namco and Project Souls want you to play SCV, especially because they’ve revamped the basic combat system. Soul Calibur V adds in the new critical gauge system which will fill up as fighters deal and take damage throughout a fight. Ultimately the purpose of the gauge is to be able to use Street Fighter esque Super Combos in what SCV calls Critical Edge strikes. Dynamic and relatively easy to pull off (2x QCF + A+B+K), critical edges take a chunk of heath off an opponent. Guard impacts have also been associated with the critical guage with successful guard impacts depleting the gauge slightly. This means that players can’t lean heavily on guard impacts to catch opponents off guard. Combatants are required to mix it up, which results in an improvementin strategy.
Ultimately, Soul Calibur V’s biggest shortcoming is that the direction wanted to be bold in trying something different. But Namco needs to learn that they can’t please everyone. Introducing new characters that are clones of classic characters made me want to play the older games with my old favorites included. It didn’t matter that the incredible character editor had been much improved or that Ezio Auditore is the best guest character to appear in Soul Calibur since Link way back on the GameCube. No amount of solid online play and challenging battles could shake the feeling that Soul Calibur V simply lacks the soul to be great.
A solid fighter that is good to play in group settings, but playing SCV solo made me pine for previous entries in the series.