Having begun life back in 1995 with the critically acclaimed Soul Blade (aka Soul Edge), the Soul series of beat-‘em-ups have etched their mark onto the annals of videogame history. It was arguably 1998’s Soul Calibur that brought the Soul series into the mainstream however, with its Dreamcast port considered one of the finest beat-‘em-ups ever created. Both accessible and enduring, that has become Soul Calibur’s ethos, and in this respect, the latest title in the series does not disappoint.
2008’s Soul Calibur IV was no slouch, but there were many fans of the series disheartened by a number of renovations. Disregarding console-exclusive characters for a moment, many argued that Soul Calibur IV’s active buffering (a mechanic which allows players to input commands for successive moves before the animation for the current move has finished) had gone a step too far: Soul Calibur has always been a beat-‘em-up that allows beginners to perform some awesome looking combos with minimal skill, but series enthusiasts insisted that in Soul Calibur IV victories were often decided by luck as much as skill. Additionally, the brand new Critical Finish manoeuvre was considered akin to cheating by many. Thankfully, the development team has taken this criticism on board for Soul Calibur V, creating not just a comprehensive beat-‘em-up videogame in terms of gameplay modes, but also one of the most progressive fighting systems on the current-generation of consoles.
The aforementioned active buffering remains, just as it has in every Soul Calibur release, but has been reduced significantly compared to that of Soul Calibur IV. It’s once again capable of including active buffering in your tactical combinations as opposed to being an excuse for not developing any. The Critical Finish has been removed entirely, and has been replaced with the Brave and Critical Edge manoeuvres. Akin to the Super/EX moves in other beat-‘em-up titles, the Brave Edge attacks use half the critical gauge and can break an opponent mid-flow if correctly timed, whereas the Critical Edge manoeuvre is a devastating animated sequence that turn quickly turn the tide of a match if used correctly. Players can store up to two critical gauge charges which are retained between rounds of a fight.
The armour breaks of Soul Calibur IV return in Soul Calibur V, however there is no longer a gauge. It’s apparent that the chest armour has been made easier to break, though other areas are just as difficult as was previously the case. The Guard Impact aspect of previous titles has seen some significant overhaul, and parries have been removed entirely. Instead, players have access to the simpler Impact defensive manoeuvre, allowing players to retaliate against an unblockable attack of any height with the same input, and the more complicated Just Guard. A Just Guard demands precision timing, but will always result in a moment of weakness in your opponent wherein near-any blow can be landed with ease. What’s more, a mistimed Just Guard will still provide a basic defence for the player, rather than opening them up in the same fashion a poorly executed Guard Impact would have in previous Soul Calibur tiles.
As has become tradition for the series Soul Calibur V is packed with a variety of different gameplay modes. An alternative take on the traditional Arcade mode is accompanied by Quick Battle, online gameplay and the all-new Story Mode. A much more detailed and presentable story than Soul Calibur V has ever played host to before, Soul Calibur V’s Story Mode has clearly been influenced by Mortal Kombat, but unfortunately is still not as fluid. The story makes a good attempt at portraying Patroklos as a hero unknowingly committing unrepentable acts of violence on behalf of a tyrannical dictator, but seems to wimp-out of this plot facet far too early, making him the white knight that gamers are already overly familiar with, perhaps even tired of. Of course, just like Mortal Kombat, you don’t just play as Patroklos for the entire campaign, arguably making the Story Mode the ideal place for Soul Calibur to adjust to the knew rulesets. The Story Mode isn’t too lengthy, likely to take just one evening to complete for most, but as stated above, this is but one of Soul Calibur V’s many gameplay modes.
The Soul Calibur series never seems to have settled on an appropriate alternative gameplay mode. The Weapon Master Mode from Soul Calibur II and the Tower of Souls in Soul Calibur IV were arguably the best designs, but in Soul Calibur V the amount of investment in the Story Mode means that the coupling is simply that of Quick Battle: a slightly more explorative series of one-off fights akin to any basic versus mode. It’s detailed enough to retain interest, placing the player in a straight-forward quest to defeat every customised character, all of which fight to different ability levels; however it is a tertiary gameplay mode after the Story Mode and Arcade.
The online gameplay is a direct continuation of the rules established with Soul Calibur IV. Each player has a ‘Player License’ which prevails through all gameplay modes, recording their progress, wins and losses, but a part of this is reserved exclusively for online matches. A ranking system is in place for online matches which remains separate from the offline grading, and players can even establish rivalries for which they will receive constant feedback on their progress. Soul Calibur IV’s online gameplay was heralded as one of the videogame’s best features, and despite the many competitors that have attempted to best it in recent years, Soul Calibur V proves that there’s more to online gameplay than just sticking two players in an arena and having them duke it out.
A returning aspect in Soul Calibur V is that of the character customisation mode; a facet that any Soul Calibur title would arguably be much weaker without since the comprehensive delivery in Soul Calibur IV. Thankfully, Soul Calibur V has learned form it’s predecessor’s decision to evolve that which was first offered in Soul Calibur III, offering much more customisation from both a visual and mechanical standpoint. Players can now adjust height, edit clothing and manipulate facial details, but can also customise their fighting style and grant additional affects to specific weaponry. Beat’-em-ups have always taken a soruce of pride from the depths to which players can explore their characters and the movesets available, but here in Soul Calibur V, that combination runs far deeper than any other competitor has ever dared to allow it. Of course, in time, this could mean that unscrupulous players will find a combination of design, customisation and ability sets that prevails above all others, effectively ‘breaking’ the videogame, but until then there’s plenty of fun to be had making your own monstrosities and setting them an agenda to defeat your friend’s creation.
From a technical standpoint Soul Calibur V is clearly the best the series has yet offered, though it’s not leagues ahead of its predecessor. The character models are clearly more detailed – of all, Nightmare has had the biggest makeover, but even then it will only be noticeable by long time fans – and the new arenas are littered with detail, however the animation seems to have been presented with the same process as that of Soul Calibur IV, rather than redrawing it from scratch. Many of the characters appear a bit slower than they perhaps should when performing certain actions, especially when challenged by the new additions. The Story Mode is also somewhat of a quandary: why certain sequences are animated and others are presented as stills is not explained, especially given the variation in drama throughout both styles. Were it not for the quality of the sketches it could almost be suggested that these were intended as merely placeholders, with fully animated sequences supposed to replace them but time constraints meaning they were never finished. Additionally, Soul Calibur V reuses many of the same sound effects as Soul Calibur IV, both for the fighters and the player aspects, such as victories and menu selection.
The current-generation revival of the beat-‘em-up genre has been kind to many franchises, and though Soul Calibur remained popular before Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat decided to return to their roots, Soul Calibur V will arguably receive much more attention now than it would have without the popularity of these two titles. That it retains it’s always-offensive stance allows it to sit next two the genre leaders as a highly competitive experience, surely set to become one of the most talked about videogame titles of the next few months. Throughout it’s development Project Soul’s latest had looked set to deliver on the current-generation promises that Soul Calibur IV made abundantly clear were possible, and now that it’s finally here, Soul Calibur V is undoubtedly that trump card Namco Bandai had been desperate to play.