Releasing for the Dreamcast in 1999, Namco’s SoulCalibur (itself a sequel to 1996’s Soul Edge) quickly created a niche for itself with its weapon-based combat and introduction of full three-dimensional arenas to fight in. Thirteen years and four sequels later, it’s apparent that not much has changed. SoulCalibur V continues the fighting franchise’s successful formula, scaling back the complexities of past entries for an intuitive, accessible experience. SoulCalibur V is the most tight and responsive game in the series, but the decade-old mechanics are beginning to show their age.
Unlike recent high profile 2D fighting game releases such as Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Mortal Kombat, SoulCalibur V offers full three-dimensional movement in the planes of the fighting space. While the core gameplay is essentially the same as its always been, SoulCalibur V introduces a few new mechanics to differentiate itself from its predecessors. The instant kills of SoulCalibur IV’s Critical Finishes and convoluted Soul Gauge system are out. Instead, SoulCalibur V features a much simplified Critical Gauge system.
The Critical Gauge is a simple meter that raises with each successful attack, but also by taking damage. A full Critical Gauge will earn you a Critical Edge: flashy, special attacks that can easily take your opponent off guard if they aren’t careful. A well-timed Critical Edge can easily turn the tide of battle. Ideally you want to build up your Critical Edge as quickly as possible, but if you’re in a bind you can cash in half of your Gauge for a Brave Edge move, a quicker but less powerful attack. Quick Steps also make their debut in the series, adding much more mobility to each round.
Also new to SoulCalibur V is an overhauled story mode. Taking place seventeen years after the last game, SoulCalibur V continues the eternal struggle between the titular blade Soul Calibur against its counterpart, the Soul Edge, an evil, sentient sword that corrupts its wielders. Now older and wiser, series protagonist Siegfried takes up more of a mentor role this time around. New heroes take center stage, siblings Patroklos and Pyrrha, who themselves are the children of series vet Sophitia, who was murdered by minions of Nightmare (Soul Edge personified) in the years since the last game.
*deep breath* Yeah, SoulCalibur’s lore can get pretty convoluted. Thankfully, SoulCalibur V dials down the scope of its story to focus solely on Patroklos’ and Pyrrha’s respective arcs. Their story is interesting, but poor writing and awkward presentation (told via voiceovers over still image storyboards) turn the promising concept into a laughable one. The English voice acting doesn’t fare much better, though purists will be delighted to find the option for the original Japanese dialogue. Through Patroklos, Pyrrha, and other newcomer Z.W.E.I., the story mode throws you into 20 matches across 20 chapters. The focus on only three characters during the story quickly proves redundant, especially since many opponents make multiple returns.
Graphically, the game is gorgeous, but at the same time it isn’t much of an improvement over SoulCalibur IV. Animations are fluid, yet character models seem robotic and lifeless. They just seem to lack soul (no pun intended). Though SoulCalibur V boasts 10 new characters, many of them are simply doppelgängers, same movesets and all, of past fighters. Even the new main characters, Patroklos and Pyyrha, play extremely similarly to their mother. Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed takes up guest fighter duties, but doesn’t make much of a memorable impression. It would appear that overexposure of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is beginning to bleed over into other series.
The updated character roster disappoints, but the series’ character customization system is better than ever. Greatly expanding off of SoulCalibur IV’s already flexible character creation mode, SoulCalibur V adds almost unheard of customization for a fighting game. It’s a shame that you are still limited to using the move-sets of the existing characters, though if weapons aren’t your thing, you can incorporate Devil Jin’s style from sister series Tekken. There’s enough fighting styles, clothes and accessories to choose from to theoretically create any character you can imagine. We may not have a Mortal Kombat vs. Street Fighter crossover game yet, but SoulCalibur V easily provides the next best thing.
As standard per today’s fighting games, both local and online play are available. While nothing will beat playing against your buddy in the comfort of your living room, there are various online modes to keep you entertained. Ranked matches make sure you don’t get served by much more experienced players, and the Global Colosseo mode, which consists of a giant lobby of up to fifty players, gives you that option if you so desire.
SoulCalibur V doesn’t reinvent the franchise, nor does it add any drastic new features. What it does do, however, is refine the core mechanics to make this the most balanced, fun and accessible Soul game yet. The plethora of fighters and amazing character customization make it incredibly easy to look past the sloppy storytelling and minor presentation issues. The Critical Edge system is breath of fresh air, but it doesn’t mask the decade old mechanics’ growing staleness. Don’t let this hold you back if you are a fan of the series, though, as SoulCalibur V stands as an early contender for best fighting game of the year. This series may be starting to rust, but it’s got plenty of fight left in it.
This review is based on a retail PS3 copy of the game, provided by the publisher.