The Soul Calibur series enters its 16th year as a franchise, reaching all the way back to the PS One release of Soul Edge, and it's hard to overestimate how groundbreaking the original game was among the then-current crop of fighters.
It was a 3D, weapons-based fighter that seemed to take the rough ideas of something like Battle Arena Toshinden and make them workable on the still-evolving 32-bit platform. Along with Tekken, Namco and Project Soul seemed to understand how to not only take advantage of the hardware at the time (both series were great looking back in their day) but how to translate fighting—and this is the important part—coherently into 3D, allowing the player to use the y-axis strategically, and not simply as a means of exploiting depth of field.
But both Tekken and Soul Calibur as series have seemed to struggle to make an impact on modern consoles, the most recent iterations of each—Tekken 6 and '08's Soul Calibur IV—bringing more of the same to the table, coasting by on improved graphics without any great, vital leaps in the gameplay. And that's kind of been a problem since the 2D fighting games they were once set to supplant like Street Fighter and MK have found ways to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves while still remaining true to what gamers remember about them.
Fighting games aren't like Madden, it's tough to justify simply iterating on the game with some minor tweaks and changes in roster and justifying it as a new purchase because gamers at large might not notice discrete differences. An occasional reinvention is necessary, not only to draw in new and returning players, but to keep a series feeling vital and reflect the new ways gamers are interacting with the game.
Soul Calibur V returns to the stages of battle across various locations in 17th century Europe as various factions chase after the opposing blades Soul Calibur and Soul Edge—the evil one with the eyball and the glowing, divine one, I forget which is which—and you'll be taking the role of one of the many returning fighters and a few new ones on the stage of combat.
Mechanically, the big changes this time around around are the Guard Impact defensive moves as well as Critical Edge attacks, both tied to a sub meter next to your health bar. Critical Edge moves are essentially canned super attacks replacing Critical Finishes from Soul Calibur IV, and using a double quarter circle plus A + B + K along with enough juice on your meter you can take away nice chunks of your opponents' health. The Guard Impact requires you to press back and A + B + K in time with an enemy attack to push back enemy attacks while you can use Just Guard to cut down the time it takes to come back at an enemy with your own attack.
In terms of modes, the game includes short offline campaign that almost seems ready to take a page from Mortal Kombat's lengthy, multi-character driven story/extended training exercise, but it simply introduces three of the game's new characters: Pyrra, Patroklos, and Z.W.E.I. in a fairly perfunctory story told through a mix of prerendered cutscenes and drawn stills. Other offline modes include an Arcade mode and Legendary Souls (like Arcade but a bit tougher) as well as the return of the character customization menu. While I keep harping on advancements in the franchise, I must say something like the Mission Mode from Soul Calibur back in the Dreamcas days along with destructible weapons and equipment effects.
Online, you've got your usual Ranked and Player matches as well as the Global Colesseo, which is an unranked mode that allows you to select territories and pools you with other fighters in large lobbies. In practice, nearly all of my matches maintained pretty stable connections (I had only one stutter and drop out out of my first 30 or so), but connecting still takes a couple of minutes, and you'll find yourself tired of the menu music and static loading screens pretty quickly.
Again, there are some new characters in the lineup, but with the exception of guest character Ezio, along with newbies ZWEI (I refuse to go back in and make that an acronym each time) and Viola, most of the new additions are simply reskinned versions of classic characters from the series. So expect to see a lot of familiar moves crop up in the game.
It looks terrific
Visually, Soul Calibur V feels like a leap above IV in terms of both textures and elaboration. That's to say your pre-made roster of characters look great with heavy levels of detail and animation. Likewise, the backgrounds are fairly detailed with all kinds of action going on around and behind you as you fight (you might not notice because you're too busy trying not to, you know, lose).
Some nice variety with the trio if new fighters
The trio of new characters doesn't play at all like anyone else in the roster, which is always welcome. While I still haven't gotten the hang of, well, any of them, they're at least visually and mechanically distinct from the same old same old. Viola, in particular, seems like one of those pro characters that's easy to skip because her move set involving a crystal ball seems a little opaque, but I suspect with enough time she becomes pretty formidable. Likewise, I had reservations of Assassin's Creed's Ezio whose fighting style seemed to require being very, very close, but he has a very solid medium game to make him a contender.
Oh, and ZWEI is a werewolf.
The Coloseo makes finding matches easier
While I wish this was a Ranked mode, by creating the player pools as Project Soul has done, it seems to increase the opportunity for finding a match—a welcome addition to the notoriously tricky process of fighting game matchmaking.
More customization options
Besides allowing you to modify the existing characters, you can also create you own based on fighting style of the SCV lineup and there are plenty of additions and tweaks you can make to the height, voice, and body shape of your character and tons of little unlockables and presets from the Soul Calibur and Tekken universes.
So, it's more of the same
Depending on who you are, this might be either a good or bad thing. I'll elaborate more on this in the Verdict section, but this is essentially the same game you've been playing for nearly two decades. The Critical Edge attacks in particular seem to have about the same impact as a well-timed combo (which is the point, I suppose) but don't really feel like a game-changer in terms of dramatically shifting the fight one way or the other.
Story Mode was a a missed opportunity
Even if SCV didn't take the Mortal Kombat approach with the sprawling, multi-character epic, it still would have been nice for the game to at least show off all of the new characters and give you a little bit of a primer on their use. As it stands, it feels like the soul has been stripped out of the game a bit, with very little of the cast showing up in the story. And again, I keep coming back to MK, but that game has kind of set the benchmark for fighting games in terms using its story mode to teach you how to play the game while also having some fun with the fiction. There's no so luck here in an alternating dry and overwrought adventure featuring awkward sibling relationships.
I talked a lot at the top about how a fighting game series needs to reinvent itself but that's not entirely accurate, of course: if you're a huge Soul Calibur fan and/or simply missed IV, then this game will feel essential, like the first true next-gen entry in the series. However, on the other side of the coin, if you are a longtime fan, you might also be wondering "is this it?" The fighting is still engaging, but the thrill has worn off a little and it's time for Project Soul to start thinking about the series from the ground up if there's a Soul Calibur VI on the horizon.
Soul Calibur V is available now for the PS3 and Xbox 360.