Last year’s Mortal Kombat set a new standard for games in the fighting genre, particularly with its story mode. Other games have certainly made attempts at something a little more deep than the typical arcade style story you’d normally find, but Mortal Kombat’s story really does put other fighting games to shame.
The Soul series, as Namco labels it, has made stabs in the past at a more interesting story, with world maps that you traverse and a real reason to go into fights. The first option you’re presented with in SoulCalibur V is “Story -1607 A.D.-”, a title that may seem a little more detailed than is really necessary. Namco are putting it front and center here, even separating it from the Offline section, so it’s reasonable to assume that they feel they’ve got something special up their sleeves.
It seems this way initially as well, with a well realised cut scene introducing you to the story’s main character, Patroklos. His tale, as you may well have gathered, takes place in the 17th century – 17th century Europe to be exact. You’ll also take charge of his “is she evil or just misguided” sister Pyrrha and Z.W.E.I, who is apparently a werewolf even though he doesn’t seem to transform into a wolf at any point.
Weapons are crucial here, but the sword isn't compensating for anything. Honest.
Rather than kicking you back into another cutscene, the game instead chooses to utilise a series of sketch which are unanimated save for a few camera pans. Cutscenes do re-appear throughout the story, and when they do you’re glad of it. The sketched scenes may be fully voiced, but they simply don’t hold up do Project Soul have managed to do in the frankly beautiful CGI moments. The combination of the two techniques can be jarring, and leaves you with a sense that the CGI budget doesn’t stretch quite as far as hoped.
Given the quality of the CGI though you almost understand how they couldn’t animate absolutely everything, and fortunately this graphical polish pervades the gameplay. Put simply the game is a delight to look at. The backgrounds do fall a little flat in a few spots, but the characters more than make up for it.
They look genuinely impressive in combat, and the abundance of lighting and particle effects that fill the screen as you battle are simply fantastic; every swipe of a sword leaves an almost neon trail and sparks fly as your weapons clash. SoulCalibur has always had these to some extent, but they’re really been taken up a notch here and they help to set the game apart from its competitors.
Unfortunately, the game does seem to be lacking in its level design, each stages feels so generic so generic that you could almost be playing SoulCalibur II (in fact some of them look like they are re-imaginings of levels from that very title).
Visually they hold up well, with the odd texture looking a little flat in places, but they just seem to lack any real character to draw you into them. Soulcalibur IV did well in creating environments that felt a little more active, the Star Destroyer hanger was particularly fun to fight in. Sadly Soulcalibur V just feels like a bit of a step backwards in this regard, it’s just remarkably underwhelming; it just feels like we’ve seen it all before.
Of course what hasn’t been mentioned yet is the important bit, the fighting system. Whilst the basic mechanics stay the same there have been tweaks made, and in general it feels like it’s for the better. In particular the addition of a “super meter”, as found in titles like Street Fighter IV and the aforementioned Mortal Kombat, adds nicely to the combat; “Brave Edge” and “Critical Edge” attacks becoming available as the meter fills.
These behave as you’d expect, with your character showing a brief charge before launching an all out assault of magic and weapon blows. If you can spot the moments when your opponent starts their charge you can block the first strike and escape your opponents onslaught, but after the initial blow has been struck all hope goes out the window.
The “8-Way-Run” system remains, allowing you to move in any direction at any time and giving the combat a more 3D feel. This has always been one of the identifying features of the SoulCalibur games, and it would be odd if they stripped it out here. They have added the quick side step though, allowing you to swiftly move out of the way if you feel a dodge is on order. This doesn’t seem like a huge addition but it does certainly come in handy at times and opens up new avenues of assault.
Whilst they have added a few elements, it’s the things that still remain which prove more of a niggle. Whilst the combat flows beautifully, there are points where things join together a little too well. Wall juggles crop up in a worrying number of levels, and will frustrate those who aren’t a master of the fighting genre (a category that unfortunately includes myself).
Similar complaints can be made of combos that pin you to the floor, leaving you with little chance of escape. These issues are nothing new to SoulCalibur, and at this point are pretty much part of the design. However, when Nightmare manages to keep you pinned to the floor and wall with sword strikes before you can get away or even block you may well find yourself wanting to put a controller through the TV.
There are other niggles present outside of the weapon packed combat system, although they’re pretty minor. The most irritating of these is the amount of time it takes for the menu to appear after you lose a match in story mode. Yes this is very minor and certainly nitpicking, but once it crops up enough times it will become a frustration. Seeing your character stand blankly staring into space for a few seconds before you can simply select the option to retry just irritates in a way that few other issues could.
The neon glow that pervades the game really is stunning.
A nice addition to the online is the replay feature, which automatically retains recordings of your eight most recent matches for future analysis. You can save off any particularly stellar battles, and even turn on details of your input if you want to work out just how you managed to pull off a certain combo. It’s far more useful than the game’s training mode which is just a simple “dummy” mode, failing to compare to the training options included in some other titles.
The final mode available for those interested in online play is the Global Colosseo, essentially a series of huge lobbies, each one tied to a specific city so you can be playing with people as local to you as possible. Of course, given that the title wasn’t with the public during our testing it’s impossible to tell just how full these lobbies will get, but it seems a nice idea for those interested in meeting other players and taking part in some casual games.
As for the local play it’s all fairly standard, with your normal options all present and accounted for. Arcade does feel like a minor waste of time in comparison to the story though, having become just a series of fights with no real link between them or pay off at the end. It’s worth it if you want a bit of a challenge or to improve your player rank, a simple XP system that pervades the game’s offline modes (including story), and it does earn you some unlocks. SoulCalibur has never really had the strongest of arcade offerings, but this is just remarkably weak.
- Visually impressive.
- Excellent online support.
- Story mode enjoyable, if not the best on the market.
- Good additions to combat system.
- Juggles and combos still frustrate.
- Waiting for menus irritates.
- Arcade mode feels ultimately unfulfilling.
SoulCalibur V is probably the most visually impressive fighting game on the market. It really does excel, and although the character of the arenas may be lacking they still look good. The combat system may not be for everyone but it feels easier to pick up than many others, and combos come much more naturally and feel more free-flowing than in other titles. The addition of Brave Edge and Critical Edge attacks, and the simplicity with which they can be pulled off, will appeal to those who want to feel powerful but simply can’t memorise a huge combo.
Whilst the story may only clock in at around three to four hours, it still feels worthwhile and, in all honest, probably isn’t what’s going to draw most into a fighting game anyway. The arcade mode may be disappointing, but there’s enough in general (particularly with the online) to keep pretty much any fighting fan happily occupied.