Shortly after I purchased Soul Calibur 5, my brother sent me a private message over Xbox Live: “Is it bad?”
The underlying idea was so negative, but certainly not unwarranted. Soul Calibur 4 was, in many ways, the nadir of the series. Horrible online play, nonsensical guest characters, terrible new mechanics, and gratuitous TnA.
Project Soul’s fifth attempt seemed to move away from many of these problems, at least on the surface. But a large number of new worries arose among the most longstanding fans of Soul Edge/Soul Calibur.
Why did Namco ditch so many fan favorite characters? Was the game trying too hard to copy Super Street Fighter 4? Would the online experience see the same problems as its antecedent did? And what kind of single player content would there be for people who loved the adventure modes in Soul Caliubur 2 and 3? Alternatively: who will enjoy Soul Calibur 5?
These questions aren’t unwarranted, but they reminded me of similar questions another fighting game franchise faced nearly a decade ago. At that time, Capcom had relaunched Street Fighter with Street Fighter 3 (although it was technically the 400th game in the series). Fans were upset by almost every facet of SF3: lots of new characters, fewer “extras” from previous games, and a pros-only parrying system that would prove to slowly cut casuals out of the equation.
It’s no exaggeration to say that in many ways, Soul Calibur 5 is Namco’s SF3… for better or worse.
If you consider yourself a casual fighter, you can conclude this title probably isn’t worth your dinero. The offline modes are practically nonexistent, and while many characters are now easy to play, the increased focused on meta-mechanics won’t help newbs very much. That said, serious players looking for a good “3D” fighting game should go into this title with the expectation that the soul still burns. Whatever your thoughts were on Soul Calibur 4, consider this a hipper, more thought-out reboot.
The more things change, the more things whine the same
While you may still be mourning the loss of beloved characters like Talim, Sophitia, and Kilik,* let’s face it: Project Soul had to clean house a bit. Whereas the newest version of Mortal Kombat decided to bring back nearly every persona in its history, Soul Calibur 5 wanted to start over with a fresh can of paint.
Some of the additions are essentially modified clones of their predecessors. There are obvious similarities between the controls of the buxom, black-haired ninja Taki and the flat-as-a-board, blonde ninja Natsu. Pyrrha and Patroklos, the children of Sophitia, comprise the yin and yang of their mother’s playstyle. In other words, players looking to pick up where they left off in Soul Calibur 4 won’t have a hard time finding someone to deal digital death to their user’s tastes.
Much greater than roster refreshes are the updates to the actual gameplay, which have both simplified and complicated Namco’s weaponized fighter.
On the simpler side, character controls are generally less complex than in previous Soul Calibur titles, especially for characters like Ivy. In SC4, learning Ivy’s movelist was akin to solving a Rubix cube in order to perform a grab. It had its merits, but it also meant issuing the wrong command or finding oneself unable to switch out of Lick Poison Coil Demon Heart Safeword Stance were both common problems. Across the board, many characters have seen net reductions in total move counts, but for the most part these lost abilities weren’t really necessary to make for interesting combat.
On the complicated side, Namco upped the skill ceiling by giving players much more to worry about than the length of their life bar and their proximity to the arena’s edge. Soul Calibur 5 now features an energy meter not unlike the EX gauge from Street Fighter 3 (and later, SF4, MK9, and many other fighting games). Players build meter by attacking, taking damage, etc., and can spend it on Critical Edge attacks, Brave Edge enhancements, or Guard Impact deflections.
Critical Edge moves are almost completely analogous to Super Arts/Super Combos in the SF series. They deal devastating damage… if they connect. Following the trends of SF4 and MK9, these moves are flashy and cinematic, greatly dramatizing what is usually the receiving player’s final breathing moment.
Brave Edge enhancements are similar to EX or Enhanced moves (SF and MK, respectively), but they can’t be applied to every special ability. That said, they generally serve the same purpose as such moves do in other games: they add properties, damage, or scope to certain attacks for a small scale offensive boost.
Finally and most controversially, Guard Impact has been changed from an anytime-use ability into a meter-sucking reflect move. It’s still fairly tricky to time, but it now deflects high and low, making guessing games less stressful to defend. But why make an ability that was always free into a limited resource?
Making players choose their competitive destinies
With the introduction of Just Guard, Namco has drawn a line in the sand between casual and hardcore players. Just Guard (see a full explanation here) requires the player to block only at the exact frame of impact of an enemy attack. It’s free, but a poor execution will result in big damage. By contrast, Guard Impact has a larger window of deflection and automatically blocks high and low… but it costs meter. Most people won’t nor can’t reliably count on 1-frame defensive moves (especially not online), but we all know right now there’s a 10-year old kid who’s already learned how to Just Guard nearly every move in the game.
Just Guard, in addition to the existing Just Frame Attacks (which deal extra damage when performed with flawless timing), meter management, and the continued Guard Break mechanic all complicate Soul Calibur 5’s multiplayer experience in subtle, but substantive, ways. Yes, it’s quite possible to play (and win) without Just Guarding anything, without using special meter, etc., but these inclusions stand to make Soul Calibur 5 a major competitive contender in the future.
Is it so ridiculous to imagine an EVO Moment during which a top player Just Guards a 10-hit combo, then dashes in for a Brave Edge enhanced attack that links into a game-winning Critical Edge?
Plausible or not, I can’t wait to fucking see it.
A whole new online world
I’m only going to say this once, but it’s pretty important: the online component of Soul Calibur 5 is astounding. There are so many positive things to say about it, I don’t really know where to begin, but a few things really stand out as best in show features.
Far and away, Soul Calibur 5’s netcode is unrivaled. Games rated at four or five bars (out of five) play without the slightest inkling of a hitch, and even three-bar games go well with a tiny bit of lag compensation. Unlike many other modern fighting titles, Soul Calibur 5 allows players to search for, and connect to, games with a certain latency rating in a certain geographic region. Even better, a world map shows you exactly where your opponent is playing. Haven’t had luck competing against players in the New Orleans area? Decline matches from Louisiana. It’s that simple.
Finding ranked matches is relatively quick once your settings are finalized. Unlike in Street Fighter 4, the game will automatically search for opponents until it finds one. Players have ten seconds to accept a fight before it looks for a new adversary, so you’re never caught in lobbies against an AFK foe. Once the fight is over, you can upload a replay or instantly search using the same detailed settings you used for the current match. It works almost every time, and it’s glorious.
Player matches took a page from Mortal Kombat 9, with small-screen viewing of the action by spectators who can voice chat or (gasp!) text chat with each other. Just as with ranked games, player matches give whoever’s next in line ten seconds before kicking them to the back of the queue. Because of this and the generally quick nature of SC5, lobbies are fast and fun.
The last online mode, Global Colloseo, also seems to be taken right from MK, but with significant improvements. In this mode, players join large, regional lobbies where they can move around, chat, and challenge other players to fights. If you don’t want to hand-pick your opponent, you can challenge a random player in the vast room. The Colloseo also automatically sets up timed tournaments, allowing anyone to participate in a mini competition with other fighters in the region.
The lag-free gaming experience makes fighting fluid once you’re connected, and the extremely detailed license cards” (a type of player stats history) allow you to size up enemies, download their matches, or register them as rivals. Simply put, Namco took all the suck out of online fighting.
Beholding a beautiful battle
To go along with the solid gameplay, Soul Calibur 5’s presentation is almost completely impeccable. The menus are a little boring, yes, but graphically and aurally, Soul Calibur 5 blows almost every other fighting game out of the water. This really shouldn’t come of any surprise to long-time fans; the series has never really failed to stun onlookers and retain beauty over the years.
Character models are detailed, with excellent textures, animation, and facial expression. As with Street Fighter 3, specific pairs of combatants have special interactions with each other, making for fun backstory and sometimes amusing Ring Out dialog. Fighting arenas are, as usual, wondrously lavish and captivating. In this title I’ve especially noticed how much attention was paid to lighting. Many levels have thin veils of smoke or mist that alights perfectly as background sunlight breaks through it or sparks fly off clashing weapons. While not photorealistic, the game’s graphics are certainly cinematic to a welcome extreme.
On the sound front, the whoosh of whips, swords, and kicks is as convincing as ever, with satisfying clangs and crunches as fifty pound weapons dig into armor and bone. The voice acting itself isn’t bad, but as is typical, the actors’ scripts are terrible beyond measure. I’m sure the people who voice these characters are talented, but lines like “I love me some steam buns” just can’t be delivered well no matter who’s saying them. Regardless, it’s a minor distraction, especially in the presence of the game’s magnificently orchestrated soundtrack. While one theme feels a tad out of place with its inclusion of an electric guitar, other tracks like Ezio’s Venice music are hauntingly beautiful.
The bad news you knew was coming
Of course, all this comes at a great cost: the game’s single player content. While the implications of the story itself are interesting to anyone who loves Soul Calibur lore, the game’s Story Mode feels sloppily put together. Cut scenes are a mix of well rendered CGI, in-game graphics, and… pencil drawings. I can’t help but feel that these illustrations were at one point storyboards for videos the developers wanted to render in full 3D. The end result is I skipped almost all of them and finished the campaign in under 80 minutes of play time.
The other single player modes simply aren’t worth talking about. They essentially amount to fighting the AI over and over and over again in increasingly annoying ways. All I can say is that if you want to play Soul Calibur 5 for the story, you’ll be done (and disappointed) in under two hours. If you want to play for any other kind of single player adventure, you’re shit out of luck.
Where does your soul lie?
Soul Calibur 5 isn’t trying to cater to people who want a clone of SC2, or SC4, or any other game, for that matter. It’s a fresh take on the entire Soul Calibur franchise. It’s more serious, more difficult, and more streamlined than previous entries. Whether or not that appeals to you depends on how open you are to change and how willing you are to put in the time in the long run to learn the nuances of Soul Calibur 5’s fighting engine.
If you’re an on-again, off-again Soul Calibur fan looking to get a quick fix with some single player content and a few easy wins online, the decision is simple: don’t buy this game. But if you look back at titles like Street Fighter 3 with fond memories of beautiful art, unique characters, and fiendishly deep gameplay, Soul Calibur 5 is the game for you.
* He’s technically still in the game, but it’s not quite the same thing.