If you were there at the Dreamcast launch, SoulCalibur will always have a special place amongst the fighting game big-hitters. Blending equal parts accessibility, technical depth and spectacular visual appeal, its weapon-based combat engine remains one of the all-time greats on any videogame console, and follow-up SoulCalibur II occupies equally-hallowed turf, particularly on Nintendo’s Gamecube.
By the time part III and IV arrived however, things had gone slightly amiss. Sure, the core gameplay remained as balanced and pure as ever, but this was a series fast running out of peripheral avenues to pursue. Gimmicky guest characters and altogether misguided RPG-style weapon advancement failed to make the cut, leading directly to the abortive SoulCalibur Legends – a spectacularly bad attempt at branching out into action-brawler territory.
SoulCalibur V, it turns out, is all too eager to make up for those mis-steps.
Delving into the technicalities, it would be wrong to expect any great change in the core facets of appeal that power this latest version. It plays as buttery-smooth as ever, it looks prettier than any other fighting game to be released to date, and it may well be the most balanced iteration since the original. There’s no cheap Yoda or painfully cheesey Spawn here, just the guest additions of assassin Ezio Auditore (a character that fits the series like a glove), and a redesigned version of Devil Jin from the Tekken series.
Speaking of the rest of the characters, Project Soul has taken the opportunity to shift out a few of the old guard in favour of their predictably-similar offspring. Set some fifteen years after the previous instalment, the main singleplayer storyline centres around the duelling fates of Sophitia’s children Patroklos and Pyrrha, whilst along the way you’ll pick up younger doppelgangers of Kilik, Xianghua and Taki amongst others. The werewolf-carrying Z.W.E.I and crystal ball-favouring Viola are standout newcomers, with both offering up sufficiently fresh fighting styles in comparison to the more storied protagonists.
It’s a good lineup then, and there are subtle but significant improvements to the fighting system to compliment them. The new Critical Edge system is a decent analog to the Street Fighter series’ Ultra moves, with players able to spend a chunk of their special meter on a souped-up regular attack or waste an entire bar on a character-specific hail-mary of a special. You can stock up to two of these at any given time, and they can take a while to build, depending on your attack and defence preferences. Fights are locked to first-to-three for that very reason, making the third, fourth and fifth rounds a barrage of heavy-hitting combos and desperate comebacks.
As a result of that mechanic, guarding has also come under the spotlight. The Guard Impact system has been trimmed from a high-low system to a single input, with the catch that it eats away at your Critical Edge gauge for every successful block. On balance, that shifts the game a little more in favour of offensive action, but it’s also a lot easier for newcomers (or those of us that simply disliked the original system) to get to grips with reversing attacks. Ring-outs seem to have been reduced but are still attainable enough to be a tactic in and of themselves, whilst wall damage has been extended in some instances.
They might be subtle alterations in favour of new players for the most part, but if any of my forays into the online arenas are anything to go by, the new systems are hardly a nerf for series veterans. Each contributes to a subtle rebalancing of the way SoulCalibur plays, but all the tweaked and brand-new mechanics simply end up as different avenues of expertise to explore rather than exploit. Going up against a schooled Siegfried player without understanding the principles of the new Guard Impact will see you annihilated, whilst failing to understand how to use the arena to keep Tira at arms length is suicide. Experience and skill wins, button-mashing only takes you so far.
Thankfully, there are more than enough modes in V to get your practice on. The storyline may only take a couple of hours to complete but it’s enjoyable enough, and it also unlocks ‘Legendary Souls’ – an absolutely brutal series of tests against the whims of a sadistic AI. Traditional practice, versus and online lobbies fill out the remaining slots, whilst ‘Quick Battle’ mode offers up a series of ranked fighters pulled from the fantastical character creation system.
In reality, those customised and sculpted player-created characters are the beating heart of the majority of SoulCalibur V’s long-term appeal, and it’s a good job that Project Soul has expanded their editor into something that can go toe-to-toe against the best in the business. Customisations range from the size of individual body parts right down to the placement of stickers or the colour of the tiniest piece of equipment. Encountering player-created monstrosities is never less than a joy for those very reasons; some look ridiculous, some look fantastic, some are just plain sick, all are entertaining.
Without truly expanding the series or the genre in any specific direction then, Project Soul has nevertheless reigned SoulCalibur back into something like a true sequel to the second game. The additional mechanics are well-judged and beautifully balanced, the roster is finally rid of ill-fitting guest stars, and the online and singleplayer content is solid if uninventive. It’s a foundation that the series needed to move forwards, and whilst it might not be a fit for those of you demanding something entirely fresh, it is – for me – the best version of a fighting game that’s the best in the business at balancing skill and approachability.