Welcome back to the stage of history!
It is hard for me to believe that it has been 15 long years since Namco debuted their 3D fighting game series Soul Edge / Calibur in the arcades. The game has always stood out within the 3D-fighting genre, offering varied and original gameplay system using the weapon-based combat that no other game has managed to duplicate. Each and every entry in the series has gotten bigger without a doubt, but they haven’t always gotten better. Namco and its’ Project Soul team have struggled in the recent years to duplicate the success of Namco's landmark Dreamcast title Soul Calibur, a game which is still heralded as one of the best fighting games ever released. It has been nearly 4 years since the last game and Project Soul is looking to try once again and put the series back on the map with a new entry. Soul Calibur 5 is here and it is bigger than ever but is it better? Let’s find out.
It has been 17 years since the events of the last game and both the Soul Caliber and Soul Edge swords have become dormant; Soul Calibur in particular appears to have lost its power completely. Despite Siegfried’s defeat of Nightmare in the last game, the malfested still roam the Earth. One young boy’s life in particular was turned upside down by these dreaded creatures: Patroklos. While he was young, his mother, series staple Sophitia Alexander, was murdered by the malfested and his only sibling, Pyrrha, was taken. He has spent his life on a quest to both avenge his mother’s death and to bring his sister home. Little does he know, the malfested took his sister for a reason: to groom her to wield the evil Soul Edge sword and awaken the power within it. There is one problem with the malfested’s plan though; no one ever thought of what might happen if Patroklos came to bear the Soul Calibur before Pyrrha laid claim to the Soul Edge.
That is the tale that will unfold through the game’s story mode. This mode is the starting point for the game both in terms of setting up the story and unlocking many of the game’s features and content. The story mode can be completed in roughly 3 hours, perhaps a little less if you are familiar with the series and know how to handle yourself in battle. While the story isn’t particularly well thought out or interesting, the mode serves a purpose. This is your gateway to unlocking a variety of features including the Legendary Souls mode and some of the game’s hidden characters (all of whom shall remain nameless within this review).
The problem is that the tale told is more interesting in summary than it is when it plays out over the course of roughly 20 chapters. If you have seen the promotional trailers for the game, which lay the foundation for the new tale, you pretty much know what is going to happen. The story mode also fails to incorporate the robust and varied cast of characters featured in the game; it is almost criminal that only a handful of them are featured throughout the course of the adventure. The story mode has all of the potential in the world to be interesting and engulfing but it ends up feeling rushed and simply thrown together to set the stage for the game as a whole. Unfortunately the story mode ends up being a bit of a disappointment, but fortunately the rest of the game more than makes up for this.
This is a fighting game after all and true fans don’t really need much of a story in order to get involved; the Soul Calibur franchise has always been one that prides itself on the deep and intriguing lore though. That has always fueled the games. Instead of expanding on that lore in great lengths here, the game spends just shy of 3 hours basically stretching out the promotional trailers. Remember though, this is fighting game and we aren’t here for the story; we’re here to fight and the game gives us plenty of opportunities to do just that.
Once you complete the story, the real adventure begins with a variety of options that will have you battling both online and off. There are a ton of modes here which is something fans of the series have grown to expect. Offline you have a new Legendary Souls mode, quick matches, training and tutorial modes, as well as a robust character creation suite. The joy about all of these modes is that you are unlocking things constantly regardless of where you choose to play. Their game hands out new items at every turn, be it new equipment or options for the creation suite or icons and titles to be used with the now-standard customizable fighting game cards which you will use to represent yourself online. It seems like every match is concluded with a message that something new has been unlocked, somewhere.
You can spend a lot of time offline, especially in the new Legendary Souls mode. This mode is unlocked upon completion of the story mode and allows you to face off against computer controlled characters on high difficulty settings. These remind me of the Shadow Mode matches that the vanilla version of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 offered as DLC; a lot of the opponents appear to be based of players from the staff, including a fully created character based on Namco’s own Katsuhiro Harada. This is good practice for players looking to better their selves and prepare for the grueling competition offered online.
As with any modern fighting game, the online mode(s) is where you will spend a majority of your time. Soul Calibur 5 gives you everything that you would expect in this area as well as solid, reliable netcode that keeps the matches smooth and responsive. You will have your choice between traditional ranked and player matches as well as the new Global Colosseo mode. This mode puts players into a gigantic lobby with 99 other players where you can battle it out with random opponents and communicate via text with other players in the community. This is a nice concept because it will bring together like-minded individuals and give you a chance to socialize with the SC5 community directly rather than just being thrown together into one-on-one matches as usual. SC5 also features a variety of online leaderboards where you can compare your stats with those of your friend’s and the ability to save and view replays of classic battles. I love any game that allows you to capture footage and share them with the world and thankfully it has been included this time around.
All of the bells and whistles and content are nice, but they don’t really mean anything if the game doesn’t play well; don’t worry, it does. Soul Calibur 5 plays as good as any entry into the series, which could be taken as both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, it’s good because Namco hasn’t tried to fix anything that wasn’t broken. There are a couple of new gameplay mechanics included this time around, particularly the new Critical Edge super moves. Each character has a “Critical Gauge” under their power bar which fills up over time, to a maximum of 2 levels, as you both inflict and receive damage. As it builds up over time, you can use it to unleash enhanced and “super” moves on your opponent to get yourself an edge in the battle.
This gauge fuels three specific types of moves: Brave Edge moves, Guard Impact blocks, and Critical Edge super moves. Brave Edge moves are powered up version of your characters standard arsenal of special moves, which vary per character. The Guard Impact on the other hand is sort of a parry attack which can be used to counter an opponent’s attack and open them up for a variety of offensive maneuvers. The last, and biggest feature, is the Critical Edge move. These are pretty much Soul Calibur’s version of the super move; an attack that is unique to each character in the game and can be used to truly turn the tide of a battle. All of the game’s Critical Edges are performed with the same controller input, regardless of your character of choice. This makes it easy for players to learn new characters because you always have at least one tool in your arsenal that you can pull out even if you have never played with them before.
The Critical Edge’s are welcome additions to the series but they seem sort of tacked on for some characters. Not all Critical Edge moves in the game were created equally; there is too much of a variety in terms of their effectiveness (how much damage they do) and their “flashiness”. Some do a ton of damage, others do minimal while some look really good and others are lackluster. For example, Ezio’s is a very entertaining attack to land as he uses a smoke screen to launch a barrage of attacks concluding with a crossbow shot. It looks cool and is super effective in battle. Pyrrha’s on the other hand is boring and not very effective as it is nothing more than a couple of lunging sword strikes.
On the other hand, the bad thing, the game doesn’t really do anything to reinvent the series. This is the same Soul Calibur that we have been seeing for years. That will appease fans endlessly but unfortunately it will also stop the title from drawing in anyone who wasn’t drawn to the game before.
Any fighting game fan will tell you that the game’s roster is one of the most important aspects within the genre; SC5 has no issues in this department as it has an incredibly varied and interesting roster of characters. You won’t find any “pallette swaps” here; each of the games initial 21 characters is unique and interesting in their own rights. They each have their own unique fighting style and weapons which make playing with each of them a completely different experience. That is just the starting roster; there are a variety of hidden characters included in the game as well. While you don’t quite get the same variation in terms of their styles, you do get some fresh faces and interesting alterations as they become available.
The game also continues the SC tradition of incorporating a “guest” character into the roster; past games have included personalities such as Kratos, Darth Vader, Link, and Spawn. This time around Project Soul has tapped Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series to use the one and only Ezio Auditore. Ezio may be the best fit to the series yet in terms of guests; his look and the feel of his fighting style falls directly in line with the rest of the game’s cast and he will undoubtedly become a fan favorite on the Soul Calibur scene very quickly.
If by chance you cannot find any characters that you like in the game’s roster, SC5 gives you the ability to craft your own and use them both online and off. Returning with this game is the now SC-standard character creation mode which happens to be better than ever. The game gives you 50 slots to either create your own unique creations or alter the standard configuration of existing characters. Not happy with the fact that Taki was left out? Then take it upon yourself and create her. The options here are incredibly varied; you can adjust everything from the characters heights, builds, weapon choices, fighting styles, voices, and customize a ton of visual options for both the characters and their weapons. You can truly craft some unique and detailed characters. It is important to note that the options available in this area aren’t very impressive when you first play the game. You will need to unlock a lot of the individual components within the creation suite which gives you a reason to play through all of the game’s various modes. Once you do put some time in, this mode becomes an invaluable resource for extending the life of the game and something that will keep me playing it for months down the line (if not years). This is one aspect of the game that I cannot wait to see explode after launch; I cannot wait to see what the fighting game community comes up with for this game.
Also keeping with the tradition(s) of the series is an impeccable presentation and the return of what is arguably the greatest announcer in the history of fighting games. All of the menus flow from one to another and are easy to navigate, and that announcer’s voice... it feels as “epic” as ever. You still get those short rants before each and every battle, truly “setting the stage” for the battle that is to come. This all works well with a gorgeous graphics engine and a beautiful, orchestral score. Each and every battle in the game feels historic in its own right, be it from the gorgeous music or the detailed setting in which it takes place. Project soul has once again crafted some of the best fighting game stages and background music the genre has seen. The game does suffer some setbacks visually during some of the story mode’s video sequences; particularly those rendered in real time using the game’s graphical engine. You will see a lot of clipping and rough edges during these are they are often zoomed in on the characters more than usual (compared to battles). When you are in the heat of battle though, few games look better.
Soul Calibur 5 is a great return to form for the series. The game looks gorgeous, plays great, and is loaded with content from end to end. Fighting game fans will find plenty to do from arcade ladders, online and offline matches, a robust creation suite, and the challenging Legendary Souls mode. Unfortunately, the story mode featured in the game is the game’s biggest shortcoming; it is a shame too as there was a lot of potential in that area. True fans aren’t here to a campaign though; they’re here to fight and there are plenty of ways to do that in Soul Calibur 5.