Soul Calibur V Review (Xbox360)

The memories I have of SoulCalibur are some of the strongest and most positive I have about any game. I very distinctly remember picking it up for a bargain price in al electronics store as the Dreamcast began its death throes, putting more hours into it after that than most of the games I’d owned during the machine’s proper life put together.

The series has had dips and twists since then, though. SoulCalibur 2 was arguably a less exciting game, buoyed by the addition of Link (that’s the version everybody bought, right?) whilst SoulCalibur 3, I have to admit, left me cold. 4 felt too complicated for me, with myriad characters, Star Wars characters who didn’t fit, and a generally by-the-numbers feel – even though it was a better tournament game.

Immortal Ivy is one of the familiar faces to return

SoulCalibur 5 is intending to fix the issues with 4 and return to some of what made the first two entries in the series particularly addictive. It moves the timeline on 17 years to flush out a fairly large chunk of old characters and bring in new blood, though certain immortal or almost-immortal cast staples remain having barely aged in that period.

The end result is a 27-strong roster of characters that feels more tightly compacted and cleverly picked than before. Sure, the bottom row sucks a bit – they’re edited characters with whom you’ll nab a style from the rest of the cast at random each round – but the new additions to the cast feel great, either all-new and original or interesting takes on old fighting styles.

Natsu is a young redheaded disciple of veteran series Ninja Taki, for instance, while Xiba wields Kilik’s staff. Leixia is literally the daughter of sword-wielding Chinese girl Xianghua, too, whilst the core story of the game revolves around Patroklos and Pyrrha Alexander – the son and daughter of Cassandra.

Whilst old characters are absent, then, their souls still burn in new fighters – but handing their overall style on to newcomers allows for drastic edits to things like hitboxes and move styles without upsetting major fans – something which the development team has taken on with gusto. Most of these characters feel like tributes to their source rather than copies – based on as opposed to ripped from. Later, unlockable ultimate good and evil versions of Pyrrha and Patroklos more closely resemble fan favourites from past games.

All-new styles debut, too – Z.W.E.I. is a dude who looks like he’s fresh out of Fist of the North Star and can summon a werewolf companion into battle. In-story he’s accompanied by Viola – a girl who reminds me a little of Street Fighter’s Rose, fighting with a ball of pure magic energy whilst wearing a gothic Lolita style dress.

Then there’s Ezio Auditore. This game’s guest character, the Assassin’s Creed II series lead joins the fray in his Brotherhood incarnation, making use of a variety of the weapons he’s famous for. He looks and moves like he does in his own games and actually fits into the SoulCalibur universe better than just about any guest character so far. Shove this game in front of someone who hadn’t seen the Creed titles before and they’d not think him out of place – and that’s definitely a victory.

Ezio is Ezio, of course, while other new characters fit into various fighting game clichés you’d expect. Leixia and Xiba are almost irritatingly happy-go-lucky, whilst Viola is cold and ZWEI is firm and confident. These stereotypes serve a purpose here, also vitally informing the player about how the character will handle just based on how they look. It’s clever design.

The story mode is neither the disappointing simplicity of Street Fighter nor the glorious excess of Mortal Kombat, instead sitting somewhere in between. Telling the story of Patroklos and Pyrrha, it sees you taking control of those two specifically across a 20-chapter journey, each chapter filled with a bunch of very traditional battles. The narrative is mostly told through a visual comic style, artwork accompanied by voice and sound effects like a radio drama, though occasional in-engine cutscenes also punctuate major moments.

Newcomers like Viola fit into traditional fighter tropes, though

It’s an interesting story that tells the tale of souls and swords better than before, but it’s also less interesting from a gameplay perspective than offerings in previous games which’d offer up a huge amount of gameplay variety and throw in story via reams of text. Some story moments will leave series fans excited, but I found the motion comics left me cold. I’d sit back during them, my attention fraying – and sit forward when an in-engine cutscene would show.

Past the actual story there’s a quick battle mode that lets you face off against customized characters of varying difficulties to unlock customization features, and the Legendary Souls mode, offered after completing the story, will drag up series bosses and enemies in what basically amounts to a boss rush. It’s here that you’ll unlock a new, grand master version of Kilik, too, as well as powered up versions of already powerful characters. Even after some 30 hours with the game this is still chewing me up and spitting me back out in later stages – so the single-player challenge is definitely still there.

Create a Soul returns from SoulCalibur 4, though manages to feel less bloated and easier to use despite actually having more depth than the previous game. It’s all down to clever design, and there’s something subversively addictive about equipping ridiculous stuff onto your fighter to make them look ridiculous – or bad ass – and it reminds me that eventually the creep of RPG elements into fighting games is inevitable. As Street Fighter fans get up in arms about gems in Street Fighter X Tekken, SoulCalibur players are already used to a very high level of customization – and that thread follows through here.

In some ways, though, SoulCalibur now resembles Street Fighter more than ever. The new Critical Gauge is for all intents and purposes a Super Meter, bringing with it awesome looking Critical Edge super moves – performed by hitting two fireball motions and all three attack buttons, no less – and a bunch of other ways to spend the meter to parry incoming attacks or extend combos.

Brave Edge attacks are reminiscent of EX moves in Street Fighter, sucking away half of a full Critical Gauge but powering up character-specific moves – and all these elements add together to allow for crazy come-backs and exciting conclusions to match-ups. SoulCalibur is still all about off the ground attacks and such, but these new gameplay tweaks add a lot to make it about more than that, too.

While it feels like the single player content has been simplified from the previous title the multiplayer content both on and offline feels rich. Offline is solid and does everything you’d expect, also sporting a really large amount of music to choose from per stage, an incredibly welcome addition for when you’re running long gameplay sessions. Online is where the real effort was placed in development – that much is clear.

Netcode is visibly improved over SoulCalibur 4, and the game draws inspiration from Mortal Kombat’s lobby system to make it far easier to find games in your territory of choice. It all works great, and after disappointing online modes in both the previous entry and the Xbox Live Arcade rerelease of the first game it’s truly refreshing to have it work so well.

Massive super moves are now a huge part of success in battle, and should be used carefully

It’s a fighting game, and all I can ultimately ask for from one of these is to be really fun in multiplayer – and SoulCalibur 5 brings that in spades. A generally tighter and better cast slots brilliantly into streamlined gameplay mechanics that don’t necessarily dumb down the experience at a high level. Character customization is a fantastic time-sink, but doesn’t feel forced upon those who don’t want to use it – you can compete just fine online with the out-of-the-box fighters.

Issues with the presentation of the story and the general amount of single player content on offer are slight dings against the experience especially considering SoulCalibur’s history of blending RPG elements into its single player campaigns - but even then this is the best reason to return to SoulCalibur’s stage of history since the days of the Dreamcast.

Best Game Moment: Properly landing a combo that did almost 50% damage, almost throwing the stick in a ‘hell yes’ motion in the process.

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