The soul still burns…but more like a kerosene lamp this time
“C’mon, man—who cares about the story in a fighting game?!”
Those are words I’ve heard repeatedly when I’ve tried to defend my oft-ridiculed stance that I play Soul Calibur for the story. I’ll admit that’s a slight exaggeration—I’ve been a huge fan of the venerable weapons-based fighting franchise’s sword-on-sword action itself for 15 years now, first slicing my way through Soul Edge in arcades and on the PS1. But since the fighting genre took off in earnest with Street Fighter II two decades ago, we’ve always gotten a sense of our fighters’ motivations—however flimsy they might be at times. Playing through SFII to the end as Ryu and then seeing him shun the victor’s podium, instead opting to train under a waterfall with the message that “the fight is everything” spoke volumes about the Japanese shotokan karate master’s motivations.
Maybe I’m not your average fighting-game connoisseur—and I’m a hardly a tournament-level competitor—but I don’t see these characters as simple movelists and polygons. I want to know their motivations, what makes them tick, and get into their histories and personalities—which are just as important when it comes to picking a favorite as their special moves. And since I’m a history buff, Soul Calibur’s over-the-top Renaissance-era swords-and-spears backdrop has always appealed to me in a guilty-pleasure sort of way.
So, I was actually excited to hear that Soul Calibur V would take the series’ admittedly convulted 16th-century narrative 17 years in the future to the 17th century and 1607, introducing Sophitia Alexandra’s children, Patroklos and Pyrrha, among several other debutants with connections to characters like Taki and Kilik. But the developers also promised that we’d see series favorites like Ivy, Mitsurugi, and Siegfried 17 years older and wiser. As Soul Calibur V producer Hisaharu Tago told me at last year’s Tokyo Game Show, “Fans of Soul Calibur have aged, so we thought they’d like to see the characters age as well.”
But after all that lip service about taking Soul Calibur’s narrative in an innovative direction, it ends up being nothing more than an afterthought. In fact, Namco Bandai actually outsourced the story mode to .hack/Naruto developer CyberConnect 2, which illustrates their priorities quite starkly. For the first time I can remember in a major fighting franchise, you can’t actually choose your favorite fighter and play through the narrative from their perspective. Instead, Soul Calibur V’s story mode forces you to play through mostly as Patroklos and Pyrrha as they arbitrarily face particular foes as the plot demands it—including a ridiculous scenario that sees four of the game’s Asian characters just happening to be traveling in Europe. Moreover, the narrative unfolds via half-baked, hand-drawn scribblings designed to look like an artsy comic book—but which come off as nothing more than cost-cutting shortcuts.
Even though the story mode is a vast disappointment, kernels of potential still manage to shine through during some segments. For example, Siegfried—a brash, cocky teen when he first appeared in Soul Edge—now plays the role of measured, reassuring elder statesman at age 40, and you can see that growth as a man clearly during one particular cutscene. It’s only there for an instant, but that’s where it really hit me what a missed opportunity Soul Calibur V’s botched narrative really is.
Though the developers have publicly denied it, rumor has it that Soul Calibur V faced a ridiculous deadline, with Project Soul racing to finish the game for an early-2012 release—including fighting through last March’s devastating Japan earthquake, which forced Namco Bandai headquarters to operate on “low-power mode” for months. It’s clear the developers had a grand vision that was squashed by the realities of budgets, but this fact remains: Every previous Soul Calibur offered ample, rewarding single-player content, and I can’t see any reason why this game couldn’t or shouldn’t have done the same.
And while we do get a glimpse of Siegfried 17 years on, we don’t see several series favorites make appearances in the story mode at all. Mitsurugi’s included in the cast of playable characters; what kind of journey has this enigmatic wandering samurai been on the past 17 years? Unfortunately, you’ll have to rely on fanfiction to fill in the details. The same goes for the armor-clad Teutonic princess, Hilde; her character profile on the Soul Calibur V site claims that she’s now the mother of two children, but you’d never know that from playing the actual game. These characters deserve to have their stories told, not shoved into the corner and forgotten.
All of these single-player omissions might have been easier to take if the core fighting weren’t so polished, because playing with friends and online is as good as it’s been in years. In general, the game’s faster and more responsive than Soul Calibur IV; ring-outs are less plentiful but still possible for skilled players, which means that battles are generally decided on skill instead of luck, based on my experiences. Soul Calibur V also eschews the Critical Finishes from SCIV—which needed to be executed at a particular time—in favor of Critical Edges, which can be unleashed as long as your Soul Gage is filled; I personally prefer this option, as it hearkens back to the strategy of Soul Edge, still one of my favorite entries in the series. The online component is also as polished as I’ve seen in a fighter; during substantial playtime going against all comers from all over the world, I experienced no lag whatsoever, even when facing off against Japan-based players.
Soul Calibur’s also known for its guest characters from other game franchises, and this time around, Assassin’s Creed’s Ezio Auditore makes an appearance. Unlike past visitors to the Soul Calibur universe—insert Jedi Masters and Hylian swordsmen here—his presence actually makes total sense in the context of the story, and he’s also one of the more well-rounded fighters on the roster. And while the story mode faced unfortunate cuts, at least the series’ robust create-a-character mode survives intact—I encountered a spot-on rendition of Portal protagonist Chell online—and should provide hours of entertainment at drunken, geeky get-togethers.
In my best Soul Calibur experiences over the years, I had a great time both with friends and by myself. Soul Calibur V, on the other hand, relies solely on the presence of other players to provide enjoyment—and when Namco Bandai eventually shuts down the online component a year or two from now, all that’ll be left will be a malnourished husk of a game. Meanwhile, I can still go back to the 15-year-old Soul Edge—a game whose legendary intro imparts more storytelling and characterization than the entirety of Soul Calibur V—and find a worthwhile single-player experience.
Soul Calibur V isn’t a bad fighting-game experience, but it’s clearly an unfinished one—and I just can’t accept or excuse that in the end.
SUMMARY: Soul Calibur V still brings an unmatched clash of swords with its weapons-based brawls, but its paltry single-player content is an absolute insult to the series’ substantial legacy.
- THE GOOD: Excellent weapons-based combat still separates it from any other fighter on the market—and it’s faster, smoother, and more fun than Soul Calibur IV.
- THE BAD: One of the worst single-player modes in fighting-game history.
- THE UGLY: Disturbed-in-the-head Pyrrha’s bizarre victory “poses”—which include flailing around and writhing in pain on the ground.
Soul Calibur V is available on Xbox 360 and PS3 at the time of this review. Primary version reviewed was on Xbox 360.