Seventeen years. That’s how long it’s been since Siegfried killed Nightmare, destroying the cursed Soul Edge sword once and for all. The fighting should have ended there, but it didn’t. Despite being wiped out, its chaotic influence still held sway over the world. Thousands of innocent people were corrupted by its evil taint, and civilization descended further into anarchy. None of the characters got out of it unscathed. Sophitia died defending her children. Yoshimistu was defeated by his own successor. Kilik vanished without a trace. Hilde is still trying to save her kingdom from utter annihilation. Taki and Xianghua have both grown too old to fight. Soul Calibur, the opposing force to the Soul Edge’s powers, no long responds to Siegfried’s touch. Somewhere in the upper echelons of the European government, a familiar evil has taken root, biding its time until it can wreak vengeance…
Not that you’ll notice, though. While Soulcalibur V continues the struggle between the forces of order and chaos, much of the story is left in the subtext. Rather than treating fans to a sweeping epic, the game focuses more on Sophitia’s children, Patroklos and Pyrrha. They’re arguably the most realistic protagonists the series has had in years; rather than obsessing over the legendary swords, they spend most of the time trying to deal with the death of their family amidst all the chaos and bloodshed. Their storylines explore themes of loss, innocence, corruption, and redemption, all of which comprise Soulcalibur V’s overarching plot. Despite such characterization, there’s not a lot of depth; both protagonists are ridiculously gullible and predictable. By focusing so much on them the story feels stunted and unpolished. None of the other fighters, regardless of their importance to the series, get the same attention. Prominent plotlines, like Xianghua and Kilik’s romance, Maxi’s quest to kill Astaroth, and Cervantes’s continued existence are barely mentioned. It’s as if they’re just added on as roster filler as opposed to the established characters we have known over the years.
If you overlook the story, however, you’ll find that Soulcalibur V retains all of the awesome weapons-based combat that made the series so famous. Nearly all of the old fighting styles are still present, but now with new characters. Xiba copies Kilik’s staff techniques, with a handful of new acrobatic attacks thrown in for good measure. Natsu replaces Taki, complete with the close-ranged knives and skin-tight jumpsuit. Sophitia, Cassandra, and Setsuka’s quick swordplay and shield abilities live on through Patroklos and Pyrrha. There are a couple of new characters with original movesets; Z.W.E.I. supplements his bladed cross with demonic summoning, and Viola can keep opponents guessing with magic spell projectiles. That’s opposed to the close-ranged combatants like Ezio and Devil Jin, who hail from Assassin’s Creed and Tekken respectively. Returning fighters have been rebalanced with updated movesets. Siegfried has improved mobility, allowing him to outmaneuver opponents and carve them up with his gigantic sword. If timed effectively, Nightmare’s new combos can kill you in seconds. Cervantes’s dual-wielding blades don’t have quite the reach they used to, but their juggling and parrying strengths are unparalleled. With nearly thirty playable fighters – half of which are newcomers – it’s just a matter of finding one that fits your playing style.
Like its predecessors, Soulcalibur V is all about placement and strategy. When you’re facing an opponent, you don’t want to rush in and randomly swing your sword. Instead, you carefully watch your enemy’s movements and act accordingly. You can step sideways to avoid attacks, back away until you’re out of range, or put up your guard. Upon seeing an opening, you can dart forward and launch an offense. All of the characters come with a wide variety of high and low moves, allowing you to mix things up and dish out lengthy combos. This is what made the Soul Calibur series so famous. However, this installment takes things a step further with its revamped movement and combat mechanics. Instead of merely circling your opponent, you can sidestep and counterattack more quickly. The Critical Gauge builds up energy as you dish out or take hits, then unleashes it in different ways. You can execute some flashy, multi-hit supermoves, but those are risky given how easy they are to avoid. Alternatively, the energy can be used for the Brave Edge abilities, which boost your offenses with faster attacks and guard breaks. If you play defensively, however, attacks can be with a Guard Impact and counter accordingly. While the game is easy to pick up and play, this kind of technical depth is more than enough to keep hardcore gamers satisfied.
Needless to say, you’re going to need to practice. A lot. While the typical Versus and Training Modes are still around, there is one blatant oversight: the lack of a Challenge Mode. Recent fighting games like Super Street Fighter IV, Marvel VS Capcom 3, and BlazBlue feature ways to focus on individual characters and learn their move sets and combos. They go a long way in teaching advanced techniques and strategies that might go unnoticed otherwise. Soulcalibur V’s Training Mode offers a handful of helpful tips and insight into each fighter’s move set, but nothing more direct. The game tries to distract you with its Creation Mode, which lets you design fighters with a wide variety of equipment and movesets of the established characters. There’s also the Quick Battle and Legendary Souls Modes, in which you engage random fighters (and steal their profile titles for your own) and bosses respectively. It’s still limited, though; aside from the hidden characters and some items, there are no other unlockables. What happened to the Arcade Mode endings? Where is the bonus art? The character profiles? Something, anything to reward you for a well-fought battle?
The online multiplayer almost makes up for such oversights. You can challenge random gamers to ranked battles, thus leveling up your profile and climbing the leaderboards. If you prefer something more casual, you can spend time in the Global Colesseo; up to a hundred players can take each other on, have text chats, download replays, or spectate and comment on ongoing battles. The opponent matchmaking features are surprisingly extensive; not only can you limit the search to gamers with certain ranks, but you can focus on specific regions and connection strengths as well. Unfortunately, such criteria don’t always make for perfect battles. The fights are occasionally mired with lag and long loading times. Many battles tend to temporarily freeze up just before starting, and disconnects are a common annoyance. When the combat does get going, it’s just as slick and responsive as its offline counterpart. The multiplayer is hardly perfect, but at least it does the basics well.
That goes for the presentation as well. The Soul Calibur series has always been known for its superb graphics, and V is no exception. All of the returning characters have been redone with new costumes and smoother animations. Just look at the ornate designs on Hilde’s armor, or the way Viola’s skirt rustles with every mention. Or how Pyrrha’s awkward attacks underscore her timid characterization. Tira’s basic standing animation and moveset alternates depending on her current mood. The attention to detail extends to the stages as well. You’ll have to do battle surrounded by breakable stained glass windows, fight in the streets of the Holy Roman Empire and at the gates of a hidden fortress, and survive an encounter amidst a festival in a Chinese temple. Such dramatic settings serve in sharp contrast to the Story Mode; aside from a couple of introductions, the entire narration is done via storyboard sketches and hammy voice acting. Such a mishmash of styles makes the experience bland and unsatisfying. Had the designers made the effort to create animated scenes, the presentation would have been more balanced and appealing.
That’s the thing about Soulcalibur V. It’s got a lot of great ideas, but ultimately falls short of its potential. The epic saga between the two swords continues, but it spends too much time focusing on two characters. Many of the newcomers feel like replacements of older characters, and some fans probably won’t like that their favorite fighters got cut. The sparse offline features aren’t appealing, either; with no Challenge Mode and limited unlockables, there’s not a lot to do. However, the multiplayer is superb; aside from the occasional slowdown and disconnects, fighting is still fast-paced and challenging. The various options and matchmaking features offer plenty of ways for you to get into the action. The combat mechanics are easy to pick up, but the advanced techniques ought to be more than enough to keep things interesting. Regardless of its shortcomings, Soulcalibur V is still a fun and engaging game. That’s all what really matters.