23 March 2012

Soul Calibur V

Soul Calibur V is a strange creature. To be more specific, it's something of a chimaera: it appears as though Namco/Project Soul has torn out the best elements from previous games in the Soul series and stitched them together in the vain hope that the result would, by the virtues of its constituent parts, be considered the best game thus far. And while each of these elements may have excelled in the games they were taken from, they just don't seem to have meshed well together - like a body comprised of donor organs that all reject one another, there's no synergy in the system.


The game focuses on a host of characters during the Renaissance period from various countries, whose lives have in some way become intertwined with the ongoing fight between the evil sword Soul Edge and the holy blade that opposes it, Soul Calibur. 17 years have passed in-game since the events of the previous game, Soul Calibur IV (and Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny for the Nintendo Wii). 

The gameplay involves playing as one of the aforementioned Renaissance characters, each of whom has their own unique weapon and fighting style. Players can use vertical and horizontal weapon attacks, kicks, throws, high and medium hits in a variety of ways in an attempt to bludgeon their opponent into submission, as is the fighting-game-format.


The story-as-told in Soul Calibur V is pretty shoddy. As with most modern fighting games, there is a dedicated "Story Mode" where the player can experience a character's unfolding storyline - however, unlike most modern fighting games, you don't actually get to choose whose storyline you follow. About 90% of the time, you will be playing as plucky-hero-newcomer Patroklos, and seeing events unfold from his point of view: his story revolves around trying to come to terms with his sister Pyrrha's malfestation (she's more-or-less "possessed" by the evil sword Soul Edge). The story is delivered through still-image montages with voiceovers from the characters involved, with the occasional scene acted out using the 3D models of the characters, bookending a match between you and a CPU opponent. The plot, characterisation, and dialogue is generic, wooly and melodramatic; Patroklos is a stubborn, overzealous "hero", Pyrrha is tragic, moe figure filled with self-loathing, and they remain that way throughout.

(I won't lie though - Pyrrha is my favourite character, storywise. I've a thing for tragic, moe types filled with self-loathing).

Occasionally, you will get the opportunity to play as a handful of other characters in Story Mode, and a couple more make brief cameos- however, the vast majority of Soul Calibur V's characters do not show up in Story Mode at all. These characters' plots go more or less ignored, the only hint as to what's been occupying them in the past 17 years are the single-sentence dialogue snippets at the start and end of battle. There's no character relationship chart like there was in Soul Calibur IV, no character profiles that provide insight into the character's backstories, not even an ending sequence for completing a single-player mode that shows the character's fate as is typical with fighting games. For people who like to delve into the series' ongoing narrative, you're forced to do so outwith the game itself - for me, that translated having to go over to the Soul Calibur wikia site to find out why Cervantes was no longer the stunning shade of corpse-purple he was in Soul Calibur IV, why Ivy hadn't developed a single wrinkle in the past 17 years, and so on.

The character roster isn't particular compelling from a story point of view. The biggest change is that several characters that were part of a small group have been "retired" and replaced with almost-identical younger versions - the most obvious being Taki, Xianghua and Kilik, whose fighting styles and apparent storyline have passed onto Natsu, Leixia and Xiba. Unfortunately, the trio only have about five character traits between them: Natsu is arrogant, Leixia is boisterous and carefree, and Xiba is stupid and loves food (one of his opening lines is "If food is on the line, I'd better win this!", and when defeated, he actually shouts "FOOOOOOOOOD!"). A couple of new "versions" of old characters have been introduced to show that 17 years have passed, but these "versions" are almost identical to their predecessors (aside from an additional character trait, that is, "make reference to predecessors wherever possible"), to the extent that it hardly seems worthwhile even making new versions of them at all. Other characters are absent but have been replaced by another character either in terms of moveset or story/plot interactions (Setsuka is replaced by Alpha-Patroklos in moveset only, Sophitia is replaced by Patroklos, Cassandra by Pyrrha in moveset and story). Still other characters have dropped out of the game completely, without a replacement character stepping up to at least inherit their moves and no explanation given as to why they're no longer around - Yunseong, Seong Mi-na, Talim, Zasalamel and Rock are entirely absent from Soul Calibur V.

The way the 17-year-jump is handled seems very much like Project Soul wanted to have their cake and eat it too. A timeskip of that size should see every character age unilaterally, bar one or two who don't because of supernatural reasons, but in fact, the characters that have appeared to age seem to be the exception. It seems a wasted opportunity, almost as if Project Soul realised that a timeskip would help inject some more life into the franchise, but then didn't want to commit to the consequences that that would entail, resulting in a mish-mash of some characters aging, some not, and a whole lot of dissonance with the 17-year-jump conceit.


On the face of it, the gameplay of Soul Calibur V is very similar to that of Soul Calibur IV - if you've learned moves from Soul Calibur IV, it's more than likely still in the game. However, there have been a number of tweaks, changes, additions and omissions that the casual player might be unaware of. Some character's movesets have been altered - for example, Mitsurugi's "Relic Stance" has been ripped out, Ivy's moves are no longer reliant on whether her weapon is in sword or whip state, and so on. Learning the new movesets takes some getting used to, but it does help reinvigorate the game rather than having the movesets remain constant throughout each iteration. Unfortunately, it comes with the feeling that these moves have been crudely torn out, robbing the characters of some of the interesting complexity that they enjoyed in previous iterations.

A number of core battle mechanics have also been changed: the "Guard Impact" mechanic, which deflects oncoming attacks, has been brutally simplified, and cannot be performed at any time like in the previous games - they require a percentage of the new "Critical Edge" gauge to be filled, which is also used to perform Super moves, or to power up regular combat moves.

The game modes are fairly standard. There's the aforementioned Story Mode, made up of 20-or-so "chapters", with a fight in each chapter. There's Arcade mode, a series of eight consecutive fights. There's a "Legendary Souls" mode where you can fight slightly harder "bosses" once you've gone far enough in Story Mode - but for me, this is pretty much "get your ass handed to you by Kilik" mode, so I tend to ignore it when playing. There's a Vs. mode where you can fight against a CPU opponent, a human opponent, or watch the computer fight itself. There's also an interesting "Quick Battle" mode, where you can choose to fight against a host of pre-made custom characters (and the occasional standard character), with the chance to win a Title for your Game Card, an in-game player ID card you can use in the online play modes. 

Unfortunately, I can't say much about the multiplayer aspect of Soul Calibur V, being that I've not played it. I'm not big on being sociable with games, apparently.

All of the modes except Versus allow you to accumulate "Experience", and gaining enough allows you to level up - when you reach certain levels, you unlock new titles and customisation parts. It's a fair addition, but it does feel a little forced - it doesn't really tie into any of the other elements of the game bar the Game Card and Creation Mode.

I've saved the best for last here - the Creation mode in Soul Calibur V vindicates the game all on its own. Players can either design new costumes for existing characters, or else create their own character. Vastly improving on Soul Calibur IV's Character Creation mode, the player can now choose from a greater range of equipment, alter individual parts of the character's body, reposition certain types of equipment, apply patterns to equipment instead of single colours, alter the pitch and tone of character's voice... the list goes on. There's a lot of fun to be had with creating custom characters, especially online, where the player's custom version of Link is destroyed by a creepy contortionist nun with claws. Sadly, though, it does have its flaws - some canon characters can't have custom costumes (such as Dampierre), or their custom costumes have certain parts of the costume greyed out (Nightmare's face equipment can't be changed, for example). Worse yet, some movesets in the game can't be used in Creation Mode at all, such as Ezio's - and why not? Think of the fun that could be had with making your own assassin in the style of Ezio and Altair - it's the same flaw that afflicted Soul Calibur IV, which prevented characters from making their own custom Jedi character, which is a damned shame. Thankfully, Soul Calibur V has done away with giving pieces of equipment attributes, meaning the only thing you have to worry about is your bellbottom-clad disco ninja getting nicked by the fashion police for crimes against taste. Creation Mode is great fun, and it's easily the mode I spend the most time in - aside from Vs. Mode, when I'm actually pitting my Claymore-wielding Scotsman against Lucifer.


Soul Calibur V is definitely an enjoyable game, and I'm very glad I've bought it. However, it's undeniable that it's flawed. All the constituent elements that make up a great game are there, but the way they've been crudely assembled makes it feel a little like Frankenstein's monster: it appears whole, but there's a vital spark missing. Without that spark, the Soul series hasn't been rejuvenated - it's just been reanimated, a patchwork construct.

As of yesterday, however, a patch has been released which fixes some glitches in the game, rebalances character's moves, and even adds some new customisation equipment, so I'll let you guys know how it works out!

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