Yes, many may see it as a fighting game, but the truth is that SoulCalibur has never really been a fighting game. Namco Bandai’s weapon-based brawler has always prioritised the spectacle of combat over the art of fighting – something far better demonstrated in its Tekken franchise – and while few would deny that this approach has led to some of the most explosive and colourful rucks of the last decade or so, such showmanship has tended to come at the expense of gameplay depth. There’s good reason for the lack of any significant SoulCalibur play on the competitive scene; while the series might have provided its fair share of hugely entertaining showdowns, a few game-breaking flaws and an emphasis on style over substance has seen it left in a horrible middle ground between hardcore fighters and anything-can go, mash-friendly action gaming with a competitive twist. But Project Soul has had an epiphany. It has decided to go toe-to-toe with the games its historical series so frequently gets lumped in with and in doing so, a lot has had to change. Some of it for the better, and some of it… yeah, not so much.
The character roster will be central in many a debate but there’s no one reason for this controversy. In jumping the timeline forward by seventeen years, SoulCalibur V’s roster is the most baffling yet. Some characters return almost unaged (Maxi and Ivy among them), others like Mitsurugi show some of those seven signs of aging those rubbish TV adverts squawk about while other popular characters send successors in their place – Natsu replaces Taki, Leixia steps in for Xianghua and Xiba’s podgy face replaces that of stick-wielding troll Kilik, though move sets don’t change all that much in the process. But with the narrative pushing the importance of newcomers Patroklos and Pyrrha to the point where each appears twice on the character select grid, and with three Mokujin-style ‘random weapons’ characters (one of which, bizarrely, is Kilik), you have to wonder if this roster couldn’t have been far better. Tourney favourite Amy is missing in action, interesting characters like Setsuka and Zasalamel are nowhere to be seen and old favourites like Seong Mi-na, Yun-seong and Rock also fail to make the grade. It’s not like the new additions don’t ensure a decent array of variety among fighting styles, though the entire bottom row of unlockable characters is disappointing – it both spits in the face of the fact that modern beat-’em-ups simply shouldn’t have unlockable fighters and offers precious little to suggest that any of the aforementioned absentees wouldn’t have filled those gaps better.
The method of adding these extra fighters to your top-heavy grid is equally dubious, with four of the six joining through the brief yet entertaining story mode and the other two tucked away in unlockable mode Legendary Souls, a super-tough run through a set of familiar faces and costumes which sports what may well be the cheapest fighting game AI we’ve ever seen. Almost every attack is Just Framed, almost every throw escaped and Just Guards are everywhere as you swear and strop your way through this seven-bout slog, with the pair of characters earned for persisting hardly even worth the effort.
And with both story and Legendary Souls modes out of the way, all that’s really left to do in terms of single-player is the Quick Battle mode. It’s a simulated online affair in line with the kind Namco Bandai has thrown into all of its recent handheld brawlers and while it’s celebrated in that environment, it’s slightly less impressive as the last bastion of solo longevity in a full price, triple-A console release. It’s still entertaining enough, a potentially endless string of created fighters and faux online opponents flying the flag of their favourite stock fighter but while it’s easy enough to kill an hour or so smacking up as many different virtual players as possible, it doesn’t have nearly the lasting appeal of something like Virtua Fighter 5’s sprawling Quest mode, where continued play is rewarded with more than just odd titles for your player card and a cluster of experience points here and there. These boost your Player Level, in turn yielding yet more irrelevant titles and the occasional smattering of creation parts, but beyond that, it’s a fairly empty excuse for a lasting single player mode – especially irritating since a meaty Edge Master-style mode is one of the things fans have cried out for the most.
There’s a lot SoulCalibur could learn from VF in its Pinocchio-esque quest to be a real fighting game, actually. The training mode, while full-featured and bursting with oddly labeled options, elects to run you through character specific advice in a text-only form rather than offering hands-on examples of why certain moves are useful and how they can and should be combined. VF4 Evolution got this so right that it’s almost embarrassing for every subsequent fighter to have overlooked so important a feature, and, while the Trial mode in Street Fighter IV and its ilk at least teach basic-to-intermediate attack strings, Evo’s all-encompassing training educated in terms of genre rather than just game. SCV teaches nothing in terms of mix-ups, option selects and pressure, seemingly content in offering generic advice along the lines of ‘A+B is a good move’ and leaving the rest up to experimentation. It’s a hurdle Project Soul will need to overcome if it is to take SoulCalibur back to the top tier and really take the fight to the likes of VF though to be fair, the studio has already done a lot of the much harder work already.
Mechanically speaking, SoulCalibur V arguably sees the series hit a level it has always promised but never really attained. It’s not without its curious design choices – such as having throw escapes do chip damage, rather than just making them less mash-friendly in their execution – but on the whole, the new engine makes for some absolutely stunning fights oth for players and spectators. Clashes are back, so two similar attacks can bounce off one another and reset the playing field once the sparks have dissipated. Double-tap sidesteps improve the 8-Way Run evasive arsenal, even if a lack of definition (read: something like VF’s categorisation of linear, semi-circular and full-circular attacks) sometimes makes it difficult to judge hitboxes in 3D space; even a perfectly timed evade can be stuffed by some of the annoying auto-tracking moves or falsely advertised area attacks, though most linear hits can still be strafed and punished accordingly.
Even the new Soul Gauge system, something so poised to fail horribly, actually works really well. Burning meter for old-school Guard Impacts makes sense when the catch-all parry gives enough time to land whatever you fancy afterwards, plus the Critical Edge and Brave Edge attacks offer combo potential that fighting purists will relish. The new (if tricky) Just Guard system also offers similar defensive potential to Impacts in previous games but with the added tech and flair of Street Fighter III’s Parry or a far stricter take on Battle Fantasia’s Gachi button – timing is harsh but it’s perfect for stealing the advantage at the end of a predictable block string or just showboating through multi-hit attacks for a healthy Soul Gauge boost and the respect of all onlookers.
It’s clear from the plentiful changes and refined mechanics that this is a sequel that has ideas on a genre that it has been mistaken for being a part of for some time. And it’d be straight-up rude to overlook such improvements due to a few teething troubles or the fact that solo players will have little to hit once the main modes have been conquered. Still, on a straight fighting level, SoulCalibur has never been better and although it might be a little anorexic for lone warriors, the multiplayer side offers more than any Soul title since the original Calibur made the Dreamcast a must-have. Which, in and of itself, provides irrefutable proof that Namco Bandai has given SoulCalibur a clearly defined genre once more. Welcome back, Stage Of History.