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Tuesday
Dec042012

Better late than never review: SoulCalibur V

The once venerable SoulCalibur series has lost its way. The series that swept into prominance on Sega’s ill-fated white box, gloriously representing the downfall of arcades with its stunning presentation and packed feature set, has struggled to find its way in the modern era. After a sophomore success that many fans still see as its pinnacle, Namco produced two sequels that each failed to live up to their predecessors in their own unique way.

SoulCalibur V is evidence of a series continuing to struggle with a serious identity crisis, the roots of which were planted as far back as the beloved SoulCalibur II. The zenith of SoulCalibur’s popularity also saw the introduction of guest characters that, while seemingly innocuous at the time, signaled a marketing-driven tone that hinted at the difficulty Namco would face balancing its desire to sell more copies with the necessity of keeping the game relevant among the passionate niche of fighting game players that make up the tournament community. The clash between the hardcore zealots and the casual button mashers has long been at the core of the series’ problems. 

SoulCalibur V wrestles these inner demons better than either of its two troubled predecessors. The obligatory guest character, Assassin’s Creed’s Ezio Auditore, fits SoulCalibur’s aesthetic and tone better than Namco’s own two bizarre newcomers, magic orb wielding Viola and pseudo werewolf Zwei. The gameplay is solid, with a well-balanced cast fighting with renewed enthusiasm thanks to the speed boost the combat has received. Solid ideas have been borrowed from other modern fighting games in the form of super moves and meter management. These won’t win points for originality, but they do more to change up the strategies and tactics of fights than anything in the series’ history since Soul Edge became SoulCalibur. SoulCalibur V feels fresh again.

But trouble lurks in the periphery. SoulCalibur’s key strength has always been its accessibility. Smooth animation and simple move execution make it easy to look like a badass, but the rock-paper-scissors combat provides enough depth to create a compelling long-term hook. Viola: a magical formula. 

Unfortunately, it seems Namco couldn’t decide whether or not to play to its strengths or cater to the tournament elite. Instead, they chose to try to have it both ways. As is always the case, the result is to the detriment of both sides.

The new super moves add not only visual pizazz, but also the potential for comebacks from behind. The increased speed makes every swing feel livlier and more energetic. Move lists have been simplified to cut out the fat and make it easier to find successful strategies. The character creation mode is back and better than ever. 

Don’t be misled. The casual-friendly cues above are misleading. The bulk of SoulCalibur V clearly has the hardcore in mind. A heavy emphasis on combos, a first for the series, erodes the charming simplicity of the gameplay. Stringing moves together is a must for success as the power of single hits has been reduced while that of combos has been boosted. They are necessary for success, as playing the AI for even a short time will teach you.

Speaking of which, the AI is punishing and ruthless, pulling out combo strings repeatedly even on easier difficulties. Superhuman reaction times and pre-programmed attack routines make enemies feel simultaneously frustrating and predictable. It is commendable that opponents due use true strategies, combos, and mixups, but difficulty mostly comes from fighting an enemy that knows what you’re going to do before you do. Quick Battle mode in particular, which pits you against hundreds of custom created fighters in a mock online lobby of sorts, often feels more puzzle mode than true SoulCalibur play, with AI routines being laughably repetitive and simplistic. When even a relative novice like myself can spot such things, calling the AI “cheap” no longer becomes a silly thing done merely in frustration.

The most maddening thing of all is that it’s impossible to determine whether this hardcore focus was intentional. The stage was set for great things in SoulCalibur V, it just feels unfinished. AI routines could have been fleshed out. The paltry set of modes could have been expanded. The story could have been made longer. The core of the game, the mechanics that truly matter, are more solid than they’ve perhaps ever been. Mechanically, this is perhaps a title to rival SoulCalibur II, though that’s for far greater players than myself to ultimately determine. 

There are so many signs that more was planned than what the team was able to give us. The refreshed roster hinted at new ideas and changes to well-known fighting styles, but what we were given instead was largely annoying teenaged versions of beloved characters that were unceremoniously axed. Natsu’s refreshed take on Taki gives hope, as does Xiba’s mixing of the long-neglected Seong Mi-na style with Kilik’s, but Xianghua is truly missed next to her identical doppelganger Leixia and Patroklos is no Sophitia or Cassandra, to say the least. 

A glance at the art book included with my expensive “You Paid Too Much For This” edition of the game makes it painfully obvious more was planned here than the development team was given the resources to create. Hints at interesting story notes, character backgrounds, and other juicy details are scattered throughout the book but nowhere to be seen in the game. What makes this more distressing as a fan is that the bits they did manage to cram in, while lacking in production value to a nearly comical degree, actually do tell a decent tale. It’s hardly going to set the gaming world on fire, but it’s fairly solid as far as these traditionally terrible fighting game story modes go. Unfortunately, its small scope and omission of most of the roster from the proceedings (despite the aforementioned book hinting that more should have played large roles) renders it ultimately disappointing.

The roster feels slim. The entire bottom row consists entirely of useless mimics and clones. Numerous unique move styles are missing entirely, presumably because the team didn’t have time to update them to be competitive. Talim, Zasalamel, and Yun-sung are all missing in action, to say nothing of fan favorites such as Sophitia, Cassandra, Xianghua, and others who have at least mostly been replaced by similar fighting styles.

One doesn’t need that keen an eye for detail to notice that nearly all of the missing characters are female. Namco is no stranger to accusations of sexism, but when Voldo is pushing 70 yet the oldest woman in the game is Hilde at a whopping 35 (discounting Ivy, whose age has been magically frozen for reasons of convenience), one has to raise an eyebrow. I have to give Namco some credit, though. If you’re going to be disturbingly sexist, there’s something almost noble about being blatant about it. Most sexist games today take a more subtle route to disrespecting the fairer sex, but Namco decided with SoulCalibur V to put it right out there and be done with it. 

Namco feels so close to the perfect SoulCalibur game here that it makes writing the whole endeavor off as yet another disappointing sequel that much harder to do. I almost wish they’d steal a page from Capcom’s dirty playbook and release an Ultimate Edition to give it that push over the edge to greatness. I’m uncomfortable advocating such practices, but they came so close it would be worth an exception. From what limited information I’ve been able to gather, however, sales haven’t been so hot. It is, sadly, more likely that Namco will write the series off as done as they almost did after SoulCalibur IV rather than hearing the cries of fans and mending their ways. It is easier to blame low sales on the consumers than admit your own mistakes after all. Namco just doesn’t seem to care about this series any more and, after SoulCalibur V, fans may not either. This might mark one disappointing sequel too many for this storied franchise. Its soul may still burn, but the legend has finally died.

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