Soul Calibur holds the distinction of being the highest rated fighting game, since the time that review scores mattered on the internet. So it's no surprise that every time a new title in the series is released, it's met with some fairly hefty expectations. Numbers aside though, Soul Calibur II is still seen as the pinnacle of the series, as Soul Calibur III didn't really take the series anywhere, while Soul Calibur IV made a hesitant entrance into the current generation along with a bizarre alliance with Star Wars. Thanks to much improved online play infrastructure, fighting games have had a resurgence in both retail and digital distribution.
Not one to miss an opportunity, Namco returns with the fifth title in the series, and the title that probably should have been released three and a half years ago. Well, in terms of how the multiplayer and player customisation options, definitely. In terms of the single player, not so much. Soul Calibur V is a very high quality fighter, mechanically and artistically robust, so you'll enjoy yourself when in the ring. The multiplayer runs of the back of excellent netcode and good lobby additions. And the amount of personalisation in the game is fairly refreshing for a fighter. However, the single player modes, especially the story, aren't up to scratch.
The story is particularly disappointing. The core developers of Soul Calibur, Project Soul, have conceded that they're no good at this mode, and have outsourced it to CyberConnect2, who have a good record with anime titles. Unfortunately, they don't do any better. Rather than trying to give every character a small turn, the story focuses on Petroklos and Pyrrha, the children of Soul Calibur veteran, Sophitia. It's a very convoluted tale that revolves around these siblings and a struggle between the Soul Calibur and the Soul Edge. And something known as the malfested...
That the story has some more focus is appreciated. It allows for a more cinematic presentation, made from a mixture of CGI cut scenes and animated stills that actually do a good job of conveying the action. And you'll meet at least half of the Soul Calibur V crew along the way, both in story and in battle. However, a lot of characters are missed, and the ones that are there are poorly represented and no one in the story is particularly likeable. However, the worst aspect of the story is the unimaginative structure. All you'll do is slog through a bunch of clones, main characters and the occasional shoehorned boss. There is no crescendo outside of difficulty, and no attempt to actually teach the players about the game or mix up the challenge.
Outside of the disappointing story, which isn't likely to take more than half a dozen hours, you have the usual suspects such as Arcade and CPU battles, but Quick Battle is a more endearing mode. This mode has you battling against the avatars and characters that have been created by players from all around the world, and even tries to identify their playing style and mould it to the AI. They're all ranked by ability and you work your way up to earn titles, character customising trinkets and even new characters. It proves to be surprisingly engaging to build up your fighting record against these players. To say that the Legends mode is a stiff challenge, well, is being kind. A lot of the newer characters are adoptions on previous ones, though with their own twists to gameplay, while having Ezio Auditorre from Assassin's Creed II is subtly and non-intrusively the best and most balanced guest character since Link in Soul Calibur II.
There have been some nice additions to the core gameplay in Soul Calibur V but you're not going to openly find out about any of them, as the game itself makes no attempt outside of some basic text explanations to let you know. Aspects such as Critical Edge and Brave Edge attacks, quick dodges, changes to Guard Impact and other minor tweaks are almost passed off as after thoughts. Furthermore, there isn't any real attempt to introduce new players to the game, be it through the innovative use of modes, as seen in Street Fighter IV and Mortal Kombat. Finally, the AI is the most natural of the series, but remorselessly ruthless as the difficulty ratchets up. It's borderline on cheap, and requires a very high skill level and luck to get past at times. This is all good and well, but there isn't an opportunity to learn other than through the school of hard knocks.
Otherwise, the character customising options are very deep and there are a lot of items to unlock. At their core, each character that you create will actually have a style attached to someone from the game, but as to how they're presented... well you can create just about any monstrosity or paragon of aesthetic magnificence, as long as you can think of it. And as mentioned, these characters that you create will be applicable to the Quick Battle mode, as well as in multiplayer. Now that you're able to customise their characters height, it actually adds some food for thought on how you actually build the characters.
The multiplayer is definitely the strongest suit of the game, where fighting fans and players who have been following the series will definitely have a ball. It's built around a rock solid netcode, where you'll be finding and taking part in matches without a hitch, from most corners of the world. To help facilitate this, you've got some good lobby additions and options that will help recreate the feeling that you're back in the arcade after school watching as your friends and other randoms battle it out, but all from the comfort of your own living room. When you're in the multiplayer, you'll be experiencing the game as it was meant to be played. Could there have been more done with it to take the genre forward? The Soul Calibur community is sure to make it known.
In any case, Soul Calibur V is still a remarkably beautiful and well-composed fighter. There has definitely been some progress made from Soul Calibur IV, as the attention to the details in the environments and the characters themselves have been spruced up, the animations are even smoother and more natural, and there isn't a modicum of a technical issue to be found anywhere. The sound track composition is as astute as ever, giving the title a regal and imperious feel that isn't really found in other fighters. Of course, it's great as long as you don't take it too seriously. The voicing on the other hand, well, you know the drill by now. Still, the story doesn't make help by actually requiring a lot of characters to say more than they're welcome to.
At its core, Soul Calibur V is still a fantastic fighter, which while it doesn't do much to take the genre forward, it does do enough to keep the followers on their toes. The single player modes are there, and functional, but most are disappointing due to weak implementation, lack of explanation or ruthless AI. However, anyone willing to tackle the multiplayer will not be disappointed. All of us know that we'll enjoy Soul Calibur V, but it will still be a while before we're going to be able to refer to this as the pinnacle of the fighting genre.