I’ve been a fan of ‘Project Soul’, as it’s known to pretty much only the nerdiest of us, since the first instalment, Soul Blade, back on the PS1. After its graduation from Blade to Calibur (I think maybe it changed its name when it got married or something),the series seemed to go from strength to strength, becoming a showpiece for the graphical grunt of the system it was featured on: many a head was turned by the at-the-time phenomenal combination of fancy visuals and lifelike motion capture that were hallmarks of the series, at least for the first and second Caliburs back on the Dreamcast/PS2/Gamecube. SC3 just caught the tail end of that generation, and as a consequence was pretty much overlooked, but also for my money the best in the series, expanding the usually-anaemic story mode with an RPG-style side quest, detailed character creation and genuinely interesting new characters (and plenty of them). It’s almost as if they knew that just churning out prettier versions of the same old characters and tossing in a couple of throwaway new ones wasn’t enough to warrant £40 of your money.
Well all that came to an end with Soul Calibur 4, when they had to make a choice between delivering another high-value experience with lots of innovation and progression, or adding Yoda as a playable character. Guess which one they went with. However, even that half-arsed (if admittedly pretty) effort is more than they have bothered to deliver this time, in another case of a new franchise instalment delivering significantly less content than previous incarnations.
As I said up there at the start of this review, I am a fan of the Soul series; I’ve owned and enjoyed them all (except Broken Destiny, because come on, who did?), spent more than my fair share of time playing them and had genuine affection for the franchise. That makes what I’m about to say all the harder for me, because Soul Calibur V is everything that’s wrong with modern fighting games. Everything that Street Fighter 4 and Mortal Kombat 9 recognised as problems and addressed (in their own unique ways) in their latest titles, Soul Calibur can’t be bothered to even entertain. Indeed a lot of the more esoteric problems with the game almost seem like the game makers are being deliberately obtuse, in the most obnoxious of hipster traditions; the ‘you wouldn’t understand’ false-superiority gambit. Either Soul Calibur V is wearing its impenetrability on its sleeve proudly, or there are a lot of people scratching their heads at Namco wondering why they aren’t seeing the benefit of the recent rebound in fighter popularity.
Since we’re straying a little into the abstract now, let’s bring it back to some concrete examples of what’s wrong with the title, starting with a simple one: the controls. As with many modern games, the concept of a user manual has been reduced to nothing more than a couple of pages of mandatory epilepsy warnings and a warning against piracy. Want to know how to do the moves? Then use the training mode. Not a bad idea in theory, however once you enter it, you will instantly notice that this is the kind of ‘absolutely the least effort we could possibly provide’ training mode seen five or even ten years ago: they even refer to actions that are never explained (white arrow? Black arrow? Hollow arrow? What the hell is the difference? Seriously, if anyone knows, please tell me, because the game sure as hell doesn’t care to explain). The thing that the good fighters have recognised is that you need to be able to attract new players to a franchise, and if you’re not going to simplify it even a little bit (and it seems they’re definitely not going to do that), then at least make it possible to learn how to play. I’ve owned every single Soul game and still had no idea what I was doing for the most part. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, “any sufficiently over-complicated fighting game system is indistinguishable from button-mashing”.
OK, so it’s no good for newbies, but what about those keen existing fans, like me? Well, the story mode is pretty bad: uninspiring, uninteresting and incredibly short. But then criticising the story in a fighting game is like criticising the set dressing in a porn film. But at least they’ve kept all those other good modes to make up for it, right? And some new, interesting characters? Or at least all the old characters? Eh, not so much. Though they do manage to scrape up enough rejects from past games and different-costume-and-name rehashes of old characters, they still only just manage the same number of characters as SC 3, and that’s even counting the standard list of ‘different standard style every time’ boss/secret characters they usually throw in. The create mode is still present, but almost completely unchanged from the last version, except of course that this time you get less; the previous idea of different weapons giving your fighter different effects or attributes is completely gone, replaced instead by nothing. Similarly absent is the RPG mode, and in its place you’re given an ‘extra hard’ mode, where you face old characters whose only purpose is to show exactly how crap you are at the game. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy a game that won’t let me change the settings for some modes, and seemingly exists solely to boost sales of new controllers after your existing ones are hurled through the TV in rage.
I used to like Soul Calibur; I even thought for one fleeting second that having Ezio Auditore as a playable character might be anything other than underwhelming, but all I’m left with is a game where I have derived most entertainment trying to recreate Doctor Doom in the create a character mode.
I haven’t been this disappointed since Soul Calibur 4