Last-minute duress can be an amazing motivator. Procrastination is even the muse of choice for some, providing the biochemical and inspirational rush needed to produce something truly great. However, not everybody works under the gun by choice, and the story of Soulcalibur V‘s development is one of just such a group: Reinstated suddenly after three years apart, Team Soul (increasingly the red-headed stepchild to Namco’s favorite son Tekken) was given a scant one-year development schedule to complete a new entry in the Soul series. With the clock ticking and development struggling to strike a balance between the requests of long-time fans and the competitive fighting crowd the final result isn’t quite what either expected, but given the circumstances things could have gone incredibly worse.
Set seventeen years after the previous installment, Soulcalibur V follows a new generation’s involvement in the eternal pissing contest between evil sword Soul Edge and its not-quite-as-evil counterpart Soul Calibur. The cast is split roughly evenly between returning characters and their offspring/successors, with all but a few of SC IV‘s fighting styles represented (or combined in the case of some similar styles) and a couple brand new styles between them. Assassin’s Creed’s Ezio Auditore rounds out the cast as the sole guest character, and though we’re down two from SC IV‘s trio of guests I think we can all agree that Ezio is a much more natural fit for the setting than anything Star Wars could offer.
What hasn’t returned, though, is a good amount of the single-player content. In the rush to meet deadline a lot of the series’ usual features ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Gone is anything resembling the challenge towers or campaigns of Soul series’ last few outings, replaced with a mock-online mode dubbed Quick Battle which transparently grooms the player for online multiplayer through fights with pre-generated “accounts” orchestrated through a similar lobby system to the actual online multiplayer.
Perhaps the greatest victim of these cuts is the story. Character-specific endings are absent from Arcade Mode, and even something as simple as character bios – which one would think necessary given the number of new faces – has been relegated to pre-order-artbook-only material. The game suffers most for this in Story Mode, which desperately wants to match the standard set by that of last year’s Mortal Kombat but flounders at a fraction of its inspiration’s length and complexity (rotating control of only three of the cast through less than twenty fights) and features a sparse handful of fully animated cutscenes bridged by outsourced still art. While these features aren’t critical to the fighting game experience they’re a big part of what differentiated the Soul series from its peers, and losing so much of the solo content leaves the game feeling a bit hollow on the whole.
But what it lacks in fluff and solo content, SC V more than makes up for in technical merit. It becomes apparent within a few minutes of play that any attention diverted from the aforementioned deficient qualities was poured into gameplay. The damper placed on characters’ speed in the last few games has been lifted, and movesets have been tweaked and pared down to promote a balance not seen in the series for a good long time (not that it’ll stifle the genre’s inherent debates to the contrary). Add in the new Critical Edge system – basically a glorified but effective super meter – and you’ve got a leaner, more aggressive game with just as much strategic depth, not to mention graphical polish. The visuals are just as gorgeous as always, showcasing the vaguely-Renaissancey-maybe-Medievaly arenas and their likewise slightly-stylized occupants with equal ability.
The focus on multiplayer fidelity especially shines in the new online mode. Lobbies in standard versus matches now have a text chat feature to compliment audio chat, and the new Global Colloseo lobby acts like a simplified virtual chat service, facilitating casual player interaction through navigation of virtual buildings with simple avatars. New, dedicated servers accommodate all of this with ease, insuring that connectivity issues are limited to individual players and not the service as a whole (though whether it’s a matter of legitimate connection problems or a case of the ragequits is entirely up to you).
And of course, no analysis of SC V would be complete without at least a nod to Create a Soul. SC III‘s breakout custom character feature has become one of the main draws of the series, rivaled only by contemporary pro wrestling titles for depth and complexity and still lacking a viable contender in its own genre proper. Aspiring character designers and nitpickers concerned with replicating characters from other IPs alike (and I know I’m not the only one) can rest easy with the knowledge that the gear stat system has been eliminated, finally making equipment purely aesthetic and allowing the larger clothing pool to be available without worry for balancing function with appearance.
The sad truth underlying all of this is that Soulcalibur V is an incomplete game, but unlike most cases it’s not a simple matter of developer laziness or incompetence; Team Soul delivered everything they could with the time and resources available, but the genre’s inherent priority on multiplayer and subsequent neglect of single player took some of the – for lack of a better term – soul out of the experience. This is exactly the sort of situation where the case for DLC becomes appealing, and rumblings of more fleshed-out content available for download after the planned equipment packs offer a glimmer of hope that we’ll get the game we were intended one day. Until then, though, those who aren’t among the faithful or primarily concerned with online play are encouraged to look elsewhere.