When it comes to 3D fighting games, Soulcalibur is my bread and butter. Say what you will about Tekken or Virtua Fighter, I’ve generally enjoyed the fast-paced, weapons-based combat of the franchise over any other 3D fighting game offering. Soulcalibur II was my introduction to the series, and was incredible for its the time. However, by the time I got around to Soulcalibur IV, the formula felt dated, especially when compared to Street Fighter IV, which came out in the arcades at the same time. Street Fighter IV went on to define the modern-day fighting game blueprint, while Soulcalibur IV just felt old and was quickly forgotten.
With Soulcalibur V, Namco was clearly looking to make a title that better fit the modern era of fighting games. Besides some major gameplay system overhauls, they took the extra step of blowing out roughly half of the original roster and replacing them with all-new characters. Was the shake-up worth it?
The latest entry in the series takes place 17 years after the events of Soulcalibur IV. Because of the large passage of time, many of the series main characters have moved on and replaced by a number of new ones. Though some fans have taken issue with some of these new characters being heavily based on some of the older characters that got cut with lamer back stories, I actually enjoy the new additions from a gameplay perspective. The some of the new characters feel like fresh takes on traditional Soulcalibur play styles, and some of them feel net new. In particular, Viola, a gypsy who wields a magical floating orb (not unlike my main character in Street Fighter IV) battles with a heavy emphasis on long range projectiles that can hit from many different angles. Her fighting style does add a new dynamic to the way Soulcalibur battles usually shakes out, which I genuinely find interesting.
Also added as a measure to modernize the gameplay is the Critical Edge system. As players attack and defend, they build up a meter, which can be spent on enhanced special moves and super moves. It’s a nice way to give players more options and a means of making the action more exciting. As a Street Fighter IV player, it’s set up in a way that’s easy for me to wrap my head around.
One of the factors that has traditionally made Soulcalibur more accessible than other 3D fighting games is that it was more button-masher friendly. I’m pretty sure that it was never part of the core design, as the series does have a ton of depth, but the flashy moves triggered by simple inputs always struck me as a plus, since I’m at best an entry-level player. However, since my first experience with Soulcalibur and now, I’ve grown into a pretty serious fighting game player, and would like to improve as a Soulcalibur player. For players like me that are looking to brush up on their skills, the game comes with a training mode that combines elements of a trial mode and tutorial mode as well, so that you don’t have to jump between modes to learn the game.
While the intent for this suite of training options was good, it falls flat in execution. For a game with dozens of moves per character, it does a nice job of explaining a handful of each character’s best moves as a starting point. However, everything else they jammed into this mode feels clunky. The game only gives you 5 combos per character, and doesn’t actually tell you if you’ve executed the combo properly. The combos are also written in a notation that the game doesn’t teach you how to read. In particular, the game never explicitly says what the small A, B, or K symbols mean. I feel like if this were a 12-step program, Soulcalibur V gives you skips steps 1-3, give you 4-6, then skips everything else. Simply ripping off Blazblue or Skullgirls in this department would have sufficed, but the overall training package in its current form is unfortunately lacking.
The rest of the game’s modes are also come up short, which is extremely disappointing for this franchise, as it used to be one of the most feature-filled. The arcade mode doesn’t have character-specific intros or endings. Mission mode – a Soulcalibur staple – is gone; replaced with a much more limited story mode. If you’re the type of player that only wants to duke it out online, then this will serve your needs just fine. However, as a single player experience, it’s very weak.
I’m of two minds when it comes to Soulcalibur V. I think the core fighting experience is as good as it’s ever been. It’s a lot of fun and I’d genuinely consider investing more battling foes online and putting in the effort to get better. However, the overall package is severely lacking, especially for a Soulcalibur game. Fans who loved the series for it’s strong single player offering or new players looking to dive in particular will be disappointed with the paltry feature set. It’s hard to recommend as a full-priced purchase, but it’s worth it if you can get it on the cheap, which you probably can at this point.