Review: SoulCalibur V

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The modern fighting-game genre, like an old-school city map, is divided into quadrants. Over in the far corner, you’ve got the Tekken crowd, content with their bizarre-ass battling pandas and limb-specific button combos. The collection of blood-spattered spinal cords over yonder marks the grim border of Mortal Kombat’s turf, a neighborhood where the method in which you respond to the ghostly hiss of “Finish Him!” always seems to matter much more than how you got there. Capcom’s territory is easily the most crowded, with spandex clad heroes and street fighters jostling as they rock battle meters, tag-team matches and spectacular 100-hit ultra combos (all the while wondering how they’re going to scrape up the coin to cover next month’s downloadable content bill.) And then there’s Namco Bandai’s SoulCalibur series, which, five games into its legendary existence, still seems to be trying to please everybody by deciding which plants and statues look best as part of the front-lawn landscaping.

It can be a thankless task, but the mix and match continues in SoulCalibur V, where fun features (like SoulCalibur IV’s Tower of Lost Souls mode) have been yanked out like last year’s rhododendron, to be replaced with flashy new ones.

Namely, the new Critical Edge system that lets you use your carefully filled battle meter to unleash the beatdown or short-circuit your opponent’s flashy attack–after building up by taking and dishing damage. It’s nice (and strategically key) to be able to spend your hard-earned gauge on whatever you need at the current second—a devastating back-breaker attack, or a well-timed guard. And if the payoff for using the new Guard Impact feature doesn’t seem worth the effort—or, as may be the case for casual brawlers, simply can’t figure how to deploy it—you have the option of pushing a single button to “just guard.” It’s still timing-based, but it’s surprisingly effective: Anyone who thinks they’re going to win every match by just bulling forward and three-button mashing is likely to end up on their ass or ringed out; the fact that SoulCalibur V’s essence is still about prodding your opponent’s fighting style for exploitable weaknesses remains the series’ greatest strength.

Competitive balance comes in a close second. While the combos can come fast and furious, even the most devastating of the bunch won’t ice you in a single blow. Yes, you’ll end up black and Azure Nightmare blue, but it’s possible to turn the tide of battle from the precipice of K.O., especially if you’re willing to spend the time to really get to know your character’s move sets. Oh, what an epic feeling.

It’s not necessarily surprising to note that single players get the short end of the SoulCalibur stick. The game’s single-player story mode focuses on two of of the least interesting and likable characters ever—the arrogant pretty-boy Patroklos and his betrayal-filled quest to power up the titular magical sword and redeem his malfested and whiny sister Pyrrha, who’s actually a hell of a lot more interesting with demonic energy turning her eyes into empty blood-red saucers of death. (Maybe Patroklos should have opted to join the other side.) One-on-one duels through the character library are broken up by a bizarre cocktail of pretty 3D cutscenes and static, parchment stills that seriously could have used the Dante’s Inferno treatment. It adds up to about three hours of unlocking a bunch of items for Creation Mode and four new playable characters. And since the story has the same number of branching paths as a dead-end alley, you’re not likely to revisit it twice.

Completing the story mode does unlock Legendary Souls mode, which ends up feeling like the equivalent of smashing your head into a wall, Situation-style, at top speed. It’s unbelievably difficult, and only the most hardened warriors are going to make headway.

The new characters end up as a mixed bag, and chances are good longtime fans are going to be screaming “ Zasalamel” at the omission of more than a few key favorites. (Paging Kilik, Stat.) Ezio Auditore, dropping in to guest-star from the Assassin’s Creed series, is both fun and surprisingly balanced, and his renaissance vibe fits the mood far, far better than the Star Wars characters that stumbled into SoulCalibur IV. I kinda enjoyed tooling around with Viola, the Wolvie-clawed fortune teller who can zip her floating crystal ball behind opponents for a sneak attack upside the head, and Z.W.E.I., whose flashy attacks involve opening a portal through which his lupine alter ego lays down some serious whoop-ass. Even if both of them look like they drifted over from an unmade Final Fantasy game.

SoulCalibur V’s Creation Mode is an absolute blast for fighting fashionistas looking to let their freak-flags fly. Gone are the stat-based aspects of cloaks and masks that made you consider your accessorization more carefully than a contestant on “The Bachelor.” Now it’s literally anything goes, with customizations both wide and bizarre, down to the ability to drop tartan and tweed patterns on your gloves, producing some serious cover-your-eyes warriors. (My first effort featured a swordsman with yellow skin and a wild purple afro—before I unlocked the ability to give him an equine head. Righteous.)

Your ultimate enjoyment of SoulCalibur V comes down right where you’d expect it to—on the multiplayer matchups. The slimmed-down single-player offerings make the proceedings seem like an incomplete package, but noobs and vets are going to find more than enough sword and strategy to keep them happy for months to come.

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Pros:
+ The new Critical Edge system adds interesting depth to duels without ever feeling cheap
+ Graphics are as beautiful as ever
+ Creation Mode lets players run wild with bizarre character customizations

Cons:
– Single-player story is B-O-R-I-N-G
– Guard Edge feature will baffle all but the most seasoned swordsmen
– New characters are a mixed bag

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Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PS3
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Project Soul
Release Date: 1/31/2012
Genre: Fighting
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2 (local and online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.