SoulCalibur 5 – Does the Soul Burn Brighter?

I would like to start, if I may, with an explanation.

I wasn’t very nice about SoulCalibur 4 in a review a few years back. In fact, I brutalised it to the point of destruction; I hated it. I hated the complete change of all controls. I hated that it had become technically full of itself; more interested in pleasing professional fighting game players than achieving a balance between that and access for those of us a little more… ham-fisted, shall we say. I especially found time to begrudge it the new, dreary stylings and asked what the point was in putting in a few Star Wars cameos. I might have even made an insult towards the Star Wars fanbase at the time. And I especially found the online modes unbearable – the amount of cheating and exploitation going on that wasn’t immediately curbed for the majority meant that the experience was joyless, soulless and generally a miserable, pointless exercise in total frustration which after a handful of goes was consigned very swiftly to the bin of modes never to be touched again.

SoulCalibur 5, from a brief demo and multiple screenshots, has yet to fill me with any real sense of hope.

On the upside, SC5 is now set 17 years after the events of SC4, which means – mercifully – some of the old cast have been ditched in favour of new characters. Sophitia, for example, has had twins and they have taken up the sword and shield in her name. Xiba replaces Killik, and looks slightly less goofy to boot. Unfortunately, the game sees the return of perennial not-favourites Maxi and the ever present fetishistic stylings of Voldo.

So, the cast has had a fair shake-up. This games typical cameo, this time Ezio Auditore de Firenze, slots in a lot more comfortably than the previous Star Wars cameos, and is designed to be entry-level for players. Cheap and cheerful. New characters Viola and Z.W.E.I. are designed to tailor more towards the experienced, difficult to master and brutal in the right hands.

However, more complexity is not what SoulCalibur needed – I’d say the game needed to focus less on the professional fighting game angle and regain its credibility as a general, all-purpose enjoyable fighter. But yet, alas, no. Not content with rewriting more technical aspects like T2T and counter-throwing, they’ve seen fit to throw in a super meter – yup, a super meter. Like in Street Fighter.

So technically, it appears as if SC5 is business as usual. It will likely serve a purpose for the majority of the already-established fighters; who may be happier to realise that some of the controls and mechanics remain intact for easier access. That may not win it any brownie points from the standpoint of the majority – who really hoped that the playing field, if not completely leveled, would be in part eased with a more relaxed, friendly approach. Single-player story mode/arcade AI has yet to be finalised, so who knows, it may serve a purpose as a good kickabout for some of us.

What gets me though is not that SoulCalibur appears stuck in a time warp of its own creation; but that visually, I’ve got to confess, this is the worst installment yet.

SoulCalibur 5 looks and feels… well.. flat. The graphics, shadowing and effects look cheap and relatively overused cliches. The textures look a little too solid, the game on the surface looks a little too two-dimensional, to the point you’d be forgiven for asking if it had forgotten about all the sidestepping and general arena movement. I’m assured it hasn’t, but when your default camera angle makes it look like a two-dimensional fighter from the early noughties, something isn’t quite right.

Some of the new cast seem a bit… cliche. Z.W.E.I., for example, is a werewolf in much the Jacob vein. Raphael returns – he’s a vampire. And the new Viola is suspiciously bordering on the Red Riding Hood look. It is incredibly hard to ignore, for a franchise that in the past had a real imagination and flair, that they are struggling for newer ideas and concepts to work into the series.

Couple that with more flesh on display, more of an emphasis on a character creator (thereby rendering an actual cast fairly moot for the most part) and a general feeling of “bargain basement”, and I’m worried. Really worried.

Soul Edge was a game I spent months wasting coins on in the arcades. SoulCalibur was so good on the Dreamcast I fainted with glee. I still own my Gamecube version of SoulCalibur 2 – the one with Link in it, and that was gloriously lovely. SC3 was prettier but shallow, SC4 overcompensated and became excessively hardcore – and now we have SoulCalibur 5. Which so far doesn’t seem to know who, or what, it wants to be.

I love the old SoulCalibur/SC2, which is why it breaks my heart that Namco seem to be struggling with it of late. With a release in a few weeks time, I intend to at the very least rent it and try and enjoy it; I owe it that much, for all the joy the series gave me in my past, to at least try and appreciate this new installment.

I’m just not wholly convinced, is all, that SC5 will be the game that reinvents the series; it takes more than a new cast to reinvent a game. It takes progressive, forward-thinking measures; an appreciation for the market, as well as the knowledge that across the world, there are professional gamers who make good money on the back of real tournaments. It takes style, flair and creativity. Sensible mechanics, good controls and a sense of achievement and fulfillment, whether you are a novice who is playing the series for the first time or a veteran of a decade or more.

It’s an awful lot for any actual game to take in. It may be a good reason why the fighting game market isn’t as flush or as loved as it once was, because the demands on many of these games are, frankly, unreasonable.

But it’s especially hard to see SoulCalibur in such an identity crisis. A game that once trailblazed a course across the industry, now seems decidedly unable to escape the genre that it once did so much to reinvent.

I’ll review it on release – and I hope, deeply, that the game proves me wrong. On all counts.

At least I can’t insult Star Wars fans this time around…

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