A SoulCalibur fan considers the brand new SoulCalibur V.
Forward, forward Y. The katana flashes out of its scabbard, slicing into my opponent and knocking her into the air. X, X. Before she lands, I slash her with two lightning fast horizontal cuts. She lands with a thud. Down, B. I kick her head. Groaning, she rolls over and gets to her feet. Back, forward, hold forward, X. The katana stabs out, knocking her down once more. Down, Y. A downward slash, as she picks herself up again. A+X. I grab her shoulder and unleash a series of attacks that light her on fire and send her into the air. She crashes to the ground. This time, she doesn’t get up. Perfect. Mitsurugi is triumphant yet again.
At their most basic, SoulCalibur games are not an acquired taste. There is something universally appealing about beating your friends with an improbably large sword over a few beers. To be a highly motivated SoulCalibur player, however — one who is invested in the minutiae of the game’s baffling storyline or committed to dominating the hurricane of different game modes in any given release – requires a special kind of gamer.
I exist somewhere between the two polarities. I have played all of the SoulCalibur games at great length but have balked at the labyrinthine plot and more arcane facets of the challenge modes. While I can easily thrash all but the deftest of my friends when I get on a tear, I am nowhere near masochistic enough to attempt online play. SoulCalibur 2 is the high water mark of the series and, in many ways, SoulCalibur V feels like coming home from college — only to find your parents moved to a different house while you were away.
The first thing I did – after sitting through the very sparkly intro movie and navigating the menus that look and feel about as polished as the ones you might find on a Dreamcast emulator disc – was run through arcade mode with good old Mitsurugi. He played exactly the way more than fifteen years of SoulCalibur games had trained me to expect. I cut through the six opponents in as many minutes.
I was initially excited to see that, at least superficially, this story mode resembled the story mode from SoulCalibur 2, a wonderfully executed mix of challenges, lost-in-translation narrative and bizarre unlockables laid out on an old-fashioned world map. SoulCalibur V has the map, but little else, in common. Instead of working through every character on the roster in turn, the action focuses on three new and largely forgettable characters while the story is told through a disjointed series of mission menus, storyboards and cinemas. The result is disappointing and brief and seems, above all, unfinished.
There are other modes: the requisite multiplayer matchmaking, Quick Match mode and the excruciatingly difficult Legendary Souls mode all extend playtime, as do the often hilarious character creation tools, but it feels like so much more is missing.
Previous SoulCalibur games have always been filled with unlockables. Model renders, production art, bonus characters, weapons, equipment, character histories – you name it and it was there to obsessively collect. These things were more than just empty rewards. They were incentive to work my way through every corner of the game. They encouraged me to learn the game and its systems more thoroughly than any other fighting game. What could be better than accidentally unlocking another skin for Lizardman? How do I get the generic Gladiator onto the character select screen? All of these mysteries and prizes are glaringly absent from SoulCalibur V.
Mitsurugi is as deadly as ever. With drinks and friends, the round robin is still riotous, but alone… the glove still fits, but I am not sure it is one I want to wear anymore.
Stu Horvath is the man behind the geek culture website Unwinnable. He has written for the New York Daily News, Complex, Kill Screen Magazine, Wizard Magazine, Crispy Gamer, and Joystiq.