SoulCalibur 5 review: The old flame still burns

Soul Calibur 2 and I used to be "an item," back in the day. We spent every evening together, laughing over the ridiculous ring outs we shared and taking special pride in infuriating my friends, together. It was rare to ever find us apart for more than a few hours at a time; I loved Soul Calibur 2 with all of my heart.

Things change, though, and as time marched on we realized that staying together wasn't the best thing for the both of us. The world had moved on, my needs had changed, and Soul Calibur 2 understood that it was time for me to go. Despite trying to reconnect a couple of times, we haven't really talked much since the old days.

So imagine my surprise when SoulCalibur 5 showed up at my apartment, looking better than ever and wanting to go a few rounds. We've been spending a lot of time together, and it's been a pretty intense emotional rollercoaster, truth be told. I've rediscovered all the little things I used to love, as well as the reasons why we broke up in the first place.

It's hard, because when you get back with an old flame, you want things to go back to the way they used to be, and that's rarely (if ever) possible. SoulCalibur 5 is a far cry from the game I used to love, and it's got more than its fair share of problems, but deep down, the soul still burns.%Gallery-145013% Mechanically, SoulCalibur 5 feels like a halfway point between Soul Calibur 2 and Soul Calibur 4, in that movement is tighter and more controlled like SC2, but the actual mechanics of fighting feature more complex systems, a la SC4. Unlike SC4, however, the meters implemented in SC5 are more in sync with contemporary fighting game conventions, and as such are easier to conceptualize and utilize right away.

The "Critical Gauge" located next to your character's health bar fills while attacking or while guarding, and can either be spent on Brave Edge moves (think EX moves in Super Street Fighter 4), Critical Edge moves (think Ultra Combos in SSF4) or Guard Impacts, which have been a mainstay of the series since the beginning. Brave and Critical Edge moves add a satisfying extra layer of strategy to SC5's otherwise straightforward gameplay and are a welcome addition, even though activating the Brave Edge version of an attack has been implemented less elegantly than similar systems in Super Street Fighter 4 or Mortal Kombat.

Changing Guard Impacts from being an ability you can do at will to something that requires meter feels counterintuitive, however. By making something require a resource, you're limiting the number of times that move can be used in a given round and are therefore reducing its effectiveness while increasing its strategic importance. The player must think, because now Guard Impacting may prevent them from using a Brave or Critical Edge move in the same round.

Or at least, the player would think that, had the player any incentive to use Guard Impacts in the first place. In addition to making Guard Impacts require meter, Namco Bandai has also introduced a mechanic called "Just Guarding," which functions almost exactly like Guard Impacting did in previous Soul Calibur games. By blocking an attack at the moment of impact and immediately releasing the block button, the player will "Just Guard" and nullify any block stun or frame disadvantage they would have suffered had they blocked normally.

Granted, this doesn't provide the complete combo interruption or satisfying green flash that a Guard Impact does, but it does accomplish roughly the same defensive goal without using any meter. It's a superfluous addition; why not leave Guard Impacting as is and reduce its push-back/frame advantage? Or, conversely, make it more difficult to properly time a guard impact against an oncoming attack? Either option would have reduced the number of successful Guard Impacts in a round without adding an extra layer of abstraction for the player to worry about.

An altered version of the guard break system from SC4 also returns, leaving misery and frustration in its wake. The player can only guard so many attacks before their guard "breaks," at which point they are momentarily unable to block or attack. This is a flawed system, both mechanically and philosophically: First off, how close your guard is to breaking doesn't reset between rounds, meaning that if you finish a round with your guard almost broken, you'll start the next round with your guard still almost broken. This places you at a severe, uncalled for disadvantage.

Secondly, the only way to bring your guard-break level back to normal is by dealing damage, rather than receiving it, which would be the more logical and effective method. Were it reduced upon receiving damage, the player could try being more aggressive, and even if they lose they'll at least have reduced their guard-break level back to normal. As it stands now, a player on the brink of guard break can stop guarding, become more aggressive and attack rapidly, get punished for attacking with reckless abandon, lose the round and still be close to guard break at the beginning of the next round. It's excessive, and what's more, it discourages proficiency in arguably the most important, fundamental skill set in competitive fighting.

I have the same philosophical problem with this concept as I did in SC4, which is that I don't believe the player should be punished for being super good at part of your game. If I've put in the time and effort to get so good at guarding mix-ups that the other player/CPU can't land any attacks, I feel like I've earned the right to not take damage. It also heavily weighs the game towards the more aggressive fighting styles rather than the defensive, and while that's incredibly beneficial for characters like Xiba or Nightmare, it makes things unnecessarily difficult for more deliberate, calculated characters like Astaroth.

Guard Impacting and the guard-break system are only two pieces of a very large puzzle, however, and while very annoying, neither issue is explicitly game breaking. Despite these flaws, SoulCalibur 5 is still the best Soul Calibur game since SC2, at least as far as fluidity and combat are concerned.

In other respects, SoulCalibur 5 is the worst game of the series, primarily when it comes to the presentation, polish and content of the single-player experience. While other Soul Calibur games have included multiple arcade modes, time trial modes, survival modes, team modes, "Special" versions of all those other modes, character creation modes and hundreds of hours worth of missions and challenges, SoulCalibur 5 has a story mode, some arcade modes, a training mode, character creation and ... that's it.

Now, this wouldn't be such a big deal if the story mode were captivating like Mortal Kombat's spectacular story mode, but this is sadly not the case. Instead, it's a 3-hour hodgepodge of indecipherable, confusing storyboard panels punctuated by random (although admittedly gorgeous) cinematics. It's almost as if Namco Bandai had intended to animate the entire thing, but instead ran out of time and had no choice but to narrate the storyboard sketches. The entire experience only took about three hours to complete, and since there's only one ending, the mode is totally devoid of replay value.

SoulCalibur 5 also lacks any of the unique and interesting unlockable content that came standard in previous series entries, such as concept art or cinema/exhibition theaters. Now, the only unlockable content is either characters, which take about as long to unlock as story mode takes to complete, or items for the character creation mode. Beating arcade mode unlocks the "Legendary Souls" arcade mode, or as I like to call it, "Kilik's Ring Out Funhouse."

Legendary Souls is exactly the same as the regular arcade mode, save for the fact that it is bowel shatteringly hard. In all sincerity, Legendary Souls is the most difficult thing I've ever encountered in any video game, ever. Ever.

I took the cellphone picture above to prove just how ridiculous this mode is: I lost to Kilik and Nightmare so many times that the time-attack timer at the bottom of the screen maxed out at 99 minutes and 59 seconds. That timer doesn't run when the game is paused or between rounds, so that's 99 minutes of actual game time. Assuming that the average SC5 match lasts 13 seconds, I lost to Kilik and Nightmare approximately 461 times before advancing to stage 3.

I had to keep going though, because it was literally the only single-player thing left to do in the whole game, and I'd only been playing for a few hours. It's heartbreaking, because the game (actually fighting) is incredibly solid and fantastic amounts of fun, but the "game" (actual single-player content) is universally disappointing considering the exemplary precedent set by every other title in the series.

There is some hope at least, as SoulCalibur 5's online multiplayer is surprisingly good. The Global Colosseo mode functions similar to Mortal Kombat's online lobby system in that it throws dozens of players into a room and allows them to freely challenge each other. It's a big step forward in both convenience and usability, especially compared to the antiquated lobby systems in games like King of Fighters XIII and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

SoulCalibur 5 is simultaneously one of the best Soul Calibur games ever made, as well as the worst Soul Calibur game ever made. All things considered, though, I'd rather have fantastic gameplay spoiled by lackluster presentation than incredible production values ruined by frustrating, disjointed fighting. Of course, that won't be enough for everyone, and the lingering thought that this could have been the best there ever was (given more development time) is hard to shake off.

I'll never have the kind of relationship with SoulCalibur 5 that I did with SC2, but I still plan on the two of us spending as much time as possible together. I love this game, I'm just not in love with it.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of SoulCalibur 5, provided by Namco Bandai.

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