I remember fondly sitting in my friend's basement, the two of us playing Soul Calibur II like mental patients. For months, we'd stare at the TV and pass the controller around like a cheap date, stuck in an endless phase of combat. The petty arguments that would arise over last minute ring outs, the deep connection we'd feel with our favorite characters, and that moment of glory when we had finally beat every level of weapon master mode. Over time our interest in the game faded as we moved on to newer games and, eventually, Soul Calibur II became a five dollar trade-in at Gamestop. Every time a new entry in the series is released I rush out to buy it and hope it rekindles my thirst for souls, but it's always a tragic disappointment.
Soul Calibur 5 is no exception to this.
It's not that the newest entry in the series can't stack up by itself; this is an enjoyable game in its own right. On a technical level, the controls have become tighter, the graphics are sharper, and new characters have mixed styles well with classic fighters. Sadly, the je nes sais quoi that made Soul Calibur II so deep and compelling might just be gone forever.
Someone should have told the developers over at Namco "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
While many combat specifics have gone through changes minor enough to only bother the most dedicated players, the typical player should feel familiar with the fighting styles. The characters performing those styles, however, feel like a slap in the face.
You don't get to play as Xianghua, you play as Leixia, her daughter (read: fighting clone). It's not Kilik, it's Xiba. It's not even Taki and her majestic red camel toe, but Natsu and her underwhelming red camel toe instead. Much of the cast has been either replaced by new cast of young, usually annoying clones or dropped all together. Veterans may feel like they've lost a group of friends in a horrible accident, and only distant cousins came for the funeral. And yes, if you close your eyes and play Natsu, she feels like Taki, but with about as much soul as a zombie puppet version of a deceased loved one.
Amongst these new cast members are Patrokolos and Pyrrah, the central characters of the story mode and the children of Sophita, who are as mutli-dimensional as a triscuit and just as interesting. Even worse, you are forced to play about 95% of the story mode as one of them. No longer does each character have their own story to tell, no matter how crazy and insignificant, but instead we must endure some trite teen-angst/mommy issues drama focusing on the least appealing characters in the game. This leaves the substantial cast of other new characters completely under developed and, therefore, completely lame.
Those throwaway characters can certainly kick your ass, though. Soul Calibur 5 seems to only offer two difficulty settings - one so easy that you can defeat opponents relying solely on blind button mashing, and an impossibly difficult one where the AI spams perfect counters and combo strings until you eventually give up out of frustration. Expect to curse Nightmare a lot, especially in Arcade Mode.
The difficulty could be ignored if there was some mode designed to improve skills naturally rather than drilling training dummies and constantly checking move lists. Earlier games relied on weapon master and story modes to fill this gap, eventually training players to tackle their friends with special moves and honed skills. Not so this time, for those single player modes have been sacrificed at the altar of expanded online gameplay and matching controls. Excellent for combat veterans, but it leaves newbies out in the cold.
Fortunately, the character creation aspect of the game has received some much needed upgrades. In previous installments the system was overly complicated, forcing you to choose gear based on stats and abilities rather than looks; squashing creativity. Those unnecessary details have been stripped, allowing players to create the katana wielding, bikini clad princesses of their dreams.
Other design choices demonstrate a lovely array of fantasies, from the backgrounds and level layouts to outfit designs for characters. I found myself wanting to know where Ivy got her gold and fur jumpsuit, why it wasn't her default costume, and whether or not it would come in my size. And while a lot of the character clones were dull and flat, some of the new characters were both unique and intriguing. Z.W.I.E., a swordsman with the ability to summon a werewolf, and Viola, a fortune-teller who fights with a crystal ball, help make up for an otherwise dull cast of clones.
These minor improvements do compensate for the lack of compelling narrative, absence of iconic characters, and a general lack of innovation. Sadly, those substitutions make the end result feel more like a knock-off of a once great game rather than the glorious revival it should have been. Perhaps Namco should begin spending its time creating new content rather than just changing character models, before the series is tarnished forever.