I was seriously looking forward to Soul Calibur V before its release last month. I’ve been a huge fan of the Soul series since their first entry (not counting Soul Edge), and have a ton of fun memories playing with my friends in a number of “loser passes the controller” sessions, starting with Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast. So in this iteration there were promises of better combat and gameplay, amped graphics, better character customization, and finally a decent guest character in Assassin’s Creed’s Ezio Auditore. All pluses in my mind. I went so far as to order the collector’s edition with a gift card I had so I could get the art book and soundtrack (as I love me some game art books). I should have noticed, however, that while listing all the great new features, a great story was not mentioned.
So I cracked it open and the loaded up the story mode. It opened with a gorgeous cinematic, which was great for one main reason – and that was that the majority of what followed as “story” was not much more than sketched stills in sepia tones instead of full motion video between fights. It follows the current story of Soul Edge and Soul Calibur, walking you through it as Patrokolos — Sophitia’s son, Pyrrha’s brother, and the new series protagonist. You switch characters every few rounds. This gave me some hope that maybe they finally did story mode right, forcing the player to get a taste of playing with every character, but sadly I was wrong. After the culmination of story mode in episode 20, I had only played with Patrokolos, Pyrrha, (and their variants) and Z.W.E.I.. Sigfried and Nightmare acted as fightable NPC’s along with a slew of generic “custom” created characters. The story is mainly driven by Tira, with cameos were made some of the other characters in one or two of the still shots and that is it.
The 20 episodes of story mode can be done in well under a day after purchase. Then you’re done. No more story. No more character explanations. No more character at all, really. What you are left with after story mode is a roster with absolutely zero back story and zero personality. Which means you have a list of marginalized characters who don’t plug into the story ever. Let’s take a look. All we know about Natsu is that she’s Taki’s student, and fights kind of like her. All we know about Leixia is that she’s Xianghua’s daughter, and fights kind of like her. What about Z.W.E.I.? He can summon a werewolf to fight for him. What? And Xiba is like a half monkey / half human version of Kilik. Oh and he’s always hungry. I guess that’s cool? What’s going on? Who are these characters? Is Viola actually Amy? What’s with the orb? Where did they come from? How did Ezio enter the picture? Just what in the infinite hells is going on here?
That’s how I felt. Confused and cheated. Story mode left me with hundreds of questions the game clearly had absolutely no intention of answering. I have a big problem with that. In my opinion, in a game that’s a continuation of a lore as rich and deep as it is in the Soul Calibur universe, it’s owed to the player to provide a fleshed out story for all of the main characters. Without back story and personality, the characters simply become empty. There’s no depth or mythology to buy into. That means the player’s not going to care. This isn’t an FPS where the player is just a guy on the team, or a sniper or medic — the Soul Calibur series has always gone into not only the characters, but the relationships between them. This is a shame really, because with the amazingly fluid gameplay and combat this could have been a magnificent game.
I think part of what makes a game good, especially with franchise games such as this, is the world they’re set in and the mythology that they provide. And a lot of what allows the player to buy into that is character development. It’s the reason I became so entrenched in RPGs like the Final Fantasy and Xenosaga series. But this trait isn’t reserved just for RPGs — series like Devil May Cry and God of War got it done in the action/adventure genre, and Namco themselves did it quite well in Soul Calibur III.
So what am I left with? A game built for nothing more than online or versus play. You can make your character, assign a fighting style to it (oh right, you’re restricted to only the main characters’ styles and less options than SCIV), then hit Xbox Live or the PSN. I’ll call it the console fighter version of Unreal Tournament. Now don’t get me wrong, that definitely carries some value on its own, being able to play with friends online or in your living room is part of what makes gaming fun. In college my friend and I would play Edge Master vs. Edge Master to see who could win 99 rounds first. We had a ton of fun (and as a fun and true side story: we once tied 98-98 with a double KO in the next round).
It’s still fun, but without the media gallery or single player story modes or really much of anything to unlock, the game is sadly a shadow of what it could actually be.