Gold Against The Soul.
There is something wrong with Soul Calibur V, be it the stench of something rotten, or a general feeling of unease, there is something at the heart of this 3D fighter which causes me to move around its slightly barren game modes with a vague disgust.
What could it be I wonder? Certainly not the graphics, as they are like before; nice and bright, colourful, and despite not looking the best of what the genre can offer, it is nevertheless more than sufficent to cause the occasional signals of awe and satisfaction. A goodly number of varied stages show lovely and vibrant backgrounds, and if not for the ubiquitous combat, one would be forgiven for having a little stare at the all the loveliness. Characters too, are mostly detailed and beautiful. The men, the women, even the monsters and otherworldy beings are suitably rendered in sharp detail, whilst their smooth animations create a neat ballet of movement.
There certainly isn't a shortage of characters, as over 25 are on show here, but when the loss of the oddly well endowed ninja Taki, amongst others, is made up by the grating and obnoxious Natsu, it is sometimes hard to understand the rationale of some of the choices made. All the same, there isn't anything smelly with the selection, and the variety of styles should more than cater for those looking to mix things up or find that special someone who you'll lovingly guide through the torsos and skulls of their enemies.
There are quite a few enemies as well, especially in the new Quick Battle mode, which strangely enough, is a single player feature. 240 made up characters, some based on the fighting styles of veteran Soul Calibur players, allow for you to test your skills or lack thereof against various ranked characters, the easiest being E5 to the strongest of A1. Again, it's hard to detect any real whiff of decay or putrefaction, but the point of such a mode is slightly lost on me. Sure, you gain titles for your title card, but one would hope for a little more than that. I guess it could be for practice, as the Training mode here is surely the zenith of pointless ideas as it offers next to nothing for such as me who struggle to remember the various button combinations and moves needed to not look like a complete bum balloon in battle. Instead you are given a crowded screen and asked to make sense of it. I didn't.
It seems I'm getting closer now, the training mode was indeed a bit mouldy, but as I barely used the thing, it doesn't quite cover everything.
What about the story, or the new Weapon Master mode? Ah yes, the story. Unfortunately there is no new Weapon Master mode, but you do get the delightful alternative of 20 episode/fight story mode, where you guide a few of the new characters across a landscape of poorly drawn sketches and text, with the occasional cutscene to remind you of what could have been. Ah yes, the pong is getting a little stronger here. Alas, you don't get any mini narrative for each character like in the old fighters of yore, instead you get to revel in the developers best attempts to make you bite into your umbrella handle. Anyone who has been irked by the dialogue in something like Final Fantasy XIII, will have seen nothing yet.
But maybe I'm being unfair, this is a fighting game after all, so how about the action, the raison d'être? Well, it's pretty good for the most part. A new meter allows for special Brave Edge attacks and other shenanigans, and the basic combat encourages aggressive play as constant blocking will ultimately come back to bite you, but not in the weirdly seductive way Raphael does it. I must confess that I am no expert in these matters, but as a vaguely average gamer, I've not encountered anything to say that the combat is anything less than enjoyable, despite my admitted ineptitude at it. I could raise an objection or two about the ability to hit your opponent on the ground, or about how Nightmare/Siegfried seem overpowered, but any deep analysis from me would certainly be deficient next to that of those steeped in the details of fighting systems in general.
There is the standard Arcade mode of six rounds, the usual online player and ranked matches, and a rather nice map thingy, which you can use to chat and play with others in a more casual setting, which is nice. Oh, and there is also a Legendary Souls mode, which is essentially a super hard Arcade mode, if that sort of thing appeals.
Me however, I actually enjoy dressing up (see my user lists for details ^^), and I'm thrilled to see that the Soul Calibur V has continued from the last game in letting me tinker with my character's outfits and customise my own unique whipping boy or girl. But hold on, where's all the stuff like last time, who's been raiding my wardrobe!? What's that, I can unlock stuff? oh, ok then, but why can't I dress up like Viola there with her awesome dress!?
At once, the penny drops, or more accurately it didn't, at least not into the pockets of Namco. You see, I can forgive the lack of any real story mode to an extent, as the poor developers openly confessed they had not the time to do it. Fine, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt I thought, but to take another aspect of the game and put so much of it behind a pay wall is too far, especially when the game is priced at the full £40/$60. The sheer cheek to remove so much and then demand money for that which ought to be there with my purchase is a festering wound at the heart of this game and the industry at large.
One of the key elements that had always made me love the modern Soul Calibur games has been that they offered something on the side, to give a little something to those who are not good enough or interested enough in taking many months to train and compete online. The story features, Weapon Master, the customisation, they all work to attract people outside of the genre, and with them now so diminished, the thing feels barren, left to the hardened warriors of the interweb to fight over the husk of this once feature-rich series.
What we have is not so much a game, but an example of modern cynical business design. Cut, cut, and once again cut until you have the bare minimum, the bare minimum of costs, of artistry, and of effort. The effect of this attitude is not always severe, but the attitude itself is a poison which left unchecked will leave us all worse off. The painful thing is that the fighting here is actually quite good, and it all looks rather pretty, but I can't love it, not when its own creators can't find it in themselves to love it either.