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Soul Calibur V
Score: 80%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: NAMCO BANDAI Games America
Developer: Project Soul
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2 (Local and Online)
Genre: Fighting/ Arcade/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
I've always thought that the visual department was the strong suit of the Soul Calibur franchise, and so it is with this fifth installment. Visually, Soul Calibur V is one of the most technically impressive fighting games around. Animations are powerful yet deliberate, as if there's substantial weight behind them. As they should be, considering the size of the weapons being hefted and hurled around. Character models are somewhat predictable for the veterans (not really a problem) and quite interesting for the newcomers. Outfits and weapons are outlandishly cool, and in the case of the weapons, sometimes terrifying. Interface-wise, it's the exact same as it's been since the beginning, for better or worse.

Soul Calibur V hits highs and lows in the audio department. For starters, the sound effects are awesome. From the clashing of weapons to the thudding of bodies after a bit of high-altitude juggling, it works. Then there's the voice acting, which ranges from sub-par to awful. Granted, the atrocious writing is constantly working against the talent; seriously, most of these lines are so bad that they are incapable of being salvaged. The soundtrack is very standard Soul Calibur fare, so you could say it's somewhere between the sound effects and the voice work.

Fighting games tend to skimp on story, and for good reason. It can't be easy to come up with plausible reasons why every character would want to fight the other characters in a roster. However, last year's Mortal Kombat proved that it was indeed possible to give a fighting game a pretty good story. Soul Calibur V's Story Mode attempts to emulate that success with forehead-slapping, hilariously awful results. Set almost two decades after Soul Calibur IV, it centers on the plight of Patroklos, the son of now-deceased franchise veteran Sophitia Alexandra. He starts off as a hired sword for some powerful douche named Graf Dumas, and his sole purpose in life seems to be the destruction of all malfested (people cursed by Soul Edge). Why? Don't know; our hero is a one-dimensional idiot. Through a series of silly and contrived events, Patroklos sets out to rescue his sister from the malfested Tira, who also murdered his mother. And of course, the goofiness surrounding the demonic blade Soul Edge and the blessed sword Soul Calibur is ever-present. While the cutscenes look decent, the writing starts at "so bad it's good" and goes downhill from there. The last few chapters in particular will have you in stitches.

Not so amusing is the Story Mode's structure. Save for the terrible storytelling moments, it's no different from a standard series of battles. Earlier games featured special conditions you had to deal with; whether it was fulfilling some strange criteria or dealing with some sort of statistical setback, surprises seemed in abundant supply. Not so with Soul Calibur V. Each of the encounters is a straight-up fight with no surprises.

Outside of Story Mode, we've got our standard spread when it comes to fighters. An Arcade Mode (along with Legendary Souls, its harder and more competitive alternative), a Versus Mode, and an online component that lets you play with others over the PlayStation Network. There's a leveling system, as well as a title system that looks completely ripped off of Street Fighter IV.

Soul Calibur V's roster of fighters culls out some old blood and infuses some new blood. Most of the fighters left behind will be missed by longtime fans, but the new characters are interesting in their own ways. I particularly like Z.W.E.I., who can summon a wolf demon through a strange-looking interdimensional portal. And of course, let's not forget that Soul Calibur has made a habit of bringing in guest characters. The flavor of the week is Assassin Creed II's Ezio Auditore. As far as guest characters go, he fits in decently, at least compared to the shamelessly shoehorned-in Star Wars characters in Soul Calibur IV.

On the default setting, Soul Calibur V is pretty easy. However, the last few chapters of Story Mode come with a serious difficulty spike. The final bosses (one of them a surprise pick) know their stuff, and waste absolutely no time getting your health bar down to nothing. They will juggle your character with perfect timing and once your body finally hits the ground, they will immediately go for ground attacks. Once you're back on your feet, the cycle repeats again. It doesn't take long for this to become frustrating, and I expect most gamers will choose to restart the fight at a lower difficulty after a few tries.

In terms of actually learning the ropes, Soul Calibur V gives the player too much credit; the training mode doesn't do much to accommodate new players. For a franchise known for pulling in guest characters to expand its fanbase, it sure doesn't seem too eager to teach newcomers the game's basics. While it's true that most Namco fighters allow players to learn on the fly and generally hold their own, it's hard to believe that the average player will automatically know how to perform some of the game's more complex actions.

Game Mechanics:
So how's the fighting? I'm happy to report that it's as good as it has ever been. If you liked earlier games in the franchise, you'll feel right at home with Soul Calibur V. If you're not a fan of the slower-paced, less combo-intensive fighting, this fifth installment will not make a believer out of you. There are a few mechanical tweaks, which you may or may not take kindly to, depending on how you feel about two-dimensional fighters. The Critical system is essentially Street Fighter IV's EX meter, but in a Soul Calibur game. By inflicting and taking damage, you fill the Critical meter. You can spend the gauge on Brave Edge or Critical Edge attacks. A Brave Edge attack is essentially an enhanced version of a regular attack, while a Critical Edge attack is basically Soul Calibur's take on the Ultra Combo.

The Critical meter isn't only used for offensive purposes. In fact, it is your only means of parrying enemy attacks. Nothing in the Critical meter translates to the standard block and evasion being your only defensive options. Some might take to this change begrudgingly, but others might see it as a way to keep matches more exciting. I'm in the latter camp; it's a deterrent to those who like to turtle up and fight opportunistically.

The impressive Character Creation toolset makes its return, with a one very welcome tweak. The best of these is the lack of statistic-altering apparel. Soul Calibur IV unwisely implemented this, which resulted in garish-looking badasses and awesome-looking weaklings. I'm not big into user-created content and never have been, but I can appreciate the possibilities presented in Soul Calibur V. Those who are into this kind of thing will love it. Those who aren't can find no shortage of other things to do in this game.

Soul Calibur V is a better game than its predecessor in many ways. While the new mechanics risk alienating longtime fans, they ultimately work well. The Story Mode is a series of narrative pratfalls that represents the absolute worst in Eastern action melodrama clichés, but it's not what most people will return to. It's the fighting. And whether you're online duking it out with strangers, or on the couch butting heads with a friend, the fighting remains solid.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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