However you felt about Soulcalibur IV, you have to give it credit for its own sense of style and identity. I can safely say there was no other fighting game quite like Soulcalibur IV. I can say no such thing about Soulcalibur V. Because there are, in fact, several other fighting games quite like it, most of them recently published by Capcom.

After the jump, the Ryu that you do

Some of the new gameplay in Soulcalibur V smacks of “make it more like a Capcom game”. For instance, your new supermeter can give some attacks a “brave edge”, or you can can store up supermeter juice for a powerful “critical edge” attack. As a strictly casual fighting game fan who could never pull off the last Soulcalibur’s soulcrushes and soulbreaks and whatnot, I actually approve of this. It’s a simple and gratifying alternative, on par with the latest Mortal Kombat’s super moves. I can build up my meter and then stroke a pair of quartercircles with a three-button mash to trigger a quick cutscene of my dude doing something fancy. It’s not quite as spectacular as what my dudes do in Marvel vs. Capcom, but this game’s spectacle is all about the 3D models. Watching their breakway flashy ass-kickings is nearly reward enough. The extra damage from the attack is just gravy.

It’s less gratifying that Soulcalibur V has a whole new finicky guarding system that I can’t quite wrap my fingers around. Nothing makes you quite so lazy as Capcom’s move-backwards-to-block system. I had a hard enough time forcing myself to press a guard button in Soulcalibur IV. After no small amount of frustration in the training room, I’ve just accepted that blocking in Soulcalibur V is beyond my ken. I therefore resolved to hit more often. As those of us who suck at timed blocking are fond of saying, the best defense is a good offense.

But for the most part, the fighting in Soulcalibur V preserves its own sense of identity, with full use of 3D space and an emphasis on learning isolated moves rather than having to chain together combos. It’s still a mostly accessible system, and now it’s got a bit of extra flash where those inscrutable soulcrushes used to be. Who needs blocking? So far, so so-so.

The new character customization is either much better or much worse, depending on what you’re looking for in character customization. If you want to put stickers on your cape or make a short Asteroth, Soulcalibur V is the game for you. But if you want Soulcalibur IV’s indepth unlockable stat-based equipment RPG, well, Soulcalibur IV is the game for you. Because Soulcalibur V has none of that. What a disappointing step backwards. In the last game, you could make characters to play various ways, with special abilities and unique powers. You could carefully assemble costumes to maximize offense or defense. You could make a character designed to heal herself up over the course of a match. You could make a set of characters to complement each other during the tag-team matches in the dungeon mode. It was a fighting game with a flexible DIY hero-maker as a creative outlet perfect for anyone who liked games with custom superheroes, mechs, or cars. The customization system in Soulcalibur IV was brimming with actual gameplay. The customization in Soulcalibur V is strictly cosmetic.

Also missing from Soulcalibur V is any counterpart to the dungeon mode in Soulcalibur IV, in which you faced a series of challenges as you worked your way down a dungeon or up a tower, earning money to spend on unlockable bits for your custom characters. Now you just get a godawful story mode where sepia toned concept art fills in for cutscenes. The new characters have none of the, ahem, character of Soulcalibur’s traditional figthters. In fact, they seem to have stumbled pinkly and purply into the game on their way to the latest Final Fantasy. I’m sorry, fellas, but the Square/Enix offices are that way.

Without the customization RPG or the dungeon mode, Soulcalibur V isn’t much of a single player game. It has out Capcommed Capcom, whose fighting games famously lack any meaningful single-player content. Because Capcom has recently addressed that with the nifty Heroes and Heralds DLC for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. As such, Soulcalibur V has even less single-player content than Capcom’s latest game. That’s should be a pretty low bar to clear, especially considering Soulcalibur IV was one of the most uniquely addictive single-player fighting games ever made.

The drive to Capcom Soulcalibur is also evident in the new emphasis on online play, complete with a profile page with badges and titles, and a pointless leveling up system, and fancy new lobby options. This stuff might be grand for anyone who wants his Soulcalibur to be more an online esport. But for us casual fighting fans who felt like Namco was one of the few companies still making games for us, Soulcalibur V is a disappointing Dear John letter.

2 stars
Xbox 360