For a game that boasts to be a tale of soul and swords eternally retold, Soul Calibur IV was a little too soulless. The fifth entry enters the ring embroiled in an identity crisis, then, with SoulCalibur V forced to reinvent a series quickly losing its relevance despite a fighting genre in the midsts of renaissance.
First impressions are positive. Stages burst with colour, and silky animations ensure characters' attacks flow neatly into one another. The series' bread-and-butter combos have been remixed so they're not as frustratingly cheap, and there's even basic moveset parity amongst most fighters. By taking a leaf out of Street Fighter IV's hallowed book, new Critical Edge moves take on the role of Ultra combos and are executed with the same button inputs.
In peak moments this is swift, balletic combat that's beautiful in full flow, though beginner players (like me) can find themselves immediately flicking from a smooth rhythm to stilted, lumpy weapon swinging. It's a faster game than its predecessors, too, with flurries of attacks springing out of characters despite the overall movement speed feeling similar.
But some of the series' main problems quickly make a return. Soul Calibur (SoulCalibur?) has continually struggled to establish its own enticing title character, instead drafting in gimmicky guest appearances to bolster its ranks. This time round it's the turn of Ubisoft's colossally successful Ezio Auditore to step up, giving the game an iconic cover star to sit alongside the ranks of a refreshed roster that's mostly filled with the descendants and protégés of various mainstay characters. Thankfully, Ezio is easily Namco Bandai's most successful guest star to date, and his careful and considered implementation goes a long way to remove the bitter taste left by Soul Calibur IV's disastrous inclusion of Yoda and Darth Vader.
Leading the in-house charge is Patrokolos and Pyrrha, son and daughter of Sophitia, who act as the primary characters in the game's brief Story Mode. Told via weary dialogue and painted stills, it's a three-hour trek through jumbled lore. This is an inert, lifeless tale made inherently redundant by its design - it needs to keep coming up with excuses to throw you into 1-on-1 combat, but runs out of steam within a few encounters, leaving you bashing away at the odd fight to unlock a few hidden characters and clothing options.
Other newcomers, such as gruff werewolf Z.W.E.I. and orb-flinging Viola, feature more complicated fighting styles - the game neatly summarises the accessibility of each combatant on the character select screen, though I severely question which person at Namco Bandai thought to write that the mash-happy Cervantes wasn't easy to use. It's particularly disappointing to see three different mimic characters, including Kilik - but overall this roster feels balanced and varied. There's also a big open space for downloadable characters, with comedy con-man Dampierre already announced.
Creation tools have also returned, allowing use to take any of the named roster's fighting styles (or a bonus Devil Jin moveset) and apply them to a suite of appearance and clothing options. The options are fairly balanced - you can't give Nightmare's hulking sword to a teeny-tiny character - but still allow everyone to realise their secret fantasy of making a swollen meathead and giving him the bouncy posture of a teenage girl.