The Soul Calibur series has long been known for its looks, and Namco's latest entry is already reassuringly gorgeous. The fighters themselves seem to fill the screen, cavorting about and seducing the player with a lapdance of shiny weapons, improbable outfits and sultry flesh. It's the usual mix of swords and sex, then, but that suits me down to the ground.
It's been three years since we last had a Soul Calibur game on home console, but despite the resurgence of the fighting genre, the interim period has failed to produce a direct competitor. This is probably just as well, as from the looks of things Soul Calibur V won't be doing much to rock the boat. According to Namco Bandai's gamescom 2011 demonstration, one of the biggest innovations in the new release is Quickmove, a trick that enables you to shift in or out of the screen to quickly avoid your opponent's attacks, triggered by double tapping up or down.
If that's sounds familiar, it's probably because it seems to very close to the circling moves we've always seen in the series, including the original Soul Edge/Blade. Quickmove is faster than what the 8-way run system usually affords, and it does make you travel further than past dodges, but it still feels like a minor tweak nonetheless - albiet one in keeping with the increased pace of the game as a whole.
The new Critical Gauge is slightly more interesting - a moon-shaped meter that immediately recalls Ultras in Street Fighter IV, only divided into bars. In typical fashion the gauge increases as you attack and defend, and filled bars can be spent on flashy (and damaging) Critical Edge combos, or powered-up versions of standard moves. Again, these feel like safe riffs on long-established genre conventions; the devil will lie in the details, and how much strategy they offer after several months of play.
On that note, Namco says it's very serious about providing regular updates and rebalances. In Soul Calibur IV, Hilde was widely regarded as being so overpowered that she was banned outright from most competitions; the developers don't want a repeat of this situation, and the team will supposedly be keeping a vigilant eye on the game post-release, recalibrating the balance to ensure a longer life expectancy for competitive play.
As for the roster? Hilde will be returning, along with 29 other brawlers old and new. Namco also confirmed the presence of nunchuk-wielding Maxi, S&M freak Voldo, and Tira, the Suicide Girls-styled minx with the killer hula hoop. This time around the lead character will be Patroklos, son of Sophitia - the goody two-shoes who used to smother people under her skirt before breaking their necks with her thighs. Because that's what heroes do.
Soul Calibur V hardly looks to be overflowing with new ideas, but I'm not sure if that really matters. It's been a long time since we've mixed it up with Mitsurugi and friends, and as I said up top, it really does look splendid. Aside from the lush character models, the backdrops are the usual epic stuff: one stage sees you fighting at night amid the ruins of a battlefield littered with bodies, while another drops straight into the chaos of a castle under siege. Next year's release may well feel like a game we've played before, but somehow that still seems like a tasty proposition.
Soul Calibur V will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2012.