Sunday, 11 September 2016

How to Fix the Soul Calibur series

Recently, I made a post about some leaked artwork for a possible upcoming Soul Calibur game. At the very end, I made reference to the last main game in the series - SCV - and how disappointed I was with it. Well, this past week has seen me give the game a second chance and...nope, still don't really like it. It got me thinking though about the series as a whole and how it was once one of the hallowed names of fighting games. Now I certainly don't speak for everybody and I would never presume to do such a thing but I don't believe that Soul Calibur carries that same weight anymore. SCV was a pretty divisive game but in truth, the rot probably set in with its direct predecessor. With a sixth installment being hinted at and rumoured, I thought about how this series could be fixed and what exactly has gone wrong.

First, a quick recap on Soul Calibur V. I have to stress that I do not consider this a bad game, more a poor Soul Calibur game. My revisit confirmed a few positive things though so lets kick off with those. Graphically, the game is still sumptous and very detailed with some great lighting/shading/textures. In fact, it still looks bloody beautiful to me even after I've played the likes of Dead or Alive 5 Last Round with that game's obsession with visual quality. Secondly, the character creator tool remains incredible. I probably spent 90% of my time creating characters and painstakingly tweaking them to perfection, the other 10% reserved for the actual fighting. Thirdly, there's no denying the quality of the overall product; it's very polished and well-made to a standard that a lot of other games don't match up to. It's more the content itself (or lack of) that's the problem.

If you're not planning on taking SCV online - something I don't do because I just don't care about online gaming - then there's barely anything to do. The story mode is very, very guff (a mode you won't want to revisit unless you enjoy self-inflicted pain) and the arcade mode is a pitiful six stages. Bear in mind that the sixth stage is always Nightmare and that (in my game at least) stage five is always Aeon so that's a grand total of four random opponents to fight against each time. There's no Survival or anything like that which I was shocked about the first time I played this game. It's pretty barren truth be told and largely why I enjoy sitting there and just creating characters.

SCII is widely considered to be the most 'pure' game in the series.

Without further ado however, I will go through the different things which I feel need changing or have contributed to the steady decline of this once great series...

1. The Gameplay System Itself

Soul Calibur always had a pretty pure and easy to understand gameplay system to get to grips with. The only technical aspect was the legendary 'Guard Impact', a perfectly-timed parry of sorts that deflected the opponent's attack and briefly opened them up for a punishing counter. Get it wrong (which it was easy to do) and you were left open to attack yourself since using GI involved pressing towards an incoming attack. At the same time, the games were very good for casual button-bashers owing to the ease that flashy combos and insane moves could be pulled off.

The series' gameplay is widely agreed to be in it's most purest form in Soul Calibur II which is still considered to be one of the all-time greats. Soul Calibur III retains the same core gameplay but some people were upset about certain characters' movesets being tweaked. Overall though, I would personally consider SC, SCII and SCIII to be the best games in the series (III is my personal favourite) and the places to go if you want to experience SC in its purest form. I'm not including Soul Edge/Blade in this assessment because it has a very different feel and doesn't compare fairly in a straight fight with the sequels although it remains a fantastic game.

SCIV allows for equipment damage and finishing moves.

Things began to get a bit daft in Soul Calibur IV. Now I like this game a lot. I consider it to be much superior to its direct sequel in most ways but the addition of being able to damage/destroy the equipment on different parts of a character's body was the start of the loss of purity. This in itself is not a terrible mechanic and some battle damage in a fighting game is always a welcome bit of detail. However, there was also the new 'Soul Crush' mechanic that opened an opponent up for an insta-kill finishing move animation. In fairness, it wasn't too easy to pull off but I considered it unnecessary.

V took things even further with 'Critical Edge' super moves that were much easier to pull off since they required a single stock of a quick-to-fill meter and in my experience, you can easily activate 2-3 per round. I find the cinematic animation to be intrusive and these moves have a ludicrously high priority that interrupts almost any attack launched by the opponent even when it looks like said move(s) should have connected before the Critical Edge animation was initiated. New 'Brave Edge' enhanced moves (meter dependant again) were also added and Guard Impact became dependant on meter stock; a complete sacrilige in my book. I appreciate that the developer feels the need to add new abilities to keep the series fresh but my personal opinion is that they went a bit too far in SCV and made a once simple game too complicated for its own good with all these meters and extreme moves.

My advice to Project Soul would be to take a look back at what made the earlier games so popular, stick with a non-meter dependant Guard Impact system and ditch all the bolted-on crap. The one addition from recent installments that I would say "keep" is the destructible equipment but only from an aesthetic viewpoint i.e. don't make 'damaged' characters significantly weaker defensively.

2. The Content

A lot of people moaned blind about Soul Calibur III: "It's not a proper Soul Caibur game" they complained. "They've changed these moves" they moaned. Well, one thing you could never lambast the initially console-exclusive sequel for was content. As well as the arcade mode, there was a branching story mode, loads of challenges, additional Survival, Time Attack etc. modes, the debut of the character creator and even a mini RTS style game with its own plot. There was a lot to keep you occupied in other words and I absolutely hammered this game.

Favourite SC + double Sophitia? Yes please...

In contrast, SCV is (and I'm going to be brutally honest here) a disgrace. SCIV pared the content back considerably but it still had enough to get your teeth into. V has a crap story mode, six stage arcade mode and a brutally hard 'Legendary Souls' mode. Save for the character creator, that's your lot. It may even be worse than the handheld installment - Broken Destiny - and that was on the PSP for heaven's sake. It's like Namco had a board meeting and decided "you know what guys, everybody is gonna buy this game for the online so let's not bother with all that old offline crap which was so 1990's". I was genuinely floored by the lack of substance in SCV right after I'd shelled out for the collector's edition too. Namco's sister series, Tekken, has never suffered like this so it's a mystery as to why the Soul series should be sent into battle so ill-equipped. The 'people only caring about online' explanation is all I got.

The solution to this one is blindingly simple: just sort that shit out and ram as many modes in as possible. Take a look back at SCIII guys.

3. The characters

Fighting games live and die by the cast of characters that the player can choose from. Unfortunately - for me at least - SCV bombed in this department. Essentially, the devs chose to do what Tekken 3 and Street Fighter III had done years before and advance the storyline while replacing old favourites with descendants or pupils so as to keep the same fighting styles intact. This in itself is no bad thing to do because those aforementioned games did after all go on to become classics after all. Problem was, those games were also pretty sorted in all other departments so a change of the guard on the character select screen was so much easier to swallow.

You have to question if the suspiciously modern and brash Natsu (who looks like an anime girl) was a good replacement for Taki. Was monkey boy Xiba really a sufficient substitute for Kilik? When you play as Pyrrh, you can't help thinking that she's a worse version of Sophitia with a wimpy personality. Leixia is...just a younger Xianghua? The brand-new characters struggle to fit in as well: Z.W.E.I looks completely out of place while Viola's magical moveset seems greatly at odds with the weapons-based combat that makes the series what it is. And don't get me started on how they wasted so many slots with characters that use random movesets! Kilik, Edge Master and Elysium made three mimic characters and that's too many by far. The bigger kick in the teeth is that Elysium is modelled on Sophitia and even has her face if you remove her mask in the character creator!

I hate Z.W.E.I and his capitalised name...

Ultimately I found many of these new characters to be crap and uninspiring which is why I preferred to just make my own. The likes of Cassandra, Talim, Setsuka, Hwang, Zasalamel, Seuong Mina, Sophitia et. all were left behind and this really pissed me off when the replacements simply didn't match up. They still found time to include the ugly-ass joke character of Dampierre though didn't they? Oh God...he should have stayed on the portable game!

Maybe some people won't agree. Maybe some will say that they liked these new characters and that's fair enough; we're all entitled to our own view on what we enjoy after all. I say keep the new characters but at least have the classics in there as well. I'd love the next SC to be a 'dream match' game where the plot isn't important and any character from the past can be included. Tekken Tag 2 did it so it's high time that an SC title did the same. It would be nice to see the proper old-school guys like Li Long and Rock get another airing anyway.

4. Guest characters

Just get rid of 'em. Very few have worked well in the series in my opinion. The only two that slotted in nicely were Kratos (Broken Destiny) and Ezio (SCV). Heihachi and Spawn for SCII were daft while Link gets a bit of a free pass for being Link and at least showing up with a sword and looking human enough. The Star Wars characters in IV were the absolute peak of madness and only included to tie in with Revenge of the Sith and boost sales of SCIV. They were ridiculous even if Vader was a guilty pleasure and even if  there was a perverse joy in duelling inside the Star Destroyer loading bay with that famous main theme playing.

They aren't needed at the end of the day but if they have to be included then at least make them relevant. Ironically, it was probably Ezio that fits that description better than any of my least favourite game of the series!

5. Music

The soundtracks to SCIV and V frustrated me. On one hand, they were clearly quality compositions and yet I can't summon a single melody from either game in my mind. They were just big, epic scores that don't live on in the memory - a criticism that one can fairly level at a lot of modern game music truth be told. The best music in the series is all in the past. Soulblade boasted several amazing mixes of the BGM which was incredible for the time. SCIII featured the absolute best soundtrack in my opinion however from the downright dramatic cathedral stage to the beautiful gallery music.

I hate you Elysium...but I love your design too.

If a new game can wow me with music that harks back to the older titles then I'll be a happy man. SCV does allow you to download older tracks as DLC and use them in-game to be fair but I just don't have the will to pay for music to use in a game I don't want to play. Otherwise, I would be happy to see this feature return in a new installment just like how Tekken Tag 2 allowed the player to download whole sets of music (despite some tracks being missing!). Game music has generally not gotten better over the years in any genre so retro-fitting old music via DLC as a customisation option may be the only solution.

Final Thoughts...

So that's my moan and suggestions. The ideal formula then would be SCII Gameplay + Soulblade/SCIII music + SCIII levels of content + a loaded roster of characters past and present. This is just my opinion though. I know that some people did actually enjoy V but I class it as one of my all-time most disappointing games and I've played a lot over the years. First of all though, we will need to see if there is any truth to the rumours of a Soul Calibur VI. I hope that something good happens to coincide with this year's 20th anniversary of the series and I will undoubtedly be excited as heck despite my scepticism. Fingers crossed!

1 comment:

  1. It's pretty much the only beat-em-up series I pay attention to/"care" about, probably the only one I've played most of the games in too.

    Funny, but Soul Calibur III's my LEAST favourite one - probably because it's PS2-only and by definition PS2 games aren't exactly the best things around (drab on the eyes and those pads kill my palms).

    You can't beat the original on Dreamcast, but IV and V get the most play out of me (for character creation, yeah!) - I'll be honest, I didn't even know about all those different techniques in V until you mentioned them there! "Investigation" may be needed (like you, I probably spend more time creating characters than I do fighting with them...)