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Since its peerless Dreamcast debut in 1999, the Soul Calibur series has occupied an awkward middle ground, with neither the familiarity of the Street Fighter series, Tekken’s mash-friendly immediacy, nor Virtua Fighter’s hardcore appeal. It now faces another challenge, returning three years after Soul Calibur IV ?to find a vastly changed fighting game landscape.
The genre has been revitalised, and greatly reinvented, with a shift in focus away from the hardcore and towards beginner players, with highly damaging super combos and comeback mechanics now an accepted standard. Soul Calibur V’s implementation ?of the former is Critical Edge (first used in the series’ 1996 precursor Soul Blade), which has been tweaked to modern tastes. A meter fills as you land and take hits, and it can be used to unleash a flurry of attacks when full. For all intents and purposes, it’s Street Fighter IV’s Ultra Combo, right down to the joystick input, and as ?in Capcom’s game, it can be used randomly by beginner players or incorporated into combos by the more advanced. Half of the gauge can be activated after certain attacks for a Brave Edge effect, which adjusts ?the properties of the move that preceded it, increasing damage or recovery, and adding a further layer of depth to the combo system.
And it’s that system where Soul Calibur V is most obviously an improvement on its predecessor. As in its Namco stablemate Tekken, there’s heavy emphasis on juggles, but while high-level Tekken players might as well put their sticks down the second they’re launched into the air, there’s a more realistic interpretation of gravity here. After a few hits, an airborne opponent will fall back to earth, and some aggressive damage scaling means that tagging a Critical Edge move onto the end of a lengthy string often results in less damage than if you performed it on its own.
While the use of a block button immediately brings back unwelcome memories of the recent Mortal Kombat, it’s smartly integrated here to ensure that play is more than a matter of keeping up a guard until it’s your turn to attack. Soul Calibur IV’s Soul Crush mechanic – which caused equipment to break if too many attacks were blocked – has been discarded, and instead each character possesses a move that breaks an opponent’s guard instantly. Players can also reduce the time spent in blockstun by guarding at the last possible moment. When combined with evades, activated by double-tapping a direction, and eight-way run – which enables players to move with relative freedom around the Y-axis – it’s a system of delicately probing for openings rather than hopeful mashing. You’ll need to read your opponent’s next likely move and react accordingly, either guarding in the appropriate direction, dodging or using a light attack with a fast startup time. It’s clunky at times, but looks genuinely balletic in full flow, and the moves chain together in logical ways meaning you don’t have to refer to the pause menu’s movelist for combo advice; you can work much of it out for yourself. Yet while this game has the most expansive combo system of any in the series, it still feels a little sluggish. Admittedly, this is a natural consequence of fighters being clad in armour and often lugging around heavy medieval weaponry, but the use of pre-canned combo strings means that, despite the increased pace, there’s an awkward pause between the end of one chain of attacks and the beginning of the next.