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What went wrong with Soul Calibur 5, and how can Bandai Namco stop it from happening to Soul Calibur 6?

Soul Calibur has been on a hiatus for too long, let's make sure it doesn't fall back in to a new one

Posted by Nicholas 'MajinTenshinhan' Taylor • January 3, 2018 at 9:36 a.m. PST • Comments: 81

Let me start off by saying that Soul Calibur 5 is by no means a bad game.

The main reason Soul Calibur 5 tends to get flak is because of the high standard the series has set before, which to a lot of players, especially casual fans, Soul Calibur 5 wasn't able to live up to.

Now that we have that part out of the way, let's look at some of the reasons Soul Calibur has been such a successful franchise, and how Bandai Namco can go about maintaining that with the upcoming Soul Calibur 6.

Fair warning that spoilers about the Soul Calibur series story will be present in this article, so if you're keen to avoid any such information about previous games in the series, I'd advise you to see steer clear of this piece.

Although the series actually started with 1995's Soul Edge, it's often 1998's Soul Calibur that's fondly remembered when talking about the series' origins. One of the most critically acclaimed titles of its time, it was seen by many as the main reason to buy a DreamCast when it came out.

Receiving perfect scores from publications left and right, ending up with a Metacritic score as high as 98%, there's no doubt that Soul Calibur was a critical darling, but it was a commercial success as well.

It was an engaging and deep 3D fighting game, at a time when arcades were still alive even outside of Japan, and had a home console version that was in fact graphically superior to the arcade version.

Welcome to the stage of history...

It turned a lot of heads at the time, and with fighting games being decently big at the time, especially the newfangled 3D variety of them, it wasn't just a competitive favorite, but gained many casual fans as well.

This was expanded upon greatly with the relase of Soul Calibur 2, when the developers decided to release the sequel on each of the three rivaling consoles - Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox - with one unique guest fighter for each platform.

Although Heihachi wasn't that exciting of a choice (it was actually originally meant to be Cloud from Final Fantasy 7), Link and Spawn excited many a fan, and the game received amazing publicity.

It was hard to imagine how they were going to top such a huge PR move with the next game, and although it's hard to argue that they surpassed it, they did introduce a new staple to the series which secured casual interest in a big way - character creation.

Playing a character like Link was obviously novel and exciting, but creating your own character? That was fresh. That was new. Sure, you were still choosing from generic movesets in the game, but with so many customization options available, as well as a very expansive single player experience to enjoy, the game was played extensively in family homes across the world.

Injustice 2? Never heard of it.

Although they maintained the character creation mode in the game and endeavored to keep players engaged through single player content, Bandai Namco also fell back to guest characters to spur on extra interest in Soul Calibur 4, and although they didn't achieve the same buzz Soul Calibur 2 had, seeing Yoda, Darth Vader and The Force Unleashed's main character Starkiller in the game was a bit of a hot topic.

With all this in mind, it's not difficult to see how Soul Calibur managed to build up such a robust fanbase amongst casual players, actually including myself. I played Soul Calibur religiously way before I got in to any fighting game community, and bought every game - even the Wii spinoff Legends - since 2.

When 2012 hit, fighting games were in the limelight in a big way, and eSports was beginning to grow. In interviews, it's been stated that one of the goals with Soul Calibur 5 was to capitalize on this and many of the game's decisions were made in order to appeal to competitive players.

This is not a bad thing in theory, but another problem was that even during development, the game's director Daishi Odashima openly said that he felt Bandai Namco were rushing the team.

Odashima didn't stop there, even post-release he maintained that not even one fourth of the game's planned story content was actually part of the title.

In short, the Soul Calibur 5 team ended up having to cut a lot of content from the game, so it's difficult to see what their original vision actually was.

But, even then, the glimpses we did see of their original vision when it comes to story purposes or appealing to casual fans seem questionable at best.

"Somehow, it seemed that the developers had figured that players were attached to the movesets and not the characters ... [which] is the furthest you can get from the truth for any of the series' legion of more casually oriented fans."

Bringing in a new cast to a fighting game is a risky endeavor, but it can pay off. Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike had a hard time commercially, partly because people felt that their favorites were missing from the game, although it's later become a classic in many people's minds.

On the other hand, Bandai Namco's own Tekken 3 cut many characters from the first two games and was a big hit for the series, and remains to this day the best selling game in its franchise.

For anyone who cares about story in games, characters are important, and this goes double, or even triple, for fighting games. You have to put so much time and energy into your character, that you inevitably build some sort of bond to them.

It is here that Soul Calibur 5's roster becomes puzzling, because not only did they replace popular characters such as Taki and Kilik with brand new replacements out of the blue, they also entirely cut popular characters such as Talim and Seong Mi-na without any replacements at all.

Not the most popular character select screen in franchise history...

Somehow, it seemed that the developers had figured that players were attached to the movesets and not the characters, which might ring true for a person who's only interested in a game's competitive aspect, but is the furthest you can get from the truth for any of the series' legion of more casually oriented fans.

Not only that, but characters that players had grown to love were treated with incredible disrespect, such as Sophitia being killed off-screen through a text blurb. It was a very jarring experience for anyone who had enjoyed the series, especially since characters disappearing, although not unheard of, had been something of a rarity in the series before this.

Looking at the story and characters we did get in Soul Calibur 5, it's hard to tell if the game had been able to satisfy that part of the audience even if it hadn't been rushed by executives. They made a risky move, and didn't even get to execute it properly, and it ended up being a strange experience for most people involved.

As for the competitive aspects of the game, they certainly did a better job at weeding out bugs that would hurt competitive play (which were prevalent in the console version Soul Calibur 3), and introduced new mechanics to keep tournament players interested, although some of the decisions there can be questioned as well.

The video above from Aris (which, as you might expect, contains NSFW language) illustrates some of the problems that arose from the decision-making for Soul Calibur 5, mainly focusing on the Guard Impact mechanic now requiring meter to be used, and movement options, which are extremely important in a 3D fighting game, being much more risky due to them being counter hit-able

In summation, Soul Calibur 5 had some great ideas along with some core design flaws that hindered it from reaching the potential the developers had hoped it could, and with their heavy focus on making the game a competitive tournament game, they seemingly forgot entirely about the casual fanbase and even the players who are serious about the game but care about more than just tournaments.

Thankfully, what little we know about Soul Calibur 6 seems largely promising.

From a story perspective, the game looks to be going back in time a bit, and is claimed to uncover hidden truths during the events of the original Soul Calibur game.

Based on this, as well as the project's keyword being "reboot" during its development, it seems likely we could see a scenario similar to 2011's Mortal Kombat, which retold the events of the series first three games in a new way and basically restarted the franchise from there.

If this is indeed the case, the game won't be restricted to solely being a prequel, which means that it could very well incorporate fan-favorite characters from later titles as well, such as Talim and Zasalamel, without any issue.

Given some missteps that have been taken as far as roster decisions and characters go, an approach like this wouldn't be a bad idea, especially not if you're hoping to gain some of that old fanbase back, which they've also stated is one of their purposes with the new game.

The approach worked extremely well for Mortal Kombat, which had a successful relaunch back in 2011, later leading into the even bigger hit in 2015's Mortal Kombat X, which is the most successful game in the franchise's history. As fellow fighting game developers, you know that this is something Bandai Namco have been paying attention to, even from across the ocean.

Risen up in glory, like a phoenix!

Bandai Namco gave special note in the aforementioned interview that they've been looking at how past titles were played by their players and how well they were received, suggesting that they're trying to go a similar path to Soul Calibur 5, gameplaywise, but do it better this time. This is further corroborated by the note that Guard Impact is back to being meterless as in previous games.

Another notable aspect is that they're pushing very hard to bridge the gap between casual and competitive players, most notably with the new Reversal Edge mechanic.

In the early information that's been shared with us, this mechanic is an input that allows you to guard against almost any move, regardless of its properties (high, mid or low), and it's said to have been put in to let beginners have a better chance in matches against seasoned players.

"People play games for different reasons, and not everyone who picks up a fighting game wants to become a tournament champion, so trying to make casual players stand on even footing with competitive players seems somewhat misguided to me."

This is presumably to build a larger player base, but the risk with implementing mechanics like these is that they end up being cheap and feel unrewarding for players to get bested by, leading to frustration with the more hardcore players who really put the time in, trying to become the very best.

While I understand the will behind making sure that every player has a fun experience, and trying to broaden the playerbase, it's a philosophy that inherently is at odds with having a competitively viable and rewarding game, something fighting games by their very nature are aimed at.

With this in mind, I'm having trouble following their thought process. People play games for different reasons, and not everyone who picks up a fighting game wants to become a tournament champion, so trying to make casual players stand on even footing with competitive players seems somewhat misguided to me.

It's impossible to tell until we have the game in our hands what this will actually mean for the game's competitive viability, but one thing that seems very clear is that Bandai Namco have looked over not just the missteps made in Soul Calibur 5, but in any game of the franchise, and decided that it's time to rectify them.

It's obvious that they're working hard to make this into the best Soul Calibur game to date, and although I'm slightly worried that they'll mix up the balance between casual players and competitive players again, this time by trying to erase the line between them completely, I'm very optimistic and hopeful for the game.

Gone, but not forgotten...

Just ... Make sure to bring Seong Mi-na back this time, okay?

Hellboy character image source: GamingValhalla.

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