First things first: The graphics are brilliant and the fighting is familiar, but superb. Now I've got that out of the way I would like to tell you a bit about the story behind Soul Calibur V.
The game's main story takes you back to 1607 and predominately follows a young man called Patroklos. He's a blond haired boy who looks like he should be out playing ‘rugger' with the lads, not wielding a sword and callously bringing death and destruction to all he meets.
Namco Bandai try really, really hard to get you to dislike Patroklos very early on. And it works. Before I've finished the first four levels of the story campaign I dislike the whiney little upstart to such an extent that I really don't care what happens to him next. Later on, when I finally got to fight against him, it was an absolute delight that I savoured every single brutal second of.
Patroklos has been separated from his sister Pyrrha. For years he has been searching for her (presumably he went looking after school), and in doing so he has fallen in with some bad sorts. A mysterious character called Graf Dumas sends him to various locations, each time suggesting it would be a good place to look. When he's out searching, Patroklos is encouraged to kill the Malfested; demons to me and you. He does, and then some; indiscriminately killing anyone who happens to cross his path. He's a thouroughly bad egg.
It's not long before Pyrrha makes an entrance. She too has fallen in with the wrong crowd, and she too is encouraged to kill indiscriminately. As she feebly whimpers "I'm sorry", she scythes down all that stand before her. Pyrrha is the antithesis of Patroklos, and whilst he goes from bad to good, she starts off good and ends up so evil her eyes turn red. They both struggle with their humanity, and their relationship is a microcosm of the games overall theme; the battle between good and evil, between Soul Calibur and Soul Edge.
During this sibling rivalry of epic proportions we meet Elysium. She is an ethereal character who, for much of the game, assumes the role of Patroklos and Pyrrha's mother; Sophitia. It is never made clear whether or not she is a spirit version of their mother, or whether she is just masquerading as her so she can maintain her hold over Petroklos, the wielder of Soul Calibur.
If Elysium is his mother then, frankly, she needs to put some more clothes on when she talks to her son. Between the scantily-clad mother/son conversations, and lines of dialogue between Petroklos and Pyrrha like; "We're going to be together forever", I was left feeling a little nauseous. This is a seriously dysfunctional family.
Both siblings are difficult to care about, so it's a good thing that other characters are quickly introduced. We meet Z.W.E.I. and Xiba, and are reintroduced to Tira, Siegfried and Ivy. It's at this point that Soul Calibur V starts to get a bit more personality, and I was thankful for that. If I'd had to stick exclusively with Patroklos and Pyrrha for much longer I think I'd have either quit, or wept quietly onto my controller.
There are 20 story levels to play through, and each is linked by a motion comic with voice-over dialogue, though occasionally there is a cut scene thrown in for good measure. By the end of the story, each of your opponents is solid, though persistence will be enough to get you through.
Namco's attempts to get me to dislike Patroklos early on had a lasting impact, and though they tried to develop his character and make him much more likeable by the end, not enough time had passed for me to forget what a horrible little git he was at the beginning. I think if I'd had a little bit more time and a few more battles with the less-annoying version of Patroklos, maybe I'd have come round. Maybe.
If that had been it, then I'd have been disappointed. Lucky for me then that the story mode is only one strand of the Soul Calibur experience. There's the usual selection of modes and options to choose from. Arcade lets you pick any of the unlocked fighters and battle through six increasingly tricky rounds. There's also the Legendary Souls mode, which is like the arcade option, but considerably more challenging.
There are a selection of VS modes. I used them to have a look at all of the available fighters. There is a large selection of opponents to fight via Quick Battle; Namco has used their character creation mode to good effect. There are plenty of challenges to be had here, and some of the fighters you come up against are hilarious.
Like IV before it, Soul Calibur V lets you create your own fighters. Using existing fighting styles and a varied, and often fantastical, assortment of clothes and accessories, it is possible to create an interesting and diverse range of combatants. All tastes are catered for, so if you want a sleek and deadly ninja, it is easy to achieve. Equally, if you want a cross-dressing, chef's hat wearing, dual axe wielding beast of fighter, that option is open to you too.
There are many returning characters, and a whole range of new personalities to get to grips with. Most obviously there is the family central to the story mode; Patroklos, Pyrrha and Elysium. Add to that list; Leixia, Z.W.E.I., Xiba, Viola and Natsu, and there is plenty for players to be getting on with. As each new combatant retains a fighting style similar to that of a departing character, it shouldn't take too long to get familiar with them.
As well as the new characters listed above, one Ezio Auditore da Firenze joins the roster of fighters available. Like Yoda, Darth Vader and Spawn before him, Ezio takes his place in a Soul Calibur line-up. He is a responsive and agile fighter, and carries his trademark swagger into the arena. I enjoyed completing a run at the arcade with him, even if it did feel a little disjointing playing as a character from a different setting altogether, though it's clear why Namco Bandai includes such big name guest stars.
There is a nice range of returning characters. Favourites Nightmare, Ivy, Yoshimitsu, Kilik and Maxi all make a return. As does Aeon, Cervantes, Raphael and my personal favourite; Mitsurugi. Throw in Siegfried, Hilde, Tira, Astaroth, Dampierre, Algol and Edge Master, and you've got a roster rammed with exciting options. Voldo is back, and this time he's sporting rather fetching yellow and purple fluffy leggings and - what looks like - a jewel encrusted codpiece.
I mentioned at the very start that the graphics were brilliant and that the fighting was superb, and I should probably elaborate on that now.
Each of the characters looks fantastic. The animations are smooth and the textures polished. Ezio has never looked as good as he does in Soul Calibur V. Electricity crackles from Astaroth's back and a warm-blue glow comes from Viola's floating orb. Nightmare is more sinister than ever before and Z.W.E.I.'s spirit/werewolf looks great.
The arenas in which the characters fight are all finely crafted. There are always interesting things going on in the distance. With soldiers tackling war elephants and giant trolls, the backgrounds can often prove distracting, but in a good way. I was constantly impressed with the different environments that provided the backdrops to my epic battles.
Attention has been paid to the tiniest of details, and it shows. Defensive minded players may find parts of their armour falling from them should they over-rely on their block; a neat touch that inspires aggressive play. It's very rare that you get to the stage where you or your opponent is wearing nothing but their weapon and their undies, but when it happens someone has usually taken a prolonged hammering. When on the defensive, a well-timed block results in a Just Guard, shortening the recovery time needed before launching a counter.
Each of the characters is well balanced, as you would expect. Many of the moves are almost identical to those that can be found in the original; Namco are merely refining them nowadays. Familiarity aside, I can find very little to fault about the combat. It is responsive, addictive and, when you get in the grove, satisfying.
There is a Critical-Gauge that fills up during combat. When fully charged and successfully deployed, using it can prompt unstoppable Brave Edge and Critical Edge attacks that devastate an enemies health bar. It takes some time to master, but once it's in your locker it can help you dominate matches. In my time so far with the game I have used these powerful attacks to completely annihilate my opponents on more than one occasion, but then my opponents have also used them against me to frustrating effect. It can be very disheartening to whittle down a tricky enemy's health bar, only to have one these unstoppable attacks completely blow you away.
Despite the laughable story mode and the feeling of déjà vu, Soul Calibur V is an accomplished fighting game. It takes nearly everything that is good about the series and refines it. The graphics are superb, the action is slick and fluid and despite a failed attempt at underpinning the whole thing with a decent story, it is still an absolute blast to play.