Here we go again. Many gamers, myself included, hold up the original Soul Calibur and Soul Calibur II as the pinnacle of the fighting genre, but the subsequent iterations haven't quite managed to nail the fluid mechanics and innovation that this series was once known for. Despite being graphically gorgeous and extremely capable, Soul Calibur IV was soon eclipsed by its competitors and eventually Namco Bandai decided to disband Project Soul. Gamers wailed, signed petitions... and waited.
But now the team is back together; reunited for one last run at the title. They're determined to make Soul Calibur VI, VII, VIII through XV... and to get there, they'll have to make the fifth core game an absolute blinder.
It's early days yet - but from what I got to see, we're in for the same intoxicating mix of swords, souls and revealing outfits along with some new tweaks that bring it in line with its newer, shiner competition.
Sitting cross-legged inside a lavish room appointed like a Japanese Dojo (right down to rush matting and a total lack of chairs), we were introduced to an early alpha build and Soul Calibur V's new setting. Rather than taking place directly after its prequel, seventeen long years have passed and the universe is very different. The regulars are older, wiser and somewhat more dishevelled than before (besides Ivy, whose confusing supernatural powers mean that she doesn't age - which we like immensely), meaning that a new generation of heroes can step in and fight alongside their elders. Patroklos and Pyrrha, Sophitia's children, will be the two main characters of the storyline, and Project Soul are determined to ensure that Soul Calibur V delivers a narrative worthy of its epic pedigree and lore this time around.
Seventeen years haven't dulled Soul Calibur's heart, though. Not one bit. The emphasis is still on lightning fast combos, learning each character's unique abilities and leveraging the 8-Way Run mechanic that lets players step in and out of the scenery. As the two Namco reps selected series mainstays Ivy and Mitsurugi for a test match, the two old soldiers fluidly blocked, threw and employed guard impacts to throw each other off balance, showcasing fluid animations and responsive character movements.
Business as usual, then, but we were soon introduced to the most important new gameplay addition: the Brave Edge and Critical Edge super-attacks. Dealing damage, parrying blows and successful blocks adds power to an ever-increasing meter that can be sacrificed for a lengthy and highly satisfying strike (using 60% and 120% of your power gauge respectively). Rather than a ludicrously complex combo, these moves can be easily triggered in the heat of combat, functioning a little like the Ultras from Super Street Fighter IV or Samurai Shodown Sen's trigger attacks. During the presentation, both of the Namco reps were capable of deploying Edge attacks several times during each bout, leading to mini-cutscenes of brutal devastation and moments of hilarious embarrassment for the intended target.
Project Soul are attempting to make the gameplay more "nervous and dynamic"- which is an understatement of epic proportions considering how easily these Edge attacks can be pulled off at any moment. What's more, empowering new players with the tools to take down veterans will make the experience much more accessible for newcomers. Skill will still be the deciding factor in most engagements, but this will even the playing field somewhat.
Patroklos and Pyrrha are both fairly predictable characters (favouring their mother's shortsword and shield fighting style), but the same certainly can't be said of Z.W.E.I. This hulking lycanthrope-wannabe wields the crucifix-shaped Kreuzgriff with deadly speed and power, but can summon the ghostly wolf E.I.N. to savage his enemies as part of a combo. We can see him functioning a lot like Necrid from Soul Calibur II, with the ability to manifest his bizarre metallic counterpart to fulfil different roles in combat.
Natsu will also be a big hit with Taki fans. Her Kunai fighting style and nimble approach to combat has been heavily influenced by her ninja mentor, but she acts as the vessel for a powerful demon that provides her with a range of magical attacks. Getting foes airborne (and keeping them aloft) seems to be the order with this vivacious new fighter, made easy by a ground-pounding shockwave.
It's still early days, and our half-hour presentation was chock full of obvious balance issues and placeh0lder sound design. But these little annoyances do little to mask a game that's holding onto its core principles while innovating appropriately in order to remain relevant. There's a case to be made that we've fallen out of love with fighting games over the course of this console generation... but I'm starting to fall in love with Soul Calibur all over again. We'll naturally be checking it out at Gamescom - and will keep an eye on it.