There's something that leaves me cold about Soulcalibur V and I'm having a hard time putting my finger on it.
Part of it is, of course, that they overhauled the roster and ditched my two main characters. There's a seventeen-year timeskip between Soulcalibur IV and this game, sort of like the generation gap between the second and third Tekken games, and they took the opportunity to ditch Xianghua and Seung Mina. Thanks, guys. Xianghua's been replaced by her daughter, a half-dressed spastic named Leixia, but she isn't the real thing and you can't convince me otherwise. Kilik's successor as Annoying Guy with Staff is Xiba, a takeoff on the Monkey King who won't shut up about how hungry he is, so I can't fall back on that either.
Another part of my dislike is that the game's story mode now focuses mainly on Patroklos Alexandra, Sophitia's son and a man who is more than ready to take being an asshat to the next level. He could go pro. In several hours of going through the story missions, I got to spend quality time with him, who never did a single likable thing; his sister Pyrrha, who spends every fight scared out of her wits and begging her opponent to leave her alone, which is extremely creepy in a way I'm not sure the developers intended; and of course, plenty of scenery-chewing goodness from Tira. I wasn't sure why I knew guys who hated Tira before now, but now I get it. She's like eighty pounds of bad idea poured into a cake mold that looks like Harley Quinn.
Just the same, though, Namco has always had really good value for your dollar on their fighting games, and Soulcalibur V is no exception. It's got the same head-to-head fighting, a lengthy story mode, really good netcode for online play, hundreds of unlockables, and - in what may be its saving grace - a robust, often hilarious create-a-character mode. You have to grind XP (okay, Player Points, which you get in small amounts with every fight, but let's be fair; it's XP) to get all of the various costume items for create-a-character, but that's an optional cosmetic function and doesn't really bother me that much. You can have a lot of fun just screwing around with create-a-character, and I think I've spent at least as much time with it as I have with any other mode.
The fighting's immediately familiar to any fan of the series, with one significant change. There's now a Soul Gauge, which is effectively a super meter, and fills up rapidly as you hit the other guy. You can spend meter on all-or-nothing super attacks, augmented versions of your character's normal moves, or the Guard Impact countermove. It seems to mostly exist as a way to take some of the guesswork out of successfully using a Guard Impact, since each one costs you 25% of a meter. The supers and augmentations, on the other hand, are mostly kind of cool to look at and don't really do a whole hell of a lot.
I could complain a bit more about how I don't really have a character to fall back on in the roster, but that'd be reasonably petty. There's a big enough roster that you can probably find someone you like, and the few new guys are pretty interesting. Viola strikes me as a character with a high skill ceiling, since her whole game revolves around parking her crystal ball somewhere else on the screen and using it to set up traps, juggles, and advance hits. By the same token, Zwei does a lot of fighting by conjuring up some kind of werewolf spirit to carry the mail for him, and I'm still not quite sure how he works.
I'm still not crazy about the series, but that owes largely to my bias against fighting games that use a block button instead of just letting me hold back on the stick. For my money, this is a decent fighter, but the real fun here is to be had with making increasingly ridiculous characters. I do not have it in me to be truly negative about a game that lets me beat the hell out of somebody with a sumo wrestler in a donkey mask.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Soulcalibur V provided by Namco Bandai.