The Soul series, starting with Soul Edge and moving all the way up to Soulcalibur V, has a reputation for growth. Compared to their respective predecessors, each game in the series features larger character rosters, flashier move sets, and ginormous-er boobs. This latest installment in the series keeps the tradition alive, and even visiting character Ezio Auditore has a bigger bust than he had in Assassin's Creed II. No one ever said bigger is better for everything, but at least no one can accuse Namco Bandai of sexism.
Bountiful bosoms aside, Soulcalibur V refines certain elements of previous games, and it keeps the game mechanics that make the game what it is. Looser buffering time, faster combat, and some very wicked-looking moves. At day's end, the game is a solid addition to the Soul franchise, though it definitely has a few drawbacks that will irritate a fair number of fans.
Visually speaking, the game is exactly what you'd expect from Namco Bandai. The studio hands out topnotch animation and art design. Characters like Voldo and Yoshimitsu still have that element of oddity that puts fans somewhere in the middle of liking and not liking the costume choices. Ivy and the like have have their trademark outfits, and no one looks like they shouldn't. There isn't really much to complain about regarding the aesthetic appeal.
The stages, as always, are palette swaps of older maps. A few of them are a little different, but replace the moving wall with suits of armor, or tundra with paved stone, and you won't have a hard time guessing which previous level became which current level. Even so, there's still some new material out there, and the stages weren't broken, so there was no need to fix them.
One great addition is that some stages have multiple tiers, so scoring a Ring Out on one stage will put you and your opponent on a different one in the next round. Unfortunately, there's only a handful of those. It would have been better if Namco had committed more to the new idea, but the attempt itself deserves some praise, or at least a tip of the cap. Hopefully, in the inevitable Soulcalibur VI, we'll see more from this new innovation.
From a story standpoint, the game doesn't really have one. Less than twenty stages encompass the whole narrative, which is even worse than what Tekken 6 had. There are people out there who don't really care much for fighting games' story lines, saying the story is always poorly written, but it's still fun to run through them precisely because they're bad. Soulcalibur V has a single path that fails to tell anyone's story well. This crosses the line between enjoyably bad and just plain bad.
The new characters suffer the most from this decision. Z.W.E.I and Viola, Patroklos and the rest don't have any sort of development, which just makes them flat stock characters who exist purely to thrash each other. If they had some sort of history behind them, gamers could identify with them on some level, and have a different reason for liking or hating a character that isn't simply because their fighting style is subpar. And since none of the characters have their own unique story line, where you play as that character through five or so fights, there isn't much incentive to try them out too much.
The "plot" of the Story Mode itself is hard to follow and underdeveloped. Originally, the creator wanted to call the game Soul Edge II, because they were basically resetting the characters and back story by having the action seventeen-odd years in the future. Marketing purposes gave the game its current title, which doesn't affect the story because there really isn't one to affect. This idea is another one that warranted more commitment than it received, and the game suffers for it.
Another unfortunate casualty is the game's character creation. Whereas in SCIV, there was an extensive array of equipment that you bought with the "Soulcalibur dollars" you earned throughout the game, SCV just gives you items for leveling up. What's more, there's significantly fewer pieces to choose from, unless you count the DLC packets. Of course, at 160 to 320 M$ per pack, most people won't count those.
The idea of patterns is nice, but there just aren't enough items to really satisfy the players who loved the character creation in the previous games. The fact you don't buy them yourself but simply get them for playing the game also doesn't help matters. Again, you get new ideas that aren't fully developed, and no explanation for any of it.
From a mechanical standpoint, though, the game is a vast improvement. The Critical Finish system from Soulcalibur IV received a lot of criticism precisely because it wasn't an actual move. Players simply set up the move, pressed a single button, and the Finisher happened. While some of the Finishes looked pretty, they didn't require any skill and were just a little dull because of it.
Soulcalibur V removes the Critical Finish mechanic entirely, instead replacing it with a set of new mechanics. The Brave Edge and Critical Edge system both require actual button inputs that, though simple, are at least actual moves. They also add a bit of flare to the game play, which is always nice. The Quick Move idea won't play into most gamers' play style, at least beyond nabbing its one achievement for K.O.s.
The online play is about what you'd expect. Fight people from across the country and/or globe, finding five players who mercilessly throttle you for every one player who's somewhere around your skill level. The achievements for rivals are simply a matter of finding a player at the bottom of its respective list and then playing like you kind of mean it. Still, the online community, even today, is far from deserted, so the competitive gamer can have at it without inviting seven different friends over to have a decent experience.
When all is said and done, the game keeps the parts that make people enjoy and come back to the series, but doesn't follow through on its newer, and sometimes better, ideas. People who enjoy fighting games in general won't regret playing this game, but the people who specifically enjoy Soulcalibur will have at least a few problems with this installment. Still, both groups will enjoy at least some, or more likely most aspects of the game. It isn't perfect, but then again, it doesn't have to be.