It all began 15 years ago, with a lofty voice that proclaimed: "Transcending history and the world, a tale of soul and swords eternally retold!" But after the progressively stifled SoulCalibur 4 - a game whose unique selling point was the clashing of katanas and lightsabers in a Star Destroyer docking bay, with its cameos from Darth Vader and Yoda - it seemed like the curtain had finally fallen on the Stage of History. However, nobody told Project Soul director Daishi Odashima, as by taking the series 17 years into the future and retiring certain members of the cast, he finally gives us a SoulCalibur that shows tangible progression since its days on the Dreamcast.
A quick trip to the select screen reveals that Taki, Xianghua and Kilik have been replaced by Natsu, Leixia and Xiba - respectively an apprentice, daughter and successor. This passing of torches is also inherent in their fighting styles, as with bō-staff in hand, Xiba (whose named is pronounced the same as a popular brand of cat food) fights in a way that closely resembles his less goofy predecessor. Although his move set has been subtly tweaked, you can still achieve a ring-out by jamming your pole between your opponent's legs and tossing them over your shoulder.
While Sophitia has passed on her shield duties to her twin children, Patroklos and Pyrrha, the rest of the roster is made up of Calibur classics like the nunchaku-twirling Maki, the axe-swinging Astaroth and the double-cheque-cashing Yoshimitsu. Some of them also look more advanced in years, with Mitsurugi keeping it classy with his Just For Men mane and Lizardman - who now goes by his human name of Aeon Calcos - rocking an angelic set of wings that give his techniques an aerial edge.
As intriguing as this revamped roll-call is, however, the main draw of our hands-on test was a pair of entirely new characters that can mix swordplay with conjuration. The more technical of the two is Viola, a grey-haired fortune teller who looks suspiciously like Amy - but instead of a rapier, she wields a crystal ball and a set of Freddy Krueger shears. She can use these finger blades up close for a basic offence, but by setting her crystal ball mid-air and then recalling it to bash the opponent mid-combo, she has the potential to string together more hits than any other character.
The unusually titled Z.W.E.I., meanwhile, wears a ripped jacket and leather trousers combination that makes him look like a camp urban wizard who could have been the main villain of an eighties cartoon show. His weapon of choice is a tri-handled sword that offers a balance between speed, power and range, and to give his style a bit of personality, he can summon his wolf spirit E.I.N. to extend his combos and cover his back while recovering from a whiffed strike. He also benefits from an intermediate level of execution - which means Ezio Auditore, cameoing from Assassin's Creed, is a better choice for players who want to skip the entry exam.
Compared to previous guest characters like Link, Kratos and the ankle-chopping Yoda, the white-cloaked assassin is much less intrusive; by his very nature, Ezio is trying to blend in. He makes the transition from the 16th to 17th century with both his Italian accent and a stealthy arsenal of swords, daggers and wrist blades which he can use defensively to bait mistakes. He can also pressure the opponent with crossbow bolts that strike high or low, as well as a hidden gun that works similarly to Cervantes' pistol sword.
And yet, despite offering the most lovingly detailed roster in the series' long-running history, SoulCalibur 5's true merit is found in its underlying mechanics. Everything has been adjusted to make the combat not only feel faster - with a new Quick Step that makes sidestepping predictable strikes even easier - but also more flexible in terms of combo and counter creativity. So while SoulCalibur 4 was all about pressing block and a direction to perform a Guard Impact, in SoulCalbiur 5, you can Just Guard with a simple tap.
The timing of this is fairly strict, and instead of interrupting your opponent - as was the case previously - Just Guard lets you relive those Third Strike moments by parrying the individual hits of a sustained assault. Successful deflections will also bag you valuable metre in the new Critical Gauge. This can then be spent on three different manoeuvres, including a revised Guard Impact that no longer distinguishes between high and low attacks.
The other Critical Gauge systems are more offence-orientated and require a fully charged bar to perform. The Critical Edge supers are the more beginner-friendly of the two, ranging from Astaroth using a command grab to drill the opponent into the curb to Nightmare throwing out a special Guard Impact, which, if interrupted, sees him bringing down Soul Edge with enough force to make your opponent less mash-happy.
Critical Edges are an excellent way to punish obvious mistakes, but in terms of combo creativity, the new Brave Edges offer something which the previous games have lacked - flexibility. They're essentially EX specials that cover a handful of moves and either extend the number of hits or put the opponent into a stunned state where you can combo them further. It's also possible to combo two Brave Edges together, or if you're feeling particularly flashy, conclude a Brave Edge combo with a Critical Edge finale for well over 50 per cent damage.
As alluring as all these technical changes are, it seems that Project Soul hasn't forgotten the importance of single-player content. While the Story, Legendary Souls and Xbox Live modes were all locked out in our preview build, we did get to sample an improved character creation mode that sets a new benchmark for versatility.
You can now change the fabric pattern of any garment while applying customisable stickers which can turn even the simplest vest into something truly unique. There's also a large selection of random objects which can be adjusted by size, rotation and angle - and when we discovered that this included an arrow which could be placed anywhere on the body, we were momentarily distracted from crafting our cowgirl with a rock chick edge.
Knee-jerk reactions aside, our lasting impression of SoulCalibur 5 is that after years of wheeling out the same tried and tested formula, the series is finally embracing some new mechanics that have genuine validity. And although it could be argued that adding a super gauge is jumping on the bandwagon, for our money, the Just Guard and Brave Edge systems have the potential to make this not only an accessible fighter, but one with hardcore longevity.
That's what SoulCalibur has always lacked, and if Project Soul can pull it off with added content and character balance, then this could be the Stage of History's most epic act yet.
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