Almost 20 years after Virtua Fighter popularised the 3D fighting game, SoulCalibur remains the only major franchise that's given the idea both barrels. Or if you prefer, barrel rolls.
Oh, Tekken may have mastered the art of stepping sideways, but it can't match its rival's dizzying prowess. Bolstered by a ninja Quick Step move, the fifth instalment soon gets our pulses twanging. Going for the groin, eh, Pyrrha? Sorry, but suddenly we're over here, directly behind you and well out of the way of that butter-knife you call a sword. Say hello to our large, spiked, double-headed friend. Now say goodbye.
The result is a looser, sprightlier fighter which seldom gets bogged down in combos, a greyhound among the bulldogs. Shame SoulCalibur the property isn't as quick on its feet, nowadays, as SoulCalibur the game. The latest release is the definition of a cautious sequel, adding a few new characters - one leased from the Assassin's Creed series - reinventing others and fattening out the character editor while stalwartly refusing to try its hand at different modes, even those that have served the series well in the past.
It's a sequel whose subtleties will divide fans and leave everybody else scratching their heads, wondering why Namco couldn't have released a downloadable update for SoulCalibur 4 instead. SoulCalibur has always been worth raking your scalp over, of course, thanks to its elaborately bonkers characters, the fruits of a head-on clash between Japanese, Asian and European feudal styles.
Wilder newcomers include Z.W.E.I., a smouldering pin-up in a sleeveless jacket who's somehow fallen in with a teleporting, combo-extending werewolf, and Viola, a witch who fights using a crystal ball that can be knocked from her grasp. Pre-order exclusive character Dampierre (introduced by SoulCalibur: Broken Destiny) steals the show with pinstripe trousers, handlebar moustaches and combos that always seem to end between somebody's legs. Alongside these prodigies, Assassin's Creed's normally fabulous Ezio Auditore looks about as flamboyant as Marks & Spencer's.
The new characters aren't especially exciting to play, however: welcome additions to the line-up, but no substitute for the old hands, many of whom sneakily persist in the form of offspring and/or disciples. SoulCalibur 5 is set 17 years after SoulCalibur 4, not that you'd know it from the state of Ivy's chest. The (inevitably ludicrous) plot focuses on Sophitia's children Patroklos and Pyrrha, the first of whom fights quite a lot like his mother, give or take a splash of Lizardman, the second of whom fights all but exactly like her mother. Taki has buggered off on some mystic quest, leaving her daggers and darting footwork to carrot-topped protégé Natsu. Kilik's called it a day, but there's a chap named Xiba who's just as handy with a staff, and Yan Leixia has inherited Xianghua's agile wrist.
Criticising a fighting game for familiar characters may sound perverse - these are games that trade on the tiniest of variables, challenging devotees to master piecemeal yet crucial tune-ups. But SoulCalibur 5 feels more than usually sparing on this front, especially given the three-and-a-half year gap between games, and where other fighters compensate by folding in modifiers and modes, there isn't much to shout about here.
In fairness, what there is feels sound. The new "Critical Edge" gauge is a nod to Street Fighter IV that emphasises super moves while treating flash-averse players to a juicy intervening layer of power-up goodness. You can burn the whole gauge on a hands-off show-stopper, or sacrifice a single bar to turn a normal attack into an amplified "Brave Edge" move. In a surprise twist, the old Guard Impact mechanic - now "Just Guard" - also eats into the gauge; the trade-off for reversal specialists is that height is no longer a factor, and you don't have to worry about people countering your guards if you fudge the timing.