Soulcalibur: Lost Swords is a thing now. There’s no avoiding that. If you were like me, and watched the trailer before reading press releases, then you might have had a similar experience: “Well, there’s Cassandra and Sophitia. which is a good start. Still using Soulcalibur 5’s engine, which is no surprise. What could possibly go wrong?” And then there was the rest. Free to play (a topic I intend to tackle soon enough), only 3 characters to start (Though there are obviously other movesets in the game–Cervantes ,and Nightmare at least–if only for the sake of enemy variety.), and singleplayer only. All in all, not the most compelling development.
Curiouser, at least for me, is how Namco seems to be shuffling things around behind the scenes. Concurrent with Lost Swords’ announcement was an official PR hand-off, with Daishi Odashima referring fans to a new Twitter account belonging to Masaki Hoshino, the game’s producer (though he was originally going by PROGRAMMER_Hoshino), which is going to be the new Project Soul feed. That’s fine. A producer seems like a more appropriate spokesperson for what is actually just another marketing tool. However, sometime after that Daishi Odashima’s twitter account disappeared. It didn’t just go inactive again: it seems to have been deleted. It’s one thing to refer people looking for news on a new game to a new account, but it’s altogether a little suspicious to delete an account that was already dormant, effectively erasing a stage of history (ohoho). Good thing someone kept records, I suppose.
Curiouser still were Hoshino’s recent comments on the impetus for Lost Swords.
“This was done intentionally because as we said people do enjoy fighting other people, but one thing we noticed with the Soul Calibur fanbase is that a lot of people really enjoyed the game for its story, setting and atmosphere,” Hoshino said. “They didn’t like playing against other people – when you lose it’s not exactly a great feeling. So we decided to tailor something to this player base.”
“This might seem unusual, but we’ve done a lot of research and noticed the Soul Calibur group was different to Tekken. That group like fighting against each other, whereas Soul Calibur fans really want to look at the characters and enjoy the atmosphere, and we had an overwhelming response in that direction, so that’s why we chose that.”
That the Soulcalibur games are popular singleplayer games is no secret. It’s still a bit of verbal trickery, though, since every fighting game is more popular as a singleplayer game than a competitive game, though most people will at least attempt to play with others, even if it’s just beating up on a sibling or roommate. I remember even back in the arcade there were players who only cared about Soulcalibur 2’s Conquest mode and refused to take matches from human opponents. So on the surface this reads like one of Namco’s typical self-defeating excuses (“We’re not going to localize the next Tales game because the last one we released with no advertising up against a Final Fantasy game didn’t sell as much as we’d hoped.”), but in reality he has a point, even if it is probably for all the wrong reasons.
It’s not as if the Tekken games aren’t packed to the gills with superfluous singleplayer fluff–and definitely more than Soulcalibur games, especially when it comes to story modes. Hell, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, a non-cannon game that doesn’t even really need a story somehow had time to include over an hour’s worth of fully voiced, pre-rendered endings scenes. Perhaps having a seven year development cycle (Counting Tekken 6, of which Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is basically an expansion. Even without Tekken 6, Tekken Tag Tournament 2 was announced a year before it hit the arcades, and then spent a year there before it was released on consoles.) as apposed to the year Soulcalibur 5 had helps.
The Soulcalibur series had long been known as great console buys because they went out of their way to add tons of extra content where other fighting game series were still shipping with bare bones features. They were setting the pace for a long time, and then they stopped. Fans were already complaining that Soulcalibur 4’s story modes were both lackluster and kind of bewildering, and that it lacked either a classic Weapon Master mode or a (shudder) Chronicles of the Sword. I would guess that Namco figured people would be so happy to show their created characters off online that they wouldn’t care about having nothing much to do with them offline. Or maybe they blew their singleplayer budget on licensing Darth Vader and Yoda.
So the precedent had already been set by the time Soulcalibur 5 was in development. Fans had already made the very complaints that Hoshino is referencing. Instead of taking that to heart, it looks like they would rather get the next game done as soon as possible. Daishi eventually all but said that the game had been rushed, with much of the story content left out. I think that’s where the real problem was, and why we’re not seeing Daishi around for Lost Swords.
Daishi made direct appeals to competitive players, along with Filthierich (also gone from Namco), and in the end that seems to be where his heart lay. It was also, conveniently, the general theme in game development at the time, with most developers trying to cultivate some sort of surface relationship with their respective competitive communities. Daishi was given limited time, and he made the decision to make a competitive fighting game. Namco was either generous or careless enough to let him get away with it, so that is the product they shipped. Daishi also did himself no favours by cutting fan favourite characters to better realize a fresh start for the series (Remember his hopeful early statements about Soulcalibur 5 being a mere precursor to a new series of Soulcalibur games, and that he initially wanted to call the game Soul Edge 2 instead of Soulcalibur 5.). Now the casual fans were not only pissed that Soulcalibur 5 lacked the singleplayer content they wanted, but also that it lacked the characters they associated with the series.
In an ideal world Daishi would have had the time he had needed to make the game he actually wanted, and I’m sure he would have included enough singleplayer content to help fans adjust to the new cast, but Namco eschews any sort of ideal world when they have the option of shooting themselves in the foot instead, especially if they can use not being able to walk properly anymore as an excuse to not do the work their fans want.
There is still hope, though. Army of Darkness could still be something. That something might be a pachinko game for the Japanese mobile market, but it also might not. Maybe Daishi has been moved on to a better project, like the new Saint Seiya fighting game (an anime that he seems to be a fan of), or the new Smash Bros. game that Namco is co-developing with Nintendo. Could be that he is actually working on a Soulcalibur game for the next generation of consoles, but I’m not holding my breath.
As for Lost Swords itself, I find its timing to be odd. Namco was already dipping its toes into the free-to-play market with Tekken Revolution. I understand that. Test the waters. It’s PS3 exclusive because Microsoft doesn’t really allow for free-to-play games on the 360. But by the time Lost Swords will be released (late 2013) the next gen consoles will either be weeks away or already out, and both Sony and Microsoft have long since seen the light and are tailoring their next gen consoles for free-to-play games. Could this be more casual arrogance on Namco’s part, not wanting to release a game using an old game engine on the brand new systems for fear that it will look graphically inferior to the competition? (They shouldn’t be that afraid; their only direct fighting game competition right now is the new Killer Instinct game, and it looks like ass.) Or maybe they figure if they’re going to go for a quickie cash-grab they’d better do it on the system that already has a big install base?
One last thing: Hoshino’s comment that, “fans who are after a competitive Soul Calibur can play the soon to be released HD remake of Soul Calibur 2, which is headed for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.” seemed eerily similar Microsoft’s Don Mattrick’s hilariously inept statement that they had a solution for people who couldn’t deal with the Xbox One’s always-online policy: “We have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity; it’s called Xbox 360.”
Edit: According to a tweet from Harada, Daishi quit. He doesn’t specify whether he quit as the lead for Project Soul, or just Project Soul, or Namco altogether. I still think he got the short end of the stick, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his ultimate decision to quit was Lost Swords itself. Fortunately for Namco, it seems the majority of fans are happy to lay the blame for Soulcalibur 5 on Daishi, so they may get a free pass. When Soulcalibur 6 does eventually get announced I expect it to be much less ambitious in terms of gameplay and mechanics and focused primarily on pushing more pixels out of next-gen hardware.