Is A Free SoulCalibur A Crazy-Ass-Sorry-Ass-Wack-Sell-Out?

by Harold Goldberg

My first thought was, What kind of crazy-ass-sorry-ass-wimpy-ass-wack sort of thing are they doing at Bandai Namco?

More than a few of the publisher’s new games are being released as free-to-play games – even the latest Soulcalibur, which I wrote about as my favorite game in the book All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture). Isn’t free-to-play a sure sign of sell-out death, “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet ranted?

Or, as J.K. Rowling proclaims in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Is that what the new Soulcalibur: Lost Swords can be?

They come. They go. The fads and trends in videogame culture kind of like an arc of an arrow shot over a tree, over a pond. And then, it falls to earth.

In the last decade, we’ve seen the casual game trend, the Facebook game fads, the rhythm-based music game trend – and a handful of others.

During the trajectory, publishers hope to thrill fans and make money.

With Bandai Namco’s latest slate of games, you’ll see some longstanding console games become free-to-play games.

Over the last few years, flying and fighting games like Ace Combat have not done as well as expected. The same went for Ridge Racer, the arcade-like racing offering which was the staple of so many of Sony’s E3 press conferences – even though Sony did not make the game. Ridge Racer as free to play? It’s true.

So, too, it is with SoulCalibur, which beyond fighting, was rife with myth and backstory for each character. That’s what drew me to the series.

Yet with sales on the decline, Bandai Namco had a tough decision to make.

Should they cancel all the series which are still beloved by a core group of fans, but not as many as at the peak of popularity? Should they fire or reassign the dedicated people who’ve carefully crafted these games like artists create paintings?

Or should they try a new way to make money, one that wouldn’t give the games at least one more chance at relevance?

Bandai Namco decided on the latter rather than the former. But with it, they would try to place these games into a category that core gamers have pooh-poohed, the free-to-play genre.

It’s a big gamble about the personality of those who play – a hope for obsession in the sense that Soulcalibur is actually are free to play for the PS3 – for a while. Despite the idea that the “first one’s free,” the publisher is banking on the player’s rising emotions of greed.

I certainly was skeptical, especially with Soulcalibur, a game for which, to paraphrase the game’s most quoted words, “the soul still burns.”

But when I played at an event, the basic design of the game that features Sophitia, Taki and a host of others, is still the same. It’s not as deep as far as numbers of moves go, but to be honest, during fevered play, I probably used about 10 to 14 moves.

The graphics are a bit stripped down, but still crisp and clear. And I wasn’t able to knock an adversary off the stage into, say, the murky depths. And there’s no online or offline multiplayer at all.

The premise is mainly about a player upgrading, crafting and customizing his or her character. Specifically, each weapon or piece of armor has an elemental aspect, which will increase damage against opponents who are vulnerable to those elements.

You can play through to get free upgrades or you can by stronger upgrades through microtransactions. The publisher hopes players will come in droves to buy upgrades in packs which include tickets to revive you when the going gets tough.

They’ll add a couple of characters each month to see what flies. It’s not the most optimal way to continue the storied Soulcalibur franchise. But at least the series hasn’t died.

Who knows?  If free-to-play becomes a thing for Soulcalibur (or Ridge Racer or Ace Combat), we may see multiplayer online matches or perhaps new console versions. But right now, this is what’s been foisted upon us.

And it’s not too bad at all.

Harold Goldberg, a contributor to The New York Times, is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

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