Soul Calibur: Lost Swords Commits a New Free-to-Play Sin

It’s become almost like clockwork that the ill-reputed free-to-play model has claimed another well-loved franchise in the name of manipulative business ideals. We lost Square’s Final Fantasy to All the Bravest, Bullfrog classic Dungeon Keeper to the mobile port, now we’re reaching out to one of the finest fighting game franchises of all time: Soul Calibur. The recent release of Soul Calibur: Lost Swords on PSN brings the free-to-play model to the weapon-focused fighter, and expectedly, the result is a mix of cash-grabbing and drained consciences. Soul Calibur: Lost Swords isn’t just another free-to-play “experiment” gone wrong; it displays a neglectful attitude that shows that publishers can make the ability to earn income precede the most basic and elementary of game design principles.

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Even as someone with barely any significant interest in traditional tournament fighters, Soul Calibur is one of the few exceptions that really gets my attention. While I didn’t get to experience the supposed perfection of the original Dreamcast Soul Calibur, my entrance into the series with Soul Calibur II is something I hold near and dear to my heart. It was such a polished game, ripe with versus mode addiction, but the single-player Weapon Master mode remains one of the finest solo campaigns I’ve ever seen in a fighting game. It was so big and so diverse in its challenges that I would spend hours on end taking out tough-as-nails enemies just so I could get a goofy weapon like Nightmare’s Galley Oar or Link’s Butterfly Net. In our current age of overhauled multiplayer suites and half-baked arcade modes as single-player, Soul Calibur II remains one of the finest, a massive quest that doesn’t punish gamers for not having immediate contact to a Player 2.

With that, however, Soul Calibur became notoriously slim on single-player offerings. From Soul Calibur III onward, no game in the series provided any substantial credit for those uninterested in online play. That’s why Soul Calibur: Lost Swords was such a big deal at first. As a solely single-player experience, it sounded almost sacrilegious in practice, but people like me couldn’t help but get excited at that. Then of course, it was announced to be free-to-play. Now, everyone knows my views on free-to-play games and the microtransactions that follow suit, and I’ve said time and again how poorly they’re implemented into many modern games. Unsurprisingly, Soul Calibur: Lost Swords completely fumbles that ball; it’s a terrible representation of classic fighting game style that’s buried in intrusive free-to-play practices, but that’s not why it’s such a colossal bust.

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Soul Calibur: Lost Swords heavily limits how much you can do at once. Using points called AP, you can buy opportunities to complete a quest. The AP recharges extremely slowly, but guess what? You can use real money to buy a potion to instantly recharge it! This idea of locking gamers out of a game for a while to fish money from them has already been abused to death with games like Final Fantasy: All the Bravest and Dungeon Keeper on mobile, but this is soured even more considering how good Soul Calibur’s single-player used to be. As stated earlier, Weapon Master in Soul Calibur II was fantastic from start to finish, and now we’re being offered a paltry amount of content at a time, forcing us to play the games in interruptive bursts instead of long hauls.

But even that’s not the biggest issue that Lost Swords has. It has one fatal flaw, a flaw so putrid and buried in malpractice that it needs to be known for fear of it being abused unknowingly. The flaw is easy: Soul Calibur: Lost Swords uses its free-to-play model to distract from how bad the game itself is. Now this isn’t the design or the structure of quests in the game; it’s the way the game plays. Movelists that have been expanded on considerably since Soul Calibur on Dreamcast have been terribly neutered, ring outs have become flat-out removed, and the overall combo flow feels inconsistent and devoid of strategy. It’s a mess, and as a single-player game, it’s downright insulting.

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But the phrase “free-to-play” sits in the description of the game confidently. If you’ve ever taken a marketing class in high school, you’ll understand that language fuels any good marketing campaign. Maybe not words alone, but visual, audio and interactive language as well. Certain words have instantly recognizable connotations; they will get people’s attention in very subliminal and primal ways. If there’s one word in marketing that is loaded in every chamber, it’s the word “free.” Think about it: when you see a tag at the grocery store, the word the advertiser wants you to focus on the most is usually the biggest. When it’s used, “free” is the one. Even if the deal isn’t good, if the word “free” is used, it will get your attention purely and instinctively. It’s an eye-catch of a word, an effortless way to get people to look at your game. You might not end up buying the game, but that’s not the hardest part. The hardest part of marketing is getting that first bit of attention, and there’s no better way to get someone to look at your product further than to have the word “free” tagging along.

That manipulation of marketing language is why Soul Calibur: Lost Swords is such a trainwreck. It’s not a good game. It’s flawed, mis-structured, and fundamentally dull, but it’s free-to-play. Developers can get money from people simply by sneaking in those microtransactions, without having to lift a finger in making a competent game. When free-to-play is used, many developers don’t even bother polishing the basic nature of the game itself; they don’t need to. As long as the microtransactions deliver enough income, the base elements mean nothing. The controls, the design, none of that is worth investing effort in when you can get people to spend real-money on something as simple as a life potion. It’s one thing to be a good game hurt by microtransactions. It’s another to be a bad game hidden by microtransactions.

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So, we have another venerable and well-recorded franchise damaged by a manipulative free-to-play model, but Soul Calibur: Lost Swords takes that already toxic stigma and, through some bizarre and potentially occult method, makes it worse. It displays not just corporate greed, but an irresponsible negligence to the most basic of game skeletons. It’s a bad game, but that unfinished and tainted structure could’ve been repaired. Instead, we’re given microtransactions and pay clocks. The game has a way to create income from its free-to-play model, but the despicable practice of earning money on a neutered gameplay structure displays so little corporate integrity. When the ability to gather income takes precedence over providing a good game, then your game isn’t just bad, it’s abysmal. Soul Calibur: Lost Swords proves it.