Whew. It’s been a while, but here we are again with Street Fighter 5 -- almost half a year after its initial release, as of writing.
You know, it’s funny. A year ago I did a post aimed at trying to predict what sort of content Street Fighter 5 would have in its story mode -- the place of the Dark Hadou, the presence of Necalli, et cetera, et cetera. And it served as a stark reminder that, yes, I write stuff on the internet. That’s kind of a given since I have a blog, but I doubled down by uploading that post to Destructoid -- which led to it being shared on Reddit, which led to it popping up on EventHubs, of all places. (Or it could’ve hit EventHubs first, and then went to Reddit. God only knows.) It’s always heartwarming to know that people have the chance to watch me make an idiot out of myself. Like, c’mon, man. Using the wiki as a “credible” source? Get on the level, bro.
So here I am again, talking about the actual story (A Shadow Falls) and primed to stumble around like a drunken baboon. And here I am again, ready to declare that the actual story is an actual dud. But before I begin I’ll say two things. First, the story isn’t an absolute failure -- and I’ll explain why eventually. Second, in case this post somehow pops up on EventHubs someday:
One, two, three
Money to me I want your dough
Give me your cash and you won’t be bashed
Dinero I won’t have to break your marrow you scarecrow
There. Now you readers have no choice but to wallow in despair, doomed to forever wonder the context behind that stanza.
Here’s the setup. M. Bison and his Shadaloo cohorts are at it again, and ready to plunge the world into chaos with their latest plan. With the power of the Black Moons -- giant, hexagon-laden spheres with EMP potential -- their goal is to destabilize every region within the Moons’ reach, and sow the seeds of fear and despair. That in turn will give Bison’s Psycho Power a major buff, and ultimately make him invincible. Which is weird, because he seemed pretty freakin’ strong already, but I guess there’s no kill like overkill.
Fortunately, there’s a saving grace. The keys Shadaloo needs to tap the Moons have been scattered across the globe, and entrusted to various World Warriors. It’s still not enough to stop one of the moons from going off, but it does push one Karin Kanzuki into action. With her wealth and resources, she brings various fighters in to consolidate their strength and take out Shadaloo. For real this time, presumably. But she’s not the only one with a plan; elsewhere, the mysterious “Helen” gathers some more strong fighters to lay waste to Shadaloo -- the key player among them being a newly-resurrected, newly-zombified Charlie Nash.
Now before I go any further, there’s something I have to ask -- and it’s something that’ll shape the entire arc of this post. So tell me: should Street Fighter V’s story mode have been episodic?
With the games industry becoming better at (and more comfortable with) digital distribution, we’re seeing plenty of titles come out in pieces over the course of several months. The Telltale games have been pretty big on that. Life is Strange did it, too. Major franchises like Hitman and Resident Evil have given it a shot. The remake of Final Fantasy 7 will supposedly do it in some capacity, so we’ll see how that goes. There are likely disadvantages to episodic games -- dealing with schedules, maintaining quality, juggling plot threads -- but there are advantages, and it’s a safe bet we’ll be seeing more of them in the future.
And with that in mind, I feel like SFV made a misstep by not making its story episodic. It’d make sense, wouldn’t it? Capcom has already gone full tilt with turning their flagship fighter into a platform -- a way to keep updating and adding to the game over time. We’ve gotten more characters, more modes, and more stages, and it’s only a matter of time before the next round of fighters gets announced. Why not deliver its story in pieces -- in chapters -- over the course of several months, instead of one giant lump of a mode? Granted I’m not saying it’d be a quick and easy affair, since it’d likely mean more content (and resources) needed overall. But in my perfect little bubble, I’d like to think that an episodic story would boost the quality by giving everything time to breathe.
So there’s the fatal flaw, then. SFV’s story suffers -- tremendously so -- because it’s rushing to go nowhere fast.
I guess it’s to be expected, really. It runs into the same problem as the ’94 Street Fighter movie: they felt like they had to focus on ALL of the characters or face the guillotine. And yeah, the World Warriors are the best asset they’ve got throughout this whole franchise, so they should use them. But they have to be used intelligently. With moderation. Remember, this is the year where Captain America: Civil War successfully managed to juggle 12 separate superheroes, but only after building up to that moment (a 2.5 hour block of time) for the better part of a decade. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice couldn’t even limp its way to the finish line with three heroes. It’s a tall order to do the requisite fleshing-out of characters, good guys or bad.
So what chance did the story have when it felt the need to give due time to 22 separate characters -- and those are just the playable ones?
There are just too many plot threads and sub-stories going on throughout. A lot of the blame can be laid on the shoulders of the World Warriors, because they’re carrying the baggage from their individual stories. It leads to a situation where, to bring up the specter of Mr. Plinkett of Red Letter Media fame, there’s no real main character -- and when there’s no real main character, it strips the story of its focus. Yeah, you could argue that Nash is the star here, but is he really? Does he really manage to leave an impact in three hours or less?
Let’s think about this for a second. What, exactly, is A Shadow Falls supposed to be about? Is it about Nash’s revival and his ruthless desire to slaughter Bison? Is it about Rashid and his quest to find his missing friend, and rescue her from the clutches of Shadaloo? Is it about Ryu and his continuing struggle against the Dark Hadou, to the point where he feels like he has to skip out on saving the world? Is it about Cammy and her entanglement with the Dolls -- including a retrospective on her stolen past? Is it about Karin and her transformation from prideful heiress with a silver spoon in her mouth to the commanding, capable leader of a task force more powerful than a standing army?
You could make a pretty sizable story with any one of them as the focus, just as an example. Instead, those five characters -- and that’s five at a bare minimum -- have to have all of their stories compressed into one single story. Don’t get me wrong; as a guy that basically mains Rashid (because I only just finished grinding my way to unlocking Guile, twice), I’m thankful he got as much play as he did. But I’m torn between saying “he needs more time”, which is the gut instinct, and saying “he needs less time”. Why? Because on the whole, A Shadow Falls hasn’t really been the canon probing of the SF franchise I’ve wanted since I threw my first Sonic Boom.
My interpretation is that the whole franchise is built on two core concepts. The first one is the military aspect -- taking a bunch of soldiers, agents, and the like, and pitting them against shady organizations (large and small, covert and…well, as subtle as a cinder block to the toe). Given the presence of Guile, I’d liken it to something along the lines of a G.I. Joe episode, or even just a realization of a child’s play time.
It’s simple. Take a bunch of colorful, over-the-top soldiers, and mash those action figures against other action figures until somebody drops or fingers get broken. It’s not exactly Shakespearian, but there’s still plenty of fun and excitement to be had -- though that’s not to say you can’t have drama or thematic heft. After all, the crux of Guile, Chun-Li, and Cammy (just to name a few) is how these disparate men and women deal with the losses forced upon them.
The other core concept is the spiritual aspect. That’s pretty much a given when you’ve got Ryu as the franchise front man, with backup dancers in guys like Ken, Akuma, Gouken, and more. (“More” in this case being guys like Dhalsim, as an example.) Considering how hard SFIV pushed “the answer lies in the heart of battle”, it’s safe to say that Capcom’s been developing the backstory and key theme over the course of the past quarter-century. The thrill of fighting; the quest for inner peace; the journey undertaken to improve oneself; the camaraderie born from bonding with others over matters of fisticuffs; it’s all there, and SF has done its best to prove that a punch-up doesn’t have to end in tears and lawsuits.
If it wasn’t obvious, I tend to lean toward the spiritual aspect as the more interesting of the two. It’s not just about Ryu fighting against Akuma and/or the Dark Hadou -- though that helps. No, it’s because the way SF paints it (corruption by malevolent will aside) their world is an idealistic one precisely because of the people willing to “contemplate their fists”. Again, disparate men and women from all over the world come together and share parts of their souls, even if it’s with combat -- but whereas the militant aspect highlights the sorrow, the spiritual aspect highlights the joy.
The individual character stories in SFV highlight that, again and again. R. Mika gets to meet her idol Zangief, and in turn starts to wonder what Muscle Spirit truly is. Dhalsim opts to pass on more than just stretchy arms and fire-breathing to the local police; he’s overjoyed to try and enlighten others. Even those in the militant camp -- like Chun-Li and Cammy -- try to define themselves and their world through the art of battle. In their cases, they come out stronger. In the case of others, like newcomer Rashid, the World Warriors bond and grow by virtue of pitting their hearts (as well as their fists) against one another. It’s actually kind of a heartwarming sentiment; in the SF universe, true happiness is within reach as long as you put in the effort. Granted the amount of effort varies -- what with Ryu’s quest to pacify his raging, impure heart -- but it’s something.
You may be thinking “Voltech, you loon! Enough with your maudlin rambling! Get to the point, and eviscerate the story for my amusement!” But this thematic heft -- this duality -- is important. It’s what props up the SF canon, even if it’s not always given the time it needs to be fully fleshed out (though the character stories help tremendously). Moreover, the story beats of the canon have weight in the real world. Twenty-five plus years of SF have helped countless people come together, bond, laugh, trade knowledge, share experiences, enjoy the company of comrades (and rivals!), and of course, fight.
As of this post, we’re hot off the heels of another EVO, and a massive one at that. Capcom’s going all in with its Pro Tour. Tournaments are being held all over the world, at venues large and small. With arcade sticks in hand, players gather in front of TVs to duke it out, or have a big brawl in the online space. The internet has made the exchange of information infinitely easier, and no doubt it’s used to arrange some meaningful meet-ups. Without a doubt, the fighting game community has helped uphold the principles -- the ideals -- that SF has suggested with both its canon and its mere existence. Simply put, it’s helped make the lives of countless players better -- and in turn, they’ve helped make the world a brighter, better place.
So why doesn’t A Shadow Falls reflect that idealism nearly as well as it should?
There are times throughout the story where it feels like the only duality Capcom wanted to represent was the battle between “look at our budget” and “oops, no budget”. Going back to what I said earlier, it’s hard to look at the story and say that it doesn’t feel rushed. People have already started clamoring for a Season 2 of the story -- and I’m one of them, for sure -- but the way things play out, it’s as if the devs didn’t know what the future held. Sometimes it seems like they were absolutely sure they’d get another story outing; other times, it feels like they had to cram as much content in as possible just in case this was their only shot.
Maybe the devs came at A Shadow Falls with the wrong mindset. The character stories packed in at launch may not be the most time-intensive or have the best production values, but they were designed to get the most out of each character -- well, inasmuch as you can get something out of Laura, whose line of reasoning makes her a threat to herself and everyone around her. Comparatively, the main story falls into the same trap that tears up the hamstrings of lesser fare: they try to be epic in scope and tone, but don’t have the means to capture that. It’s the same problem that Resident Evil 6 has, arguably -- and I think we all know how that turned out.
It’s hard to say that A Shadow Falls is doing its best to be serious and po-faced -- the stereotypical “gritty” or “grimdark” style -- just to prove the “merit” of its story. There is charm and humor to be had, for sure, and there should be humor when you’re dealing with a cast of virtual action figures. But there are times when the story doesn’t feel goofy enough; it’s fine if it skews toward the militant aspect, but it also skews away from the heart and soul that could (and already has) given the franchise its staying power. There’s all this talk about hackers and kidnappings and EMPs, and characters all crammed into a single room to dish out exposition, and do their best to prove the weight of the plot and how serious everything is. Maybe it works for others, but for me? It doesn’t. It doesn’t feel like SF; it just feels like a generic action movie that skimps on the action.
And it leads to all of these baffling, amateurish mistakes -- like they’re trying to prove how smart their story is (it isn’t) rather than how much heart it’s got. So you’re telling me, Capcom, that the bad guys made a bunch of easily-stolen, borderline irreplaceable keys to foundation of their world-shattering weapon system? And then the good guys’ plan involves taking those keys straight to the enemy base to deactivate the machines once and for all? What would they have done if something went wrong, or a stealthy agent swiped them all from under their noses?
I’ve heard the argument that the MacGuffins were entrusted to the World Warriors by the hacker crew because -- Alex and Laura aside -- they’ve shown the ability to fight off Shadaloo as well as other superhumans. Here’s the problem, though: they have no idea that those chess pieces are important until later on. Zangief actually leaves his with a friend, while Alex treats it like one of his trophies. So hey, maybe pinning the hopes of the future on muscle-heads -- one of which assumes that Dhalsim is a common New York mugger -- is a bad idea. And maybe pinning almost the entirety of the plot on some little trinkets isn’t the smartest move, Capcom.
There’s basically no observance of distance or geography; I’m inclined to believe that Dhalsim can just teleport to New York from Japan just ‘cause, while Juri and Cammy think that the best way to lose the cops in Brazil is to travel all the way to London. Waltzing in and out of the Shadaloo base is apparently a cinch, given that the World Warriors do it twice without much resistance (save for a big brawl that has the action figures mashing against each other). And then there are the time management problems; you’re telling me, Capcom, that it’s more important to show off all of the Dolls than it is to actually show Ryu fighting against the Dark Hadou?
There’s one bungle after another with these characters. Whatever charisma Nash might have had in the Alpha series is gone now, so of course it’s a good idea to give him lots of screen time and weight in the plot. Oh, but we can’t have Guile doing anything to celebrate his reunion with his old friend; just have Mr. Sonic Boom fight it out for a bit, hold out a hand for an alley-oop, and shout “Charlie” when it’s heroic sacrifice time. Also, it’s really cool seeing Chun-Li fail against everything and everyone except for a beat-up FANG at the end. Strongest woman in the world, everyone. She may not be able to win a fair fight, but she gives awesome hugs. Her hitboxes have been massively buffed.
But there’s no character in the entire story that has it worse than Necalli. I mean, all of the pieces were in place. He was in a perfect position to bridge the gap between the militant and spiritual aspects; as a fight-happy maniac afflicted by something resembling the Dark Hadou, he could’ve genuinely helped give Ryu’s arc a major peak, all while being someone targeted by a power-hungry Bison. Get Nash involved -- as someone who’s ostensibly fighting against corruptive influences of his own -- and you’ve got a solid balance. Two main heroes, two main villains. The threat level’s certainly big enough; I always interpreted the versus screen before a match as a symbol of evil energy converging upon Necalli. More concretely, he’s a savage fighter with a brutal theme -- and he’s apparently up there in the tier lists. And to top it all off, he’s basically one of the Pillar Men from JoJo. We’re talking lawsuit levels of similarity here.
So what’s the best way to handle this new character brimming with menace and potential? Keep his appearances to a minimum, have him lose all but a couple of fights (if that), have Ryu blow him away with a single punch, and let him melt into mud so he can make his disgraced exit from the story.
It’s always nice to see my headcanon blown to smithereens before my eyes.
You know, it’s probably my own fault. I set my expectations too high; given the company catalog, there was no reason to expect a 10/10 experience. Capcom knows how to build hype with cinematic trailers and self-congratulatory slaps on the back -- boasts about how proud the devs are of the story, and how it’s going to treat everyone -- but when the time comes? Marvel vs. Capcom 3 only gave us comic panels that barely lasted for half a minute. Worse yet, Street Fighter X Tekken completely squandered its Pandora concept -- something that I’ll argue had TONS of potential until my fingers are piles of powdered marrow -- in favor of a phenomenal amount of nothing. What chance did SFV have to set the world on fire?
But I wanted to believe. Having played through the story modes for Injustice: Gods Among Us and Mortal Kombat X -- the inspirations for A Shadow Falls -- it hurts to admit that NetherRealm’s productions are better (and for the record, I’d put Injustice at the top). Whether it’s with the canon, the characters, the gameplay, or anything in between, I vastly prefer SF to anything related to MK. And that’s why it hurts more to see so much potential, and so many high hopes, go to waste.
But like I said at the start, A Shadow Falls isn’t an absolute failure. Capcom has a lot of weaknesses in the storytelling department, but where it excels -- in this story and in plenty of others -- is that despite what I said earlier, it does indeed have heart. And I’ll explain how it excels…next time. So look forward to that.
And who knows? Maybe I will explain the mystery behind that mysterious stanza. I’m sure the revelation won’t be even remotely disappointing.