Soulcalibur VI invited me back to 1999 to relive my first holiday season with the Sega Dreamcast. Soulcalibur VI explicitly compares itself to the tightest, most focused, most fun fighting game I’ve ever played. I commend the new game for several things, but its gutsiest move was asking me to remember the joy of playing the original Soulcalibur in my childhood bedroom with hot cocoa steaming on my nightstand.
I said gutsiest, not smartest.
Before I dive into what doesn’t work with the first entry in the main Soul series since 2012’s forgettable Soulcalibur V, I will say that, when Soulcalibur VI allows itself to focus on core characters and gameplay loops between rounds, it’s the most fun I’ve had with a 3D fighter in ages.
A Soul Still Burns
Like every entry of the series since the 90s, Soulcalibur VI features weapon-wielding fighters of the 16th century vying for the affections (?) of a cursed sword. Basically. Your selected fighters move nimbly through on 3D planes, attacking with weapons vertically and horizontally, with fun combinations in between. Characters can kick and block, too.
Newer to the franchise are Critical Edge strikes: super attacks that use meter and are no longer tied to difficult inputs. Instead you’re just a quick trigger smash away. These attacks are completely brutal if they connect, but leave you vulnerable if you miss. The fact that this is now a button press away, mere milliseconds from execution, make Critical Edges a more pulse-pounding affair.
Meanwhile, Reversal Edges are brand-new for Soulcalibur VI. This is another single-button move with a relatively slow wind-up. If the special move connects unguarded, however, both players enter a violent game of rock-paper-scissors. Successful Reversals also fill your Critical Edge meter quite a bit. Although you can always dodge out of the melee—if you’re chicken.
Chicken or not, canceling the attack is often your best option. Failing the rock-paper-scissors check gives your opponent the bonus meter instead. Not to mention it opens you up to a potentially powerful counterattack. But if you time a Reversal to land when your opponent attacks, it triggers an extremely cool-looking parry sequence before the RPS phase.
Matches are fast, mostly a blast, and perfect eye candy for lapsed fans. The story functions as a soft reboot of the entire franchise, revisiting the events of Soulcalibur. So the roster is almost entirely filled with franchise favorites.
Taki is still the close-fighting, lightning fast ninja you know and love. Sophitia still twirls into battle with her signature sword and shield. Mitsurugi maintains the balance he’s had since the beginning of the series. Maxi still feels maybe a little (just a little) cheap, with his flurries of nunchaku swings. Siegfried and Nightmare continue to lumber into battle with their respective claymores. Voldo still hisses and writhes around in his exquisitely hand-crafted fetish gear. I love him.
There are, as of this writing, three new characters in the fold. Grøh, a brooding Nordic warrior, enters combat with a double-edged blade staff he can break into two swords. He can quickly switch between long-range and close combat. Soulcalibur VI’s “guest” character this time around is The Witcher’s Geralt of Rivia. His appearance is mostly innocuous and it’s nice to hear a competent voice performance from Geralt’s regular actor, Doug Cockle. Geralt’s visit is also somehow the most universe-consistent guest appearance of the series—certainly when you compare him to Soulcalibur IV’s Star Wars cameos or V’s Ezio Auditore.
Azwel rounds out the newbies. He’s a Rasputin-like transcendent humanist who conjures weapons from with special gloves. His in-game bio says he loves all humans equally. Okay. Azwel’s design from start to finish is the low point of Soulcalibur VI’s character group. He’s a pastiche of extremely worn villain tropes and I’ve never enjoyed weapon conjuring characters in fighting games.
The lack of a consistent style makes Azwel indistinct in a roster of well-established characters. He’s strange and flashy, but doesn’t leave much of an impression when it’s time to actually play him.
More than that, Azwel embodies one of my only gripes with the actual fighting in Soulcalibur VI. The on-screen action—especially when it’s covered in shimmering blades appearing out of thin air—becomes totally illegible to these 33-year-old eyes. Yes, it pains me to say it, but the darn video games are getting too flashy for me.
Azwel’s conjuring abilities, coupled Soulcalibur‘s usual weapon trails, make it very difficult to parse what’s happening on-screen It gets worse in close-quarters exchanges. It wasn’t a problem with most of the roster. I played through various story modes with other fighters, and through Arcade mode with five more, without a hitch. It would just be nice if visual concepts and designs didn’t interfere with the gameplay. Period.
I also have trouble with Soulcalibur VI‘s tricky ring-outs. Now, I love ring-outs in fighting games. They’re the ultimate equalizer—allowing less dexterous players to win through positioning and smart timing. But there’s such a tough balance to strike with ring-out mechanics. They shouldn’t be so unforgiving that putting your big toe over the edge pulls you out. Then again, there must be some risk involved when moving the fight to the edge of the arena.
Soulcalibur VI’s ring-out logic is impossible to read. Sometimes it’s so forgiving that I’m not sure why the mechanic exists at all. Other times, I won almost without realizing it. This led to frustrating moments where I was sure I could use aggressive opponents’ momentum against them, only for my juggling blows to keep them in bounds. It’s so inconsistent, or at least unclear, that I’d like to see a patch.
The Sound of One Sword Swinging
I don’t envy narrative designers in AAA fighting game teams. Fighting game stories are tough. The original Soulcalibur sported just the right balance. There was a MacGuffin (in this case a magic sword). There were colorful characters. There were stakes.
I love Shakespearean yarns and emotional complexity, but Soulcalibur VI is the latest in a string of fighting games to contextualize every insignificant detail established in the canon. It even produced two story modes that sit first and second on the main menu. Single-player was clearly a focus for the developers.
I played the Chronicle of Souls—a retelling of Kilik, Xianghua, and Maxi’s stories from the original Soulcalibur—first. You can play other major characters’ stories, too. They flesh out the entire saga from different canonical angles. Either way, you face a mix of recognizable characters and total scrubs (obviously built from the game’s decent, but not jaw-dropping, character creator).
The second story mode is Libra of Souls. Here you build your avatar from scratch using the aforementioned creation tools. The plot weaves your custom character into the overarching story and pits you against the same mix of major characters and jobbers. Unfortunately, Azwel serves as your ultimate nemesis in this mode. You already know how I feel about Azwel.
I did love Libra of Souls’ level of freedom, however. Namco wisely chose not to lock players into any early decisions. You can change your weapon, appearance, gender, and more at will.
I love games that give care and attention to narratives—even in genres that don’t typically excel at story. It’s often the difference between a good and great game when I can tell real effort was made to build a universe. Soulcalibur VI is a rare exception for me. I can see the effort was made, but the exposition just stands in the way of mostly incredible one-on-one combat.
Both modes feature frequent, Metal Gear Solid-length static cutscenes. The scenes’ most unforgivable sin are the audio-only battles. Yes, in a game about controlling martial arts masters, you’ll often hear battles in the background without actually fighting them.
It’s just an unbelievably silly thing to do.
The dual story modes sure incorporate a lot of other things to do, though. There are inventory systems, equipment systems, light RPG elements, conversation trees. It all invites even more comparisons to that first Soulcalibur.
What Soulcalibur lacked in thorough story modes at the time, it made up for with fighting-heavy Mission Modes and Team Battles that showcased the game’s superior play. Soulcalibur VI is almost as fun as the original. The developers just put bright orange traffic cones around its core gameplay.
Side note: As of this writing, online multiplayer servers weren’t full enough to serve any matches. I am looking forward to giving it a whirl since single-player content is so story-focused. I’ll try to update this review whenever possible.
A Re-calibrated Foundation
I’m still enjoying Soulcalibur VI, even as I skip all the inconsequential dialogue in Libra of Souls to beef up my cat lady pirate (a.k.a. Meghan). I’m enjoying the gauntlets Arcade mode throws at me with classic characters that, I’m happy to report, are still in fine fighting shape.
Mostly I’m just enjoying the fact that Soulcalibur has looked back to the tight gameplay of its most venerated entry. Namco has finally decided that, yep, it’s time to resurrect what still works about that game today. Unfortunately, an increased focus on a poorly-implemented story leaves me wondering if the series is heading in a direction unbecoming of its world-class gameplay.