'Soulcalibur VI' is a Return to Fighting Form
'Soulcalibur VI' moves the series forward by offering a furious, albeit beginner-friendly clash of fighting styles.
Image courtesy Bandai Namco
Soulcalibur VI is the latest in the storied fighting game series, six years from its closest predecessor, but the wait has somehow felt even longer. The eight-way, free-range clash of sword and steel has tiptoed between niche interest and timeless classic depending on which entry you randomly pull from a hat, so it’s not too surprising that VI feels like a homecoming. It harkens back to the simple, straightforward brawling that still holds some folks’ hearts in a warm grip of nostalgia.
The thing is, the game needed to pull off something special. The stakes are high.The key question, going in to the experience, is whether it’s enough to ward off thoughts of putting the series on ice. Soulcalibur VI makes a compelling argument to keep burning on.
My own love for the Soulcalibur series—and I suspect many others’ as well—stems from the first couple of entries, the second in particular. It was a 3D fighter that threw samurai and ninja against lizardmen and whatever Voldo is, and somehow Link ended up in the middle of it. Rounds were fast and brutal. Every blow was punishing, but the options seemed endless. Over weekends and weeknights, I learned to move and block, link my launchers into follow-ups, and pay attention to where the ring perimeter fell into an infinite, round-ending abyss. I probably accounted for most of the game’s rentals at my local video store, with hours sunk into fighting my friends and just as many wading through the game’s single-player modes.
Soulcalibur VI keeps that spirit alive, offering a lot to do whether you’re a multiplayer monster or more content to womp the computer opponent under varying circumstances. The latter is a surprisingly strong draw, though it doesn’t seem so up-front. Soulcalibur VI has two main single-player modes, one centered around the game’s cast (Soul Chronicle) and one focusing on a created fighter (Libra of Soul).
Soul Chronicle features one main story, following the staff-wielding Kilik’s quest to destroy Soul Edge, the nefarious blade that corrupts people and seems to emanate raw evil. It’s a pretty straightforward mode, with plenty of characters popping in for cameos and some light humor. Most of the main campaign is presented through audio and static illustrations, save a few cutscenes for critical moments. It’s enjoyable, but I had more fun with the individual character campaigns, which give each a little more room for their personalities to breathe. Of special note are Geralt’s ministories, which play out like an extra bit of Witcher content and feature the same voice actor as the games, Doug Cockle.
Libra of Soul isn’t about the main cast, but rather, a create-a-fighter you make in whatever image you want. While their fighting style has to adhere to one of the casts’, your avatar’s appearance can range from a spooky skeleton to a lizardman, automaton, colossus, or just an average human. The character creation is simple to use and surprisingly adaptive, allowing you to make all kinds of things: monsters, popular fictional characters, or even Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty.
You take your character on a journey, played out on a large map with different nodes representing events or battles. It’s mostly text-based with a few cutscenes, like the main campaign, and over the course of the story a few role-playing game mechanics start to slip in. You can level up, get more powerful weapons, and consume food to give you boosts in fights. Each bout can have conditions applied, like slippery surfaces or your opponent only being vulnerable to a certain kind of attack. I’m still working my way through it—it’s much lengthier than the campaign, even by sheer volume of fights—but it’s a wealth of activity that never quite gets too repetitive. If you dug Soulcalibur’s single-player modes in the past, this is very much up the same alley, and of the same quality.
But the heart of Soulcalibur is its combat. If the tense ballet of steel doesn’t click, then the whole package falls apart. Soucalibur is about the dance. In my opinion, it’s best when you feel like you’re on the razor’s edge between a win or a loss with every move. This particular iteration adds a few twists to the dance, while still keeping it right on that thin hem.
The flow of battle feels much more on pace with the first few Soulcalibur games, finding a balance between speed and posturing. Rounds can be over in a flash, but it always feels like there’s something you could have done to shift the tides in your favor.
One of the greatest benefits of Soulcalibur VI for a casual or first-time player is how easy it is to pick up. There are only four key buttons (horizontal and vertical attacks, Kick, and Guard), with a handful of moves activated using a combination of them. Throwing together a combo feels intuitive and some special moves are easier to input than others. Super attacks, here called “Critical Edges,” are now just a simple push of the right trigger, while your power-up move (Soul Charge) is back and right trigger, each managed by a meter at the top of the screen.
That’s not to say there isn’t depth. The simplicity of inputs begets a greater mindgame. A lot of Soulcalibur, in my experience, has been a mental game. Positioning and smart movement are important, especially when getting knocked out of the ring can end the round. Each move can have different properties, and different moves can counter others. If an opponent is hunkered down behind their guard stance, you’ll need to grab them or throw out an attack with a “break” property. Sidestepping can counter a heavy vertical slice, but horizontal moves and some kicks might track that movement better. Soulcalibur VI is an extremely rewarding game to learn, and the osmosis of its systems and mechanics feels much more natural than other fighting games.
Some tutorials are transcribed out, along with some basic tools of the trade for each character, in a menu in the game’s museum. Though those are tucked away, the Libra of Soul campaign has a much more hands-on tutorial to learn the basics and their applications. While this covers everything from basic movement to deeper concepts, like different attack properties and their execution, you’ll have to look to the museum to find character-specific advice. I admit, I am incredibly into the idea of high-level writing on fighting game mechanics just tucked away for me to dive into at my leisure, but I do wish it was interactive in some way.
The most notable new mechanic, which seems like the culmination of Soulcalibur’s careful dance and will certainly define the tempo of the game at most levels, is the Reversal Edge. By activating it, using the right bumper by default, your character enters a parry stance that will deflect normals and, after a short pause, swing in a red arc. If it connects, both fighters retreat to a Kurosawa-esque standoff, and each player can input a command. They clash, and depending on the input, a player might gain anything from an advantage to a game-changer.
Simply put, in a clash, a horizontal attack beats a kick, kick beats vertical, and vertical beats horizontal. You can also side-step, guard, or evade forward or backward, each of which has its own wins and losses. It’s a game of rock-paper-scissors with even more options, but in practice, it becomes a fascinating tool.
For some fighters, it’s a way to deflect pressure from faster, more aggressive fighters; for others, like Astaroth, winning a Reversal Edge clash can be a win condition in its own right. Even the initiation of the attack can be dodged, or the charge-up to the Edge interrupted with certain attacks. So it’s not unbeatable, just an interesting option that adds new dynamics to the fights. This mechanic, especially the slow-down standoff and clash, was inspired in part by Tekken’s addition of slo-mo at key clashes in a match, and it has much the same effect, elevating a simple exchange of blows and adding impact to the moment.
Most of the characters in Soulcalibur VI are familiar faces like Mitsurugi, Sophitia, and Ivy. Newcomers Grøh and Azwel, alongside guest fighter Geralt of Rivia, add plenty on their own. Azwel has a number of seemingly spectral weapons available to him, summoning them from thin air and sometimes even dropping them from above.
Geralt is a more straightforward fighter, using Signs like Quen to block attacks, Igni to burn down foes, and Yrden to trap his opponent for a big hit. Grøh ended up being my favorite of the bunch, as his blade-staff can split into two swords, allowing him to execute mix-ups that can confuse and disorient players unfamiliar with his style. All of them blend in quite well with the lineup, though it’s disappointing to see a character like Tira already relegated to day-one DLC and season pass territory. Season passes are common practice in fighting games, given that these games are moving away from yearly iterations to a platform, “living game” approach, but having a single circle on your select screen blocked out the day you drop $60 on a game never feels good.
Soulcalibur VI feels like a return to what has always made the series work.
Much of Soulcalibur is a polishing of what has made the series so good, and so it’s likely that much of this game is appealing to my rose-tinted nostalgia for days gone by of late-night team battles (which are sadly absent in VI). But Soulcalibur VI feels like a return to what has always made the series work.
It’s the kind of game you take to a friend’s house, the one who doesn’t like fighting games but likes Soulcalibur. It has depth if you want to find it, but you can also mash away for hours and still do some pretty sweet combos. You could climb the ranked ladder, contesting the world’s best, or just wander the map of Libra of Soul, finding more fights and challenges. Soulcalibur VI is like fighting game comfort food for me, and really, I’m just happy to have a good one around again.