SoulCalibur 6 Review – Brave Sword, Braver Soul
What truly distinguishes SoulCalibur from its genre contemporaries is a pervading sense of adventure. It tells a grand tale of knights and ninjas, axe-wielding goliaths and pirate warriors, all struggling over mythical weapons of good and evil. It accents this with a rousing orchestral score and grandiose narrations about entwined destinies and inescapable fates. Sure, deep and rewarding mechanics are at the heart of every good fighting game–and SoulCalibur VI certainly has that–but for this series, adventure has always been the soul.
That spirit of adventure is most evident in SoulCalibur VI’s two story modes. Libra of Souls is the meatier of the two and takes inspiration from SoulCalibur II’s beloved Weapon Master Mode. It’s part fighting game, part role-playing game, part Dungeons & Dragons campaign; you create and customize your own unique fighter using options that, while serviceable, aren’t nearly as robust as the ones in Bandai Namco’s other fighter, Tekken 7. From there you embark on a journey that will take you across the world, and along the way you’ll cross paths–and swords–with both named characters and generically named bit-parters.
Libra of Souls tells its story primarily through text, but it’s all surprisingly engaging, with dialogue and descriptions setting the stage for the inevitable fight and giving even its throwaway opponents a bit of flavour. The story’s conceit for making you travel around the world is that you’re “malfested” with an evil energy and must absorb Astral Fissures to stay alive. Although you’re ushered between main quest missions, various side-quests pop up around you, with NPCs asking for a hand solving their problems. Naturally, the solution each time is a sword-swinging contest, but the game does a valiant job of world building along the way to give texture to its fantasy universe. You’ll learn that Ceylon is a major producer of cinnamon, which is favoured by royalty and thus very precious, and that hamlets are being decimated by a rampaging Azure Knight with a thirst for souls. You’ll meet a would-be entrepreneur who, while affable, is mostly after handouts; a weaponsmith who is looking to impress the royal family to win a contract; and a priestess who doubts her abilities, among others.
Completing these missions rewards you with experience that levels you up, and this is where the RPG hooks are strongest. As you grow, you’ll be able to use stronger weapons that have different visual styles and properties. Enemies also become hardier and, on top of that, special battle conditions spice up fights. These may make one type of attack more effective while decreasing the strength of others, thus forcing you to diversify your skillset within the battle system. Another wrinkle to the RPG mechanics is the ability to select a food item to take into battle. These bestow bonuses such as increased counter damage, a boost to health at the start of a new round, or extra experience for a win, to name a few. If you’d rather let someone else do the dirty work, you can visit the Mercenaries Guild and hire a fighter, outfit them with a weapon and food, then send them into battle. At best the AI will secure a victory; at worst they’ll knock off some health from the enemy before you step in.
There are also little touches in Libra of Souls that reinforce the idea that you’re a wandering warrior on an epic journey. One of them is an indicator at the top of the world map that ticks down the years as you progress, establishing a passage of time as you bounce between locations and fights in rapid succession. Another is the decision-making moments, some of which will simply dictate how you act towards a character, while others will weigh your soul towards good or evil, impact the story, and decide how the ending battle plays out. The eventual consequence of your actions is small, but it’s a neat way to give you a tiny bit of authorship in the story.
The main issue with Libra of Souls is the ratio of storytelling to actual gameplay. The mode is very text-heavy, which would be less of a problem if its battles weren’t so quick. In the hands of a capable fighting game player, many enemies can be dispatched within as little as 10 seconds, which means time spent in Libra of Souls is heavily skewed toward reading over fighting. And although the loading screens before and after battles are quite short, they can become increasingly tedious. The mode is also lacking in variety, so beyond the occasional battle condition, it does very little to keep you on your toes. For the most part, applying an aggressive strategy will see you emerge victorious.
The second mode, Soul Chronicles, is a more typical take on a fighting game story but is still expansive and has an interesting approach to laying out its narrative. It features a main story that chronicles what happens with the legendary Soul Edge but supplements this with 19 character-specific campaigns, drilling down on what they’re doing while the broader story takes place. Although they’re heavily reliant on static artwork, they’re fully voiced and the artwork itself has an eye-catching, sketch-like style. There’s a microcosm of Libra of Souls’ issues here too, though, as battles can be over in the blink of an eye, and that means more hitting buttons to advance text.
Nevertheless, Libra of Souls and Soul Chronicle make for a satisfying single-player offering, with the former lasting upwards of eight hours and the latter taking around four. Idiosyncrasies aside, both give you plenty to do and provide a comprehensive, engrossing story throughout. By the time it’s over, you’ll have travelled the world, met a variety of colorful characters, and fought all manner of strange creatures. Quite the adventure.
SoulCalibur VI doesn’t demand hours of study and experimentation … you can pick up a controller and feel like you’re competent in no time
The beauty of SoulCalibur’s gameplay is its simplicity, and in that respect SoulCalibur VI is a bit like rock-paper-scissors. At its most superficial, the rules of engagement are simple and the pace of battles means decision-making is based on instinct as much as considered tactics and being reactive. Admittedly, the same can be said of most fighting games, but unlike them SoulCalibur VI doesn’t demand hours of study and experimentation to do this; you can pick up a controller and feel like you’re competent in no time. Although there are complicated systems and techniques to consider, an inability to interact with them doesn’t loom over you. Before long vertical attacks will reveal themselves as powerful but slow, you’ll quickly realise that horizontal attacks interrupt sidesteps and are a safe way to apply pressure, and kicks are a nice balance of the two but with limited range. It takes little time to internalize those fundamentals, and so their intricacies become apparent quicker than in most fighting games. Throw in blocking and movement, both of which are intuitive, and the pick-up-and-play factor becomes a key strength of SoulCalibur VI.
The surface simplicity belies more complex systems beneath, and SoulCalibur VI is mechanically dense. It layers systems from throughout the series on top of each other so even veterans will need to examine the individual pieces and figure out how they fit together. Although each character has a relatively limited range of attacks, the eight-way run movement lets you modify them. Attacks also land at different heights–high, mid, and low–and in turn blocking becomes a three-tiered system. More confident players can react to an attack by executing a last-second Guard Impact to repel and leave their opponent open, but a staggered player can retaliate with a Reversal Impact–a reversal reversal.
From there it only gets more complicated. Reversal Edge is a special stance that will counter incoming attacks at any height. It’s executed with a single button and the longer it’s held the more attacks it can absorb. This makes defending against an onslaught of attacks really easy, but the ease of execution means it also steps on the toes of the more skill-based Guard Impact. Reversal Edge seems to be aimed at casual players as, while a successful Guard Impact places the initiator in a more advantageous position, Reversal Edge establishes a neutral playfield by initiating a clash. Here the action slows, the camera swoops in close, and the two fighters effectively bet on what the other player will do and counter it. This is a useful way to create some breathing room when being smothered, but the guessing game leads to a feeling of randomness that can be frustrating. The workaround here is to land an unblockable break attack to stop a Reversal Edge.
Beyond that there are Critical Edges, which are the game’s equivalent of super moves. These are governed by the Soul Gauge, which is built up by attacking, defending, and taking damage. Once one level is attained, it can be spent on executing an incredibly powerful and outlandish cinematic attack. A Soul Gauge can also be spent on a Soul Charge, a comeback state of sorts that opens a separate set of moves up for a character to use, powers up normal attacks, and makes them cause damage to blocking opponents for a brief period.
Those are just a few of the systems in SoulCalibur VI, so for those that want to become students of the game, it offers plenty to learn. However, at times it can also feel needlessly complex. This is likely a symptom of creating a collection of systems that give the hardcore fighting game players the depth they crave while also enabling casual players to stand their ground against them. On paper that might seem like a good approach, but the end result is a construction that is at odds with itself, as if built out of both K-Nex and Lego–the simpler parts undermine the complex ones, and although it works, it’s inelegant. A good player with an understanding of all the systems will almost always triumph over someone only making use of the basic ones, so the biggest issue this superfluousness presents is that it makes the path from casual to expert a little less appealing to walk. That complexity is overwhelming when it doesn’t need to be, and if there are simpler and easier options there’s less incentive to dig beneath the surface.
As with most fighting games, it’ll be some time before overly powerful characters or dubious strategies emerge online, if at all. However, from a network perspective SoulCalibur VI’s online modes are stable. We played a number of matches online in ranked and casual and had no trouble finding other players, connecting, and having smooth fights. In casual mode, you can search for a room based on customizable parameters such as skill level, round count, region, and language. You can also specify if custom characters are allowed. Alternatively, you can establish your own room and invite others to join or have it open to anyone.
In ranked mode you select your character and style from a pop-up menu, forgoing the need to go into the game’s normal selection screen. There’s also the option to pick connection status, region, and preferred starting side, for those that want it. If you’re looking to learn and refine your skills, the replay channel is handy for rewatching your own saved matches, as well as finding recent replays from the community to favorite and watch. A nice touch is the ability to see who won the match, so if you want to see how to play a character successfully it’s easy to do so. Overall, SoulCalibur VI’s online suite is fairly no-frills, sticking to the basics but doing them well.
SoulCalibur VI is a fighting game that’s easy to recommend. Like all the best titles in the genre, it has a low barrier to entry and high skill ceiling. For those looking to get in a few games with friends it’s welcoming and immediately enjoyable. For those committed to ploughing the depths of its systems to get tournament ready, it has plenty to unpack and understand. Better still, those that want to play alone will find SoulCalibur VI has some of the most substantial single-player content in any fighting game today.
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