“Transcending history and the world, a tale of souls and swords, eternally retold.” These are the words heard so many times in the past and anticipated to be heard again. Soul Blade, a weapon-based fighter that preceded SoulCalibur-series, was the first game I bought for my PlayStation. I was quite impressed how close it was to its arcade original I had played vigorously whenever I was in downtown at the arcade hall. Out of every entry in the series since then, SoulCalibur II has remained my favorite for its fast-paced cinematic action and a fantastic weapon master mode that sucked countless hours of my life. After that, the series has struggled to find the same rousing form, ending up in a ditch with SoulCalibur V that pissed all over the franchise fans. A short-lived free-to-play title for PS3, SoulCalibur: Lost Swords, followed but it’s up to SoulCalibur VI to try to redeem the franchise.
Bandai Namco had every chance to make something truly unprecedented out of the sixth entry in the main series. However, I can’t shake that disturbing feeling that much in the game was actually made with a minimum effort. Whether its negligence or lack of funding, it’s still there. I see too many assets being recycled from the previous games. For starters, character models are copy-pasted from SoulCalibur V (with only minor tweaking in their clothing), or in case of Talim, Taki, Xianghua and Sophitia, who all were incidentally omitted from it, from SoulCalibur IV. Of course, it’s a testament of how great the game looked ten years ago if its character models and dynamic visuals can still stand their ground today.
However, it also tells about that somewhere along the line there has been a lack of effort to make a real overhaul. Maybe it’s for the better, because the three new characters entering the fray, Groh, Azwel and super-guest star Geralt of Rivia, look quite shabby when compared to the old cast. Well, never mind the character but Groh has a new, cool fighting style with a double-bladed sword that can be halved in a true Darth Maul-style. The fighting style is bound to be a big favorite among player-created characters.
SoulCalibur VI can be considered as a mid-series reboot as it discards everything past SoulCalibur III. Good riddance, Patroklos, the obnoxious main hero of SoulCalibur V! I can’t say I miss any of characters that IV and V brought along, except for Hilde who never found her true footing in the series despite being one of the cover stars in the fourth game. I’m all into fast and nimble characters, so having Talim, Taki and Xianghua back is a joy to me (the latter two were replaced with cheap replicas in SoulCalibur V who never felt the same despite sharing familiar fighting styles). Xianghua, wielding a Chinese sword, and Talim, with her elbow blades, are also a pleasure to watch for their dance-like movement. However, playing rounds with my favorites, I can clearly see the fighting engine, though familiar, has redoubled its ease-of-use.
It’s effortless to pull off not only fast and flashy combos but two new special moves as well. Tapping R1 activates Reversal Edge, a slow-motion stalemate where three attack inputs have properties like in a game of rock, paper and scissors. It doesn’t need a super meter to use and can shake the things up fast in a heated match. Squeezing R2 summons a game-changing super move Critical Edge that’s dependent on the meter that fills up by hits delivered or taken. It really eats you up when you have pummeled Geralt into pulp in an online match, having him only to call forth Witcher magic and whoop your ass with his Critical Edge. And then you realize his player was deliberately soaking up your attacks to fill up his meter faster!
There’s a danger of online games boiling over to Reversal and Critical Edge spams – and if that fails, to good ol’ button smashing as it’s dead easy to gain advantage with fast and simple attacks, especially if the opponent is inexperienced or suffering from even a hint of lag. I would have liked if there was an option to disable Edges in online matches and having bouts based solely on skills (nothing can be done for button mashing, though). After all, if given a chance, there’s a lot of depth in the fighting mechanics past their seemingly easy-going nature. SoulCalibur series originates from the time when there was no online play, only arcade halls and home ports to play versus matches against local opponents. As such, the game remains as unbalanced as it’s always been, with someone like Nightmare being the worst offender.
If online isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of offline-content to chew on. In addition to the traditional versus and arcade rounds (not so granted in Japanese fighting games today, mind you), there are two story modes, Soul Chronicles and Libra of Souls. Chronicles features a main storyline and individual character tales. Don’t get too excited, though, as they are cheap visual novels with talking portraits (in English or Japanese) and some fighting in between. My brother struggled to stay awake while he was watching me playing them. So, they’re not terribly exciting but it’s nice to have them anyway as they add to the canon the game politely rewrites.
Libra of Souls sees you create a new Soul to romp on a globe-trotting adventure. After a slow start (and a set of really handy battle tutorials teaching you ins and outs of the game), it opens up to be a light RPG. There’s a plenty of fighting to do but also moral choices to make along the journey, levels to gain, support items to give boost, and new weapons to obtain. Unfortunately, the narrative is dry as a bone as there are no voiceovers to accompany drab pictures. Nevertheless, when Libra of Souls gets going, it’s surprisingly addictive in an old-fashioned way. It goes on to show that it doesn’t always take movie-quality cut scenes to make you engaged.
Give me a character editor, and I can spend countless hours in it. Create a Soul is pretty much identical to SoulCalibur IV and V but curiously, featuring less options for clothing, face paints and hairdos. You can’t even gain additional items in any game mode whereas Lost Swords rewarded constant playing with new stuff. Wouldn’t that still be the best way to hook in players? If SoulCalibur VI is keen to copy-paste assets from the previous entries, Bandai Namco should have looked back into Create a Soul in SoulCalibur III, too. It was possible to have unique fighting styles no one in the main cast had (I loved my purple-skinned and white-haired thief, modelled after my brother’s night elf rogue in WoW, tossing her smoke bombs and ambushing with a dagger). From IV onwards, you have to been content with choosing from the series cast’s fighting styles.
In SoulCalibur IV, I made a perfect replica of Aya from Onechanbara series with Mitsurugi’s samurai sword style. I got her trademark hat from playing the game’s Tower of Lost Souls mode but here, there’s no such headpiece available. So, she just must have her hat knocked off. My point is that there’s no need to mourn over what’s not there when it’s only your imagination that gives limits – if any. Besides, clothing and equipment have no armor or attack values so you don’t even have to overdo characters. I, for one and true to my nature, got stuck in creating my own Souls for far too long (and will get in the future too, as there are 100 character slots to fill!). Different races, from humans to automatons and from mummies to lizardmen, give much-needed breadth when the resources lack otherwise, and a creative use of patterns, stickers, tattoos and scars go a long way in personalizing any character (most of the screenshots in this review feature my creations). I have already seen very convincing takes on Marvel and Overwatch characters, for example.
While single-player content can’t compare with what NetherRealm Studios has to offer in Mortal Kombat X and Injustice 2, SoulCalibur VI has still more stuff to plow through than in other recent big Japanese fighting games. Character editor alone will keep me occupied for a long time and it’s always nice to show off my own creations in online play – even though I’m not really enjoying it as much as I thought I would for the reasons stated earlier. I also hate how my favorite girl from SoulCalibur III, quite bonkers Tira, is locked behind DLC, but that tells more about current state of video game industry, and among there, SoulCalibur VI plays just fine.
Nevertheless, I can’t but shake the feeling that more could have been done for the game. Given all the recycled and only slightly re-touched assets and somewhat underwhelming presentation in the story modes, SoulCalibur VI feels more like a re-release with some additional content than an entirely new entry. It plays perhaps a bit too safe, wary not to change anything too much, apart from making fighting feel flashier and easier. However, it’s also somehow comforting that the game finds its footing in the familiar turf. Now, I can carry on where I was left off ten years ago in SoulCalibur IV (let’s just pretend that SoulCalibur V never existed) and quench the thirst the way-too early axed Lost Swords left me with.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.