I’ve missed Soulcalibur.
I’ve never been hardcore into the series like I am other fighters such as Street Fighter or SNK’s offerings, but Soulcalibur was one of those “comfort” franchises that I knew would always be there for me when I wanted or needed it. It was the go-to pick for a number of my close friends and I when getting together to play games, and it was the the series that was ready to help show me the stunning power of Sega’s new Dreamcast.
And then, one day, Soulcalibur wasn’t there. As much as I’m the type to argue for refreshes and new characters in long-running fighting games, Soulcalibur V lost me specifically due to its attempts to insert some new blood into the series (something all members of the genre inevitably have to do). It obviously lost a lot of other players as well, because that 2012 release would be the last time we’d see a proper Soulcalibur game for another six-and-a-half years.
Playing Soulcalibur VI is like meeting up with an old friend you haven’t thought about in years and then realizing how much you’ve missed hanging out together. Digging into the game, it almost feels like this could have been the next iteration to come out a few years after Soulcalibur IV, and I’m perfectly okay with that. Had this indeed been the game we received instead of Soulcalibur V, it might have seemed like a bit of an underwhelming continuation of the norm, but now it’s more like a comforting return home after some amount of time being lost in the desert.
The best thing I can say about Soulcalibur VI’s gameplay is that it feels like Soulcalibur. Granted, I don’t have the experience needed to do direct fighting engine comparisons with its most recent predecessor, but my time spent battling both human and AI opponents has reminded me of the glory days of Soulcalibur on Dreamcast and Soulcalibur II on GameCube. There are little refinements here that have come as part of the natural progression of the series—from the change in cost for Guard Impacts to how armor breaking works—but the only things that really felt foreign when I jumped into the game are SCVI’s two new features, Reversal Edges and the revamped Soul Charges.
Now with Soul Charges, a quick button combination will spend one bar of super meter to power up your character for a limited time, with some of the roster even changing into different forms of themselves in the process. It’s an easy feature to get the hang of, it feels totally natural in a fighting game like this, and it makes you have to decide between spending that meter for a Soul Charge or a full-on Critical Edge (aka super). Reversal Edges, on the other hand, get a lot more interesting (and complicated). If you hit your opponent with a triggered Reversal Edge, both characters will enter a slowed-down state, where—as they momentarily face off—each player has the chance to input a singular attack or movement. The results are then a glorified game of rock-paper-scissors, with each attack type beating another, and some decisions even leading to stalemates or the ability to follow up with an additional attack. It’s hard to fully understand how Reversal Edges play out without actually experiencing them, but think of them as these more cinematic “clash” moments that can change the flow of a match in one player or the other’s favor.
I’m honestly torn on the inclusion of Reversal Edges. I understand what the team was going for with them, but I’m not sure I like how they can affect a match’s pacing. I’m still not at the point where I feel like I need or even want to throw out a Reversal Edge versus going with a different tactic, so I think it’s going to take some time having the game out there in the community to see if it becomes a tool that’s legitimately useful, or if it’s doomed to be a curious gimmick and nothing more. No matter what, they don’t negatively impact the game—as they’re easy enough to avoid so long as you’re paying attention—so at worse they become something you forget about and that’s that.
Once you get past the basics of gameplay, there’s probably no singular element that stands out more in Soulcalibur VI than its single-player modes. Now, as I’ve said in the past, I don’t care about solo content in fighting games—but I still give credit to the Project Soul team for the work they put into their campaigns. That’s especially true here, as there’s not one but two different single-player modes to go through. First is the Soul Chronicle, the main story that spans from the year 1583 until around 1590. There’s one main, singular story thread that you can play, but you can then work your way through various pieces of the overall narrative with each character in the game, seeing their own personal journeys through the struggle to obtain (or destroy) the legendary sword Soul Edge. I’ve got a weird love for timeline-style campaigns, so I really like what’s been done here, and Soul Chronicle offers of a ton of story content all on its own. Although—I don’t understand the obsession with making so much of the main narrative thread Kilik-focused, as he’s about as interesting as a slice of plain white bread.
Then we have the Libra of Soul, which easily could have been the one and only campaign in Soulcalibur VI. Instead of playing with one of the main cast members, you create your own fighter using the game’s customization system. Here, you travel around the globe, completing storyline quests to open up the path to the next point of interest. The story here is that a curse has befallen your character, and to keep death at bay, you’ll need to travel around closing astral rifts that have torn open the fabric of our universe. That journey—in a decision that legitimately impressed me—intertwines with the events unfolding in the Soul Chronicle. On this side of things, however, there’s much more depth and exploration at play, as you can beef up your character with new weapons, journey out to accomplish tasks or face off against rivals that are completely optional, and even make decisions through an (admittedly under-developed) morality system. It really is interesting to see the contrast of ideas and purpose between Soul Chronicle and Libra of Soul, and it was a fantastic decision by the team to have them compliment one another instead of directly competing.
Talking about the Libra of Soul obviously leads us to the character creator, but there’s actually another point I need to hit upon first, since it’s at the core of both single-player modes. In the months leading up to its release, there’s been a lot of talk in some circles about the is-or-isn’t-Soulcalibur VI-a-reboot question. Is this retelling the original story, or is it reworking it? How does this fit into the timeline? How will the dev team explain that characters who showed up later in the franchise are now showing up sooner? Well, after spending a decent chunk of time playing, I now have a definitely answer to all of those questions: who gives a crap. Seriously. I realized very quickly that it not only didn’t matter one bit what this game is and how it works into Soulcalibur canon, but that I was struggling to even care, because it just doesn’t matter. I think the team could have actually gone farther than they did, making this a reboot to the point that the name was “Soulcalibur Reborn” or something else free from the stigma of being a numbered title. Still, even that can be acceptably answered with a shrug. It’s Soulcalibur, the game is fun, many of the characters that you love are here. Cool—good enough.
So, the character creator. Originally, it shows a ton of promise, kicked off by offering no less than 16 different “races” for your character. (Though I’m still mad they lock the “Lizardman” option to only being male, meaning I can’t make an anthropomorphic lizard with boobs, you jerks.) There’s a nice selection of sliders for customizing the look of your fighter, a variety of equipment types specific to parts of the body, and a menu for adjusting the colors of all of the above. If I were to judge Soulcalibur VI’s character creator on what’s both the most important element to me personally and the hardest thing to get right—hair—then it’d pass with flying colors. However, it becomes apparent pretty quickly just how anemic the selection of equipment parts offered up is. Even after earning the credits to unlock the random items that aren’t open from the start, the selection of tops and boots and gloves and other body pieces feel both incredibly limited and strangely random. It’s hard not to come to a pretty quick conclusion: if you want a more fleshed-out character creator, then you’d better be ready to pony up for the inevitable DLC packs that are on their way. If the base equipment selection felt more complete, and future DLC was skewed toward specific themes—say, a Dark Souls pack of a Tale of pack—I’d be totally fine with that plan. As it is here, it feels kinda gross.
What I’m about to say next comes simply from my own opinions and not any sort of insider information, but I believe that push toward DLC for the character creator is part of what seems to be the bigger overall issue with Soulcalibur VI: this was a project with not a lot of money thrown into its budget. Everywhere you look in the game, there’s an example of “cheapness” crop up. The main selection of non-story content is Arcade, Versus, and Training, and that’s it. No Time Attack, no Survival, no option for setting up a local tournament, no squad battles, none of the other kinds of things we’ve gotten used to seeing in genre offerings. Speaking of training, the only actual in-game tutorial is a series of missions provided early on in the Libra of Soul. Where’s the more in-depth option for teaching the basics of gameplay in a proper training mode setting? Where are the individual tutorials for learning specific characters? Well, they are there—but they’re dense text blocks on static screens divorced from any ability to actually practice those teachings. There’s a Museum that offers up sections such as an image gallery, but not only is the artwork not fullscreen by default, but there are absolutely no control options presenting for doing things like zooming in and out.
Speaking of art, nearly every cutscene in both Soul Chronicle and Libra of Soul feature flat, motionless backgrounds overlaid with character portraits and text boxes. Look, I know—there’s a huge chunk of story here, so it would have been both costly and time consuming to provide something fancier. And, with all credit due, those character portraits on the Soul Chronicle side are absolutely lovely (especially my girl Xianghua). But at this point in the progression of fighting games, it feels like there needs to be somethingmore here. Animated backdrops, or voice acting, or some inter-spurced 3D cutscenes, or something. At least, if nothing else, text that isn’t so ridiculously small.
The final area where Soulcalibur VI feels somewhat undercooked is online. What you most want and need is absolutely there—both ranked and casual matches, a general leaderboard, and support for replays—but it all feels like the experience you get when you buy the store-brand “frosted flakes” instead of the real stuff. The worst example of this is joining casual match rooms, forcing those players not involved in the current fight to just sit there waiting. How, in the year 2018, am I not allowed to watch the fight that’s going on? Given that rooms can have up to 8 players in them, it could easily be 10 minutes or more of just staring at the same lobby screen waiting for your next turn to finally come around. On the plus side, while I haven’t been able to do extensive testing of the game’s netcode due to playing prior to launch day, the online matches I’ve been able to try out have mostly felt pretty good. So, as of now, I’ve got hope that things will stay solid once the player base starts growing.
The thing is, I think this is one of the times when we have to be realistic about what to expect. I absolutely believe that Soulcalibur VI is a case of “get this or get nothing,” and I’ll take this every single time. While there’s a lot of little issues that can feel like a bigger deal when all taken together, none of them—save the character creator’s equipment selection—soured my experience. As a critic, I have to point out the game’s flaws. As a fan, I have to wish Bandai Namco and Project Soul could have given us something more polished. But as a gamer, and a lover of fighting games, I’m just glad Soulcalibur has come back to us, and that it still remembers how to be the engrossing and enjoyable experience it was back when we were still taking its existence for granted.
Soulcalibur VI feels like a game that’s fighting to make a comeback in a world where it isn’t sure it’s welcome anymore, and the downside of that is that many of its parts feel like they were under-developed to keep costs low. However, much more important is the upside, which is that a fantastic fighting game series has finally come back to us, and it’s still just as good as we all remember.
T – Teen
|Soulcalibur VI is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.