Following Soulcalibur V, the Soulcalibur series seemed to be in a bit of an odd spot. Turning their attention away from the numbered main series, a Soulcalibur II remake was made and two separate failed ventures into the mobile game free to play market happened, and after that… the series went quiet for almost four years. It seemed for a while that publisher Bandai Namco had let the franchise die, but 6 years after Soulcalibur V, Soulcalibur VI was released, the weapon-based 3D fighting game series reasserting itself and proving it was not only alive, but it could continue to evolve.
One of the major appeals of Soulcalibur VI is its accessibility. A new player does not need to learn complex combos or long strings of button inputs to pull off attacks. Instead, Soulcalibur VI’s fighting style traces back to three attack types that are near universal across the cast. A vertical attack will make your character swing their weapon up or down, a horizontal attack will go for a sideways strike, and the kick button is used, of course, to kick an opponent. No matter which character on the roster the player selects, they can usually rely on the vertical, horizontal, and kick attacks to be pretty similar across the cast and fulfill the designated purpose in a battle. All these basic attacks have a button assigned to them so that, if you press it, you should always do an attack that fits the bill of its associated attack type, but by pressing multiple buttons at once, you open up the more character-specific skills. Interestingly enough, you can even set multiple button presses to another button, allowing you to set shortcuts instead of needing to press multiple buttons at once every time you want to use these attacks. The direction you press or hold can also augment things further, but these are also simple and usually just involve a single direction, meaning it is easy to learn moves through basic experimentation. Because so many of your abilities are easily accessible, success in Soulcalibur VI is not as much about memorizing movelists as it is deciding what move is best used at what time and following up on it as best you can before the opponent can recover. Guarding is also set to a button, making it fairly easy to move into a defensive position and negate damage if need be, thus leading to this game’s interplay of players trying to suss out when to strike or defend and how best to do so.
Soulcalibur VI, unlike many fighting games, allows the player to walk their fighter around in all directions, and this leads to the attack types having different roles. Players can guard high or low, with many vertical strikes able to prod at the guard and try to hit the area that isn’t protected. A player can sidestep vertical attacks though, so that’s where horizontal attacks come in. A player who is walking can’t guard, so if they move to the side to avoid a vertical attack, a horizontal attack has the reach to catch them. While most your damage will come from well-timed vertical or horizontal attacks, kicks are important for prodding the opponent, many having quick execution that makes them perfect for putting your opponent on-guard or catching them slacking. If you need that last little bit of damage to win a round, kicks are also a pretty quick and easy way to fish for a last hit.
With just the understanding of your buttons’ roles in combat you can put up a good enough fight, although there is a layer of complexity for players who really want to learn the systems of the game. Other than just knowing what special attacks to use when the opportunity arises, there are some other layers to the combat that require finesse to use properly. If an opponent is about to hit you with a move, you can counter with a Guard Impact, an attack deflection that will leave them stumbling if executed at the right time or leave you wide open if you time it wrong. Players can activate a special Soul Charge mode once they’ve built up a meter through successful attacks, Soul Charge making them do more damage and making new skills available. Knowing your new capabilities while in this mode will make Soul Charge much more worthwhile. Critical Edges also can use that meter instead, these being super moves that deal heavy damage and play a slick animation when they hit, although they do get a bit old once you’ve seen them across many battles. Critical Edges are easy to execute, you can even set them to a button, but setting them up to be guaranteed hits is a skill in its own, meaning a novice can enjoy a lucky hit with their super move and an expert can integrate them in planned out attack strings. Not getting hit by a Critical Edge is as simple as guarding against it, but the game makes sure that players don’t spend the whole battle guarding and actually fight. Already, guarding only protects a certain region of a fighter’s body, leaving them open to attacks aimed at different areas of their body. However, the guarding player can also be grabbed and thrown for decent damage, although a quick player can also break a grab before its too late. Taking too many hits while guarding will weaken your guard as well, meaning it eventually breaks and the other player now has a huge opening for dealing heavy damage. The last way to penetrate a guard is Soulcalibur VI’s new Reversal Edge system, where both fighters enter a flashy looking scene where they get to select one action to execute. Here, certain moves will beat each other, the game comparing it to rock-paper-scissors but with the three attack types, but you can choose to try and sidestep it or avoid the exchange altogether if you think you know which attack your opponent will choose.
Battles in Soulcalibur VI can go quickly since most modes have damage moderately high, so the game sets up many battles to be a best of 7 series of rounds where the first to lose their health bar loses the round, although in some arenas you can also knock a player over the edge for a ring out victory instead. Even with a timer to ensure players stay aggressive during the battle, it appears to be balanced well with the health so that fights aren’t too likely to end in time outs. Multiplayer fights are Soulcalibur VI’s biggest strength, as if you can find a player in the same skill area as you, the mind games of trying to land attacks and predict how to guard against your opponent’s strikes make it feel like a proper duel.
The cast of playable characters comes with quite a bit of variety due to their choice in weaponry. Range is a huge consideration when it comes to character choice since while Astaroth has an enormous axe and Nightmare and Siegfried both use huge Zweihanders with fairly good range and power, they are slow and their attacks pretty easy to see coming. Kilik and Seong Mi-Na balance range with quickness with their long staves, but individual strikes are often weaker as a price. Some characters like Talim and Taki prefer to get in close and dish out repeated strikes with their incredibly close range weapons, but the game makes sure these characters who prefer to be in their opponent’s face aren’t without recourse for the long range attackers, often giving them special movement options or projectile attacks to accommodate the reach difference. Maxi’s quick nunchuck swinging makes him an unpredictable attacker, and the odd movements of more unusual characters like Voldo and Yoshimitsu open up more attacks as they take on stances and use attacks with unique traits. There is certainly variety to be found in the weapons characters wield, and while this isn’t the biggest selection the series has ever had, each character feels distinct, many of them carrying over moves from their previous appearances with some alterations to make them feel different yet familiar. There are a few new characters, including a guest appearance by Geralt from the Witcher games, a new villain named Azwel who uses floating weapons made of energy, and Grøh who can split his blade into two smaller swords and appears to be designed as a cool antihero.
To further bolster the amount of characters in the game, Soulcalibur VI allows players to create up to 100 characters of their own with a fairly lenient character creator. While the character will have to mimic the style of an established character in their weapon choice, their appearance is incredibly flexible, making it a wonderful canvas for making new fighters. Players who like to make serious characters and absurd abominations are both accommodated here, and while it doesn’t give the player total freedom with this customization feature, it does have enough wiggle room to ensure the potential is vast. There are a few pieces of gear that have to be purchased through points earned in other modes, but you are still given plenty to start with, as well as a few options for your character’s species, full control of coloration, and some positional freedom with extra attachments that can allow people to make more complex designs.
Interestingly enough, the character creator plays into one of the game’s two types of story modes called Libra of Souls. After creating a character who unfortunately can’t be ported into multiplayer play, the player sets off on a personal journey where this custom creation awakes to find they are smack dab in the medieval setting of the Soulcalibur series and for some reason, they are uniquely attuned to absorb the energy of magical rifts in space called Astral Fissures that are appearing around the world and turning people into crazed killers. Setting off to seal as many as you can, this mode is actually a bit of a fighting game RPG, the player leveling up through battle, buying or acquiring weapons that make them stronger, and able to go on various quests to fight increasingly stronger foes. A skilled player can punch above their weight class and do harder quests early, but the game gives some ways for less skilled players to gain an edge as well, allowing them to set foods for special boosts before a battle or even hire mercenaries to soften up their foes in a fight before the player joins in to clean up. Many fights here have special conditions, such as slippery ground making it easier to be defeated by a ring out or certain attacks proving much more effective than others, and not every battle is just a “first to three rounds” skirmish either. Some will have one round battles with multiple enemies in a row, with the player losing if they lose so much as one round in this style of fight. There are some difficult battles to be found here, but at the same time, Soulcalibur VI in general seems to think low difficulty battles are best achieved by the enemy sometimes standing around not guarding to give you openings rather than always testing your strategic approach. It makes it much more tolerable to get through the simpler stuff though, and some optional late game battles here will give your opponent an unfair advantage like the ability to heal when they hit you just to push your skill to its limit. Even if you’re not interested in just battles that test your skill, the side quests often intersect with members of the main roster or split off and tell unique tales only found in this mode. Some highlights of these optional storylines include Bolta the blacksmith trying to regain renown after her father disappeared, a sickly young lady who wishes to experience the world through cuisine since she isn’t well enough to see it, and Thomas the merchant who always seems to be in need of a loan and in need of rescue. The character creator benefits the plot greatly here as they can introduce plenty of new characters for you to battle who have unique appearances and personalities despite borrowing other character’s movesets. The sidequests are a treat in a mode that already has a pretty good main story to follow as well, with the player quickly allying with the new character Grøh and getting to know him and the organization he works for pretty well over the course of the story. The main villain here is also a newcomer, with the eccentric Azwel’s intentions not being mindless antagonism but a willingness to embrace the strange powers of the Astral Rifts in the hope that he can help humanity better itself, his admiration of the human race and the human condition driving him to act in what he wildly believes is their best interest.
Despite having this long, intricate story mode for a character you make, Soulcalibur VI doesn’t forget its returning cast. The Soul Chronicle provides individual storylines for each member of the cast as well as retelling the events of the original Soulcalibur game with its main story, that being the the tale of many people pursuing a powerful but evil blade named Soul Edge and the rise of its holy counterpart Soul Calibur. Although I have personally been a fan of the series for a long time and even looked into the lore of its characters before, Soul Chronicle keeping its focus close on a single character allowed their personality and history to shine through in a way it hasn’t had much chance to in the series before, especially since many of the previous titles tell their stories through Arcade modes with incongruous endings. Arcade mode does make a return here as a mode to fight multiple strong computer foes in a row just for fun, but the Story chapters for each character provide insight into who these characters are, explain their motivations and behavior, and more importantly, knows when to step back and just give us dialogue scenes instead of jamming a fight into every chapter of the story. Some fights aren’t too pivotal to a character’s personal plot still, but on the whole the Soul Chronicle can help deepen your appreciation for characters who usually only get to show off who they are in pre- and post-battle statements. Despite having this story mode to flesh things out, the game even gives you plenty of documents to read if you’re interested, although these aren’t by any means required reading, just a supplement if you’re still hungry after getting the important details from the main game.
THE VERDICT: Whether it’s the battle system or the stories of its characters, even the tale of your own created character, Soulcalibur VI has put a lot of thought into balancing accessibility and complexity. Fights rely on simple combinations of three core attack types and how pressing them together or with simple directional inputs can modify them, but the battle style means intelligent attack choice and knowing how to follow up on an opening are rewarded and prevent things from being too straightforward. The variety in the cast ensures different strategies for battle are viable and you have quite a bit of freedom to make your own characters to join the diverse roster as well. The game’s story modes offer both deeper looks at established Soulcalibur characters and open up a new tale for your own creation that mixes in leveling up, items, and interesting side-quests to make for a strong chunk of single player content placed on top of an already thrilling multiplayer fighting game.
And so, I give Soulcalibur VI for the Playstation 4…
A FANTASTIC rating. A fighting game that can pull in new players easily, offer deeper combat for those who choose to explore the systems more closely, and still tell a good story on top of that is a shining example of what a fighting game should be. From a single player angle, there’s a large amount of content that focuses on challenging not just your skills at fighting, but at accommodating unusual situations and building up a character, all while there’s plots worth following and characters worth getting invested in in both available story modes. Even if multiplayer is not available to you, there is enough content to enjoy before you tap into modes like versus or character creation. Multiplayer is the best place for the combat mechanics to shine though, the fights testing your ability to read your opponent for openings and capitalize well on them, with every attack option having strengths and weaknesses that are easy to understand. Reversal Edge is a bit less fleshed out than the rest of the gameplay because it’s a touch too simple and a little slow, but it’s an attack option you can avoid easily if you don’t wish to engage with it and the battles will still have plenty of options and considerations.
Soulcalibur VI is a triumphant return for the series after its awkward diversion into the mobile market and following hiatus. The refined weapon-based combat is still a blast and the roster provides plenty of ways to engage with it, and the story, surprisingly, feels like a better look at the unique medieval setting of Soulcalibur than Soulcalibur Legends was despite that game being developed to explore this universe more closely. Soulcalibur VI manages to hit the right marks to appeal to competitive and casual players alike with its refined exploration of the series’s fairly unique identity as a 3D weapon-based fighting game.