The legend never dies.
It’s been six-and-a-half years since the last Soul Calibur, which was supposedly so boring and forgettable that most people wrote it off, even with a character creator mode more diverse than what was thought humanly possible. After being left in a dormant state for so long, Namco have seen fit to unleash the beast once more, with fire in its veins, and the possibility to create memes beyond your wildest dreams. Welcome to Soul Calibur VI.
This is the latest in the series that attempts to blend arena-fighting with traditional one-on-one fighting game design from Bandai Namco’s in-house team, Project Soul. Namco are usually publishing bombastic anime arena-fighters and underground hits like Get Even and Little Nightmares, but they’re also responsible for recently distributing the fantastic Witcher 3, and King of Fighters XIV. Soul Calibur VI shows that it’s the best of both worlds here.
The plot of Soul Calibur revolves around a sword, and VI serves as a reboot of the series somewhat, which is a polite way of saying “We couldn’t find any OC characters, except for Geralt”. There’s a sword known as the Soul Edge, which fighters from across the world want for its untamed power. This attracts folks like Ronin, looking for acceptance, evil looking for domination, or one of your created characters, looking for a way to get more cosmetics to make even worse abominations of humanity.
Of course we have to talk about the character creator first, the staple of the series since Soul Calibur III, and it’s still as brilliant as ever. You can craft their outfit, their voice, their main weapon, and you can either use it for good or for boredom. There’s no telling how creative you can be with it, and there’s already hundreds of fighters that have been archived for people to gaze in awe at, like “Minecraft Steve”, Raphael from TMNT, Bayonetta, Solid Snake, and a giant apple. The mind God gave us is finally being used properly.
It’s a bit daunting at first, especially considering that because it’s mostly clothes and items are 15-16th century period pieces, meaning that trying to make something like UK TV medium Derek Acorah is going to be a bit difficult. Persevere, however, and you’ll find the character creator at your mercy, and funny ideas and even ones that you legitimately find cool will be more apparent and visible.
Better yet, your giant apple or cosplay character can now be the saviour of the world in the “Libra of Soul” mode, which is the most refined attempt at creating a unique campaign in a fighting game since Tekken 6. The difference between the two is that Soul Calibur VI stays in its own lane instead of being a crap beat ’em up half of the time. Real quick though, here’s a fair warning: You can’t transfer already created characters to Libra of Soul, and vice versa. If you really want your crap version of Cell to save 16th century Earth, then keep that in mind.
In Libra of Soul, there’s a new threat in the form of “Astral Fissures”, which turns fighters who fail to repel its power into mindless “Malfested”, which are the Husks from Mass Effect, except they’re fun to fight. Your custom character is not a Malfested, but someone who will surely perish unless they can tap into the power of the Astral Fissure and close it for good. With the help of mainstay characters like Zasalamel and Mitsurugi, along with newbies like Grøh, it’s down to you to save the Soul Edge from the new baddie, Azwel.
Once Zasalamel briefs you on just how buggered you’ll be if you don’t seek aid, you’ll be given a taste of fighting, and oh my God, it’s so good! Weapon-based combat is a bit tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’re treated to Bandai Namco and Co’s typically beautifully animated fighting. Certain weapons like Maxi’s nunchucks, Taki’s twin blades, and Voldo’s scissor-like weapons bring nothing but fury and fire to the fight, with weight and precision also playing an enormous part.
I’d be lying through my back teeth if I said that Soul Calibur VI has provided me with some of the best one-on-one duels in recent fighting game memory, with a trivial complaint being the lack of visceral duelling. When I see someone like Mitsurugi stab me in the jaw, or Raphael thrust his rapier into me with the force of a thousand black holes, I’m expecting more than my jacket to fall off in the assault.
The AI that you’ll come up against will scale as you get further, which is both a blessing and a burden. For one, it means the challenge could possibly stay consistent, with a new adversary always around the corner, ready to tackle you in a new way, unforeseen. However, it doesn’t happen often enough, as the side-quests you’ll find usually have a much lower level cap than what you’re at. Still, it’s not all bad, it just means more fighting, whether it’s a breeze or a blockade.
Arenas are beautifully designed and visualized, the combos look graceful once you start getting the hang of it for some characters and weapons, and the Critical Edges / Ultras are easy to execute. It’s just a simple button-tap which might sound like a casual thing to do, but given how free-flowing and loose the battles can be, a simple step to the right or left can make you miss said Ultra. If you’re afraid of that happening, then you can always Soul Charge instead, if you’re confident in letting your combos win the fight instead.
A bigger complaint would be Libra of Soul’s more… gimmicky fights. More often than not, you’ll be tasked with fighting enemies under some silly scenario, with it requiring a sudden change of playstyle, or praying to the Great Lord Bruce Lee above that the AI will put themselves in a position for an easy win. This is most apparent when you fight with a slippery floor, which usually ends with an unintended “Ring-Out”.
Ahh, Ring-Outs, possibly my least favourite thing about Soul Calibur. Some of the arenas have parts where if you can juggle your enemy over there, then you’ll be able to throw them out of the ring in order for a cheap victory. It never feels earned, it’s always felt like something that was thrown in to be a gimmick, but no one had the heart to tell Project Soul that it was kind of a dumb decision at the beginning.
There’s a few more that are more of a pain in the ass than a challenge, like the one where you have to defeat an enemy with a Soul Charged attack, or the one where you have to force a ring-out because the enemy is invincible, but the rest are doable. It’s just three to five conditions that bring frustration instead of elation, and the rest don’t bring much of an outstanding emotion either.
Back to the good stuff. The great thing about Libra of Soul is that it implements RPG mechanics, with your character being able to switch weapons between each fight, giving you a chance to try everything. Here is where you’ll learn which characters are going to work for you, and this is where a slight problem occurs with the combat, in that it’s hard to make combat feel both weighted and graceful.
This might be a completely subjective statement, and I’m aware of that, but some of the weapon movesets are hard to fully optimize for combos or for a playstyle. Mitsurugi, Geralt, and Zasalamel’s weapons in particular have the power and ferocity to make short work of your enemies, but they’re tough to utilize properly and are harder to handle, even for their supposed difficulty of use. The only other weapon-sets that aren’t fun to use are Azwel’s and Raphael’s, but that’s because they’re just straight-up crap characters.
As you go on into the story, you’ll be met with a simple Visual Novel narrative structure, with there being the rare cutscenes once every five hours, and almost all dialogue is in regular dialogue boxes. It’s fine to have these, but there’s a lot of cringe when the characters stutter something like “N-No, Master! I-I-I-I-I’m the ultimate being!!”. If you’ve been through RP hell, then you’ll certainly cringe like I did.
While the story isn’t entirely what matters, well-established characters in the Soul Calibur franchise do get more time in the limelight here, which is great. Maxi, Mitsurugi, and new guy Grøh are particularly enthralling to talk to and to have in your presence and socialize with. Sure, your character will be a silent husk throughout most of this, but damnit, they seem to like me, and they’re fun.
As you progress through the story, you’ll come across towns that offer various resources. Food, weaponry, and mercenaries are the main things on offer, with weapon upgrading becoming an ignored mechanic later on. Mercenaries are essentially just other players’ created characters, who can fight for you for on particularly hard missions. If they win, then it’s money well spent. If they lose? Well, now you have to step into the ring, simple as. It’s a neat addition, but completely defeats the point, especially when all of the Mercenaries I bought to test it out did exactly nothing.
The final thing to mention about Libra of Soul is the “Karmic choices”, where the game will give you a choice that determines whether you’ll pursue a life of angelic devotion, or demonic power. It’s a fair system to put in, but I wish it wasn’t so black and white with how it’s portrayed. A layer of ambiguity would be nice to it, instead of choosing something repeatedly just to see and not to wonder.
That’s the main chunk of Soul Calibur VI done and dusted: A well-implemented, but admittedly shoddy RPG-lite with a lot of progression and a fair amount of depth behind it. It would’ve been nice if the characters and fighters you met in the campaign were also available as playable characters in the main game. Random side-characters like Azwel’s crony Daniel, the merchant Thomas, and Grøh’s squad of Natalie and Dion look great, and even though they’re using weapons other characters already have, it’s still possible.
Moving on from there, there’s the “Soul Chronicle” mode, which fills in what all of the other characters were doing while your created character was tearing shit up in Libra of Soul. It’s more of a “Where Are They Now?” section, where you’ll see what people like Kilik and Zasalamel were doing during the first Astral Fissures, with fights popping up every now and then between tons of dialogue. It’s basically filler, with Zasalamel’s arc being literally just dialogue.
Aside from that, there’s the usual Arcade challenges, the couch-competitive Versus mode, and Training. You can also read some fairly basic lore in the “Museum” tab, but the prices to unlock some of this content is unbelievably extortionate. Three-thousand seven-hundred Soul Points just to watch a cutscene from Soul Calibur V? You’re taking a jug of a piss there, Project Soul, admit it.
Finally, online, with Ranked and Casual being split into two different game modes, kind of. In Casual, multiple fighters will populate a lobby and fight randomly, whereas Ranked is more of a straightforward, no bullshit fighting, with rewards taking the form of your online rank increasing, and meagre amounts of Soul Points. Ranked is easily the better of the two, even when you want casual fights, as the actual Casual mode is dull to sit in, waiting for some randy with Another Goku Character to join.
Ranked matches don’t lag, with it always being a silky smooth experience unlike something like Tekken, but when the connection does drop? It’s brief, which is something I’m not used to. Whenever lag happens in a fighting game, it’s something that stays permanently throughout the match, but in Soul Calibur VI? It’s a small lapse that goes away immediately, even when you’re fighting against someone from say, Botswana, and it’s great.
It’s enough to satisfy you for a while, but I personally jumped straight back into Libra of Soul. The online matches were fun while they lasted, but with this new campaign, Project Soul and Co. have set a new standard, a new way to interact with fighting games, and to carve your own identity into it as well just adds cream to the cake. It’s the main reason as to why Soul Calibur VI might be the best fighting game of the year.
In the end, Soul Calibur VI is a glorious return to form from Project Soul, with enough content to justify that fifty-dollar price tag. It’s dense, it’s fun, it’s bombastic without being over the top, it’s a great introduction to fighting games, and it’s one of the best to be released in the genre for the past five-to-ten years. Here’s to you, Bandai Namco and co.
… we’re getting Giantdad in DLC, right? No? Well, what about the Janitor from Little Nightmares? Oh, come on!
This review of Soul Calibur VI is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
A graciously-executed fighting game, with enough fairly unique content to satisfy you for tens of hours.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.