Republished on the 25th October, 2018: Now that we've spent time with the game's online modes, we've republished this review with our thoughts.
SoulCalibur's had a rocky old road since the glory days of SoulCalibur II, a title still considered by many to be one of the best 3D fighting games ever made. SoulCalibur III, IV, and V weren't necessarily bad games, but they each had their own noticeable flaws, and none of them were quite able to recapture the, er, soul of the series' peak.
For a time it seemed as though SoulCalibur may have been done. The series had certainly lost its edge, and understandably, Bandai Namco clearly wasn't prepared to give it another shot. But like the mighty warriors of the sixteenth century, the property's burning soul can't be extinguished so easily, and now almost seven years after the last mainline entry, we have SoulCalibur VI, and in short, it's a refreshing return to form.
It may have Roman numerals at the end of its name, but make no mistake: this is something of a reboot. With SoulCalibur VI, it feels like the development team has taken a step back before trying its best to rediscover what made the earlier SoulCalibur games so enjoyable. Fights are frantic and flashy affairs, and are immediately reminiscent of SoulCalibur II, especially in terms of speed.
The series has always been easy to learn, and that's no different with SoulCalibur VI. With quick 3D movements that are easy to execute, feeling your way through a duel soon becomes second nature. What's more, attack inputs are rarely complex, most requiring just a direction plus a button or two. Although we're sure more advanced players will work out some devastating combos mere hours after the game launches, SoulCalibur VI is less about stringing blows together, and more about spacing, timing, and defending yourself appropriately. In that sense, it's more approachable than, say, Tekken 7, or even Dragon Ball FighterZ at higher levels.
An entirely new mechanic, reversal edge, feeds into this accessibility. It's a single-button technique that all characters have access to, and as you charge it up by holding the button down, you'll automatically parry incoming attacks. Release it at just the right time, and you'll enter a cinematic clash that works on a rock-scissors-paper system in the form of vertical-horizontal-kick. At first it might seem a little cheap -- you are, after all, placing all your hopes on pushing the right button -- but you slowly start to realise that each character has their own reversal edge quirks.
Hulking brute Astaroth, for example, can instantly hurl his opponent out of the arena if he guesses right, and so simple mind games start popping up. If you know that Astaroth gets such a huge opportunity out of vertical attack, you'll be looking to beat it with your kick. But then what if Astaroth knows that you're expecting the vertical, and goes for a horizontal instead? It all gets deliciously tense very, very quickly.
Reversal edge is also largely responsible for bringing cinematic flair to SoulCalibur VI, much like the slow motion finishes that worked so well in Tekken 7. Read your adversary correctly and you'll often be rewarded with a brilliant looking blow or a cool closeup of your character. Even just breaking your opponent's guard results in a brief but spectacular moment where a pulse of inverted colour explodes across the screen. Although the game can look a little rough at times, there's no denying that it's fantastic to watch in motion.
Add soul charges -- essentially powerful character transformations -- and super moves to the mix, and you begin to break through the outer later of SoulCalibur VI's complexities. As is the case with any good fighting game, there's a lot of depth and nuance here, and, perhaps most importantly, no sign of any immediately overpowered characters. Every mechanic and system in this latest title feels measured and carefully considered, again, harking back to the glory days of SoulCalibur II. Of course, whether it's able to hold a competitive audience remains to be seen, but we can at least confirm that more casual play is an absolute blast.
And that's partly down to the game's single player modes, which are robust. Alongside your standard arcade mode, which is perfectly paced at eight duels in a row, there are two lengthy story-based modes to explore. The first, Libra of Soul, has you create your own custom character before hopping around a map of the world. You'll encounter established warriors, complete missions to earn gold and experience, make choices that impact the narrative, and generally just enjoy a lite role-playing adventure. Libra of Soul is basic in its execution, but it's well made and surprisingly addictive.
The same praise applies to Chronicles of Souls, a mode which houses individual character stories. These are broken up into episodic chapters, each fleshed out with lovely looking artwork and dialogue. Again, the approach is basic, but it honestly ends up working better than, say, the fully cinematic story mode in Tekken 7. The stories here give you a much greater sense of the game's world and its warriors.
Character creation also deserves a special mention, if only because of the depth that it offers. It's perhaps the most impressive that we've seen in any modern fighting game, allowing you to alter minute details such as cloth textures and facial expressions. Want to recreate a character from your favourite TV show, movie, anime, or game? With a system as robust as this it's probably possible, and you can even share your creations online with other players.
Speaking of online, SoulCalibur VI has a pretty standard online multiplayer component. The netcode seems solid enough based on our experience, and you can play either arcade mode or training mode while you wait for the game to find you an opponent. Our only issue is that, as you'd expect, custom characters are everywhere. While we've got nothing against people taking their unique creations online, it'd be nice to have a ranked match mode that doesn't allow any kind of customisation for the sake of more competitive play.
All in all, SoulCalibur VI is an accomplished package and a fighting game that just feels great to play. In many ways it returns to the series' roots with a confidence that's been missing from previous entries, and the result is an approachable, entertaining, and rewarding weapon-based brawler. This is the most assured SoulCalibur since SoulCalibur II, and it certainly shows.