SoulCalibur 6 hands-on: Possibly the finest tale of souls and swords yet
SoulCalibur 6 has been a long time coming. It’s been six years since the last entry in the series, SoulCalibur 5, landed on consoles and – for many fans – it’s been even longer since the series was at its a-game (2002’s SoulCalibur II for me, in case you’re wondering).
In the intervening years, a lot has changed in the fighting game scene. Competitive fighting tournaments may have been around for years but, thanks in part to services like Twitch and YouTube, watching tournaments play out has become a true spectacle. For Bandai Namco’s Project Soul team, this couldn’t have been a better development.
The long-running SoulCalibur series has always been a looker and underneath that sheen, a fiercely competitive fighter was always present. That’s no different in SoulCalibur 6 and, while I’m no professional fighting game aficionado – although I am a long-time SoulCalibur fan – it’s safe to say that SoulCalibur 6 is shaping up to right all the wrongs the series has faced since its heydays.
Now, over 20 years since the series launched, SoulCalibur 6 is pulling the game right back to its roots, and it’s never been better.
SoulCalibur 6 hands-on: Story and setting
Set between the events of SoulCalibur and SoulCalibur II, SoulCalibur 6 is both a celebration of the last 20 years and a refinement of it. Unlike past SoulCalibur titles that try to weave a story in via some obtuse game mode, or simply leave it to the Arcade setup to address, SoulCalibur 6 goes above and beyond charting out the truth to the tale of souls and swords.
In the first of the two main story modes on offer, Soul Chronicle outlines the stories of each SoulCalibur 6 character and how they became entangled in the battle of good and evil over Soul Calibur and Soul Edge. Set between 1583 and 1590, the main story follows the path of Kilik, while other characters weave their way in and out of this narrative path, the best way to truly understand the whole picture of SoulCalibur 6’s setting – and thus the tale of the entire series – is to jump between different character’s storylines as you progress.
In some ways it’s a glorified Arcade mode, pitting you against increasingly more difficult foes as you move through each character’s story arc. However, there’s more to it than just battle after battle. For fans, Soul Chronicle is a valuable window into the history of SoulCalibur, it also provides a glimpse of each character’s origin stories and helps you understand how series rivalries have formed. It also does a stellar job of introducing this year’s guest character, The Witcher’s Geralt of Rivia.
Those wanting an even meatier single-player experience can look forward to Libra of Souls, SoulCalibur 6’s answer to the fantastic Edge Master and Weapon Master Modes of SoulCalibur and SoulCalibur II.
In much the same way as its predecessors, Libra of Souls sees you trekking across Eurasia participating in battles to raise the level of your character while uncovering the story of how Soul Calibur and Soul Edge became a force for good and evil in the world. This time around, however, you’ll be using a created character instead of a series stalwart.
Because of this, Libra of Souls actually plays out very much like a choose-your-own-adventure Fighting Fantasy title. As you progress through the story, narrative moments provide you with RPG-like questions to ask, moral choices to make and even opportunities to uncover new fights or destinations simply because of the decisions you make. It’s refreshing and quickly turns what could have been a rehash of the excellent Weapon Master Mode into something more. It may not be playing with your favourite characters of the series – although you can change move sets by simply equipping a different weapon type – but it’s certainly deeper and more involving than anything else SoulCalibur has offered up on the single-player front.
SoulCalibur 6 hands-on: Visuals and gameplay
In terms of actual gameplay, SoulCalibur 6 is as slick as ever. The move to Unreal Engine has really paid off on next-generation consoles and, while my time with the PS4 Pro version of the game certainly isn’t as strikingly beautiful as the early PC build I played back in March, it’s really quite the looker.
The character roster is filled with returning favourites, including the re-inclusion of Talim and Seong Mi-Na. For the most part, all characters look near identical to their SoulCalibur II counterparts and many of them share identical movesets with just a few tweaks. This, undoubtedly, makes SoulCalibur 6 feel like a warm hug from a stranger. Its familiar embrace is welcome, but you don’t feel entirely comfortable.
In time, that comfort grows. Nuanced differences in gameplay make SoulCalibur 6 feel closer to the likes of classic SoulCalibur games than SoulCalibur 5, yet it still borrows many of the best bits of 5 and refines them. The result is something that feels truly fresh to play.
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Battles are fast and frenetic and the introduction of the new Reversal Edge feature adds a brilliant tactical layer to combat. Far from being the game-breaking mechanic many feared it would be, Reversal Edge actually helps slow battles and give opponents a chance to turn the tide via a rock-paper-scissors combat mechanic. It’s a fluid combat experience and, thanks to its jazzy animation, really does make battles feel tense when your opponent whips it out with a tap of the shoulder button.
Project Soul has also refined how Critical Edge specials work and revamped the Soul Charge ability to make sure people are less reliant on them to win battles. Performing a Soul Charge now also opens up a slew of new moves for your character, so it’s actually a tactical move beyond simply wishing to inflict more damage. Guard Breaks also make a return, with Guard Impacts no longer a cost to an opponents Soul Gauge when used.
SoulCalibur 6 hands-on: Early verdict
Now I’ve had a chance to spend more time playing with SoulCalibur 6 I’m pleased to say that things have only improved since my last hands-on session. The scope and scale Project Soul and Bandai Namco are aiming for with SoulCalibur 6 is impressive, yet everything seems to work seamlessly. Features aren’t piled in here for the sake of it, everything feels like a thoughtful addition and adds to the package in some shape or form.
Two-player battles on the same machine were never going to be an issue, but with the SoulCalibur 6 Network Test now concluded, it seems as if many of SoulCalibur 6’s online elements will work rather slickly too. In fact, the only issue had during online play was the amount of time it took to find a game, something that’ll be resolved post-test, and as more people actually start playing SoulCalibur 6 upon release.
With SoulCalibur 6 releasing on 19 October, there’s really not long to wait until the world can experience Project Soul’s homage to the last 20 years of SoulCalibur. The best thing about it is that this entry is easily shaping up to be the best one in years.