When it comes to its bread-and-butter franchises, Bandai Namco generally operates on a principle of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but the Japanese video game development company and publisher does have a rather conspicuous habit of bringing just one too many non-sequitur elements to the table in an attempt to mix things up for players. With the SoulCalibur series, the breaking point came right around the time we all had to pretend that having Darth Vader fighting an undead pirate wasn’t weird as hell. SoulCalibur VI, then, isn’t so much a return to form than a much-needed refocus on the things that made the series special to begin with, dialing back the more ridiculous ideas from over the years, while cultivating the ones that worked.
To wit, the most hearty and involving parts in SoulCalibur VI are all in aid of weaving the often splintered and frayed SoulCalibur narrative together as elegantly as possible. The much vaunted “tale of souls and swords, eternally retold” has been taken back to the drawing board, with not one, but two full-fledged single-player story modes dedicated to cohesively telling the story of the game’s 21 warriors, and their role in attempting to reclaim or destroy the fabled evil sword Soul Edge. And the most engaging of those modes is Soul Chronicle, where the major events leading up to the knight Siegfried taking control of the cursed blade are recounted on a massive timeline.
All of SoulCalibur VI‘s warriors see their individual stories briefly told in relation to how they wound up searching for Soul Edge, and through a combination of text and rather beautiful watercolor-meets-pencil-sketch artwork, with major plot points punctuated by full-on fights. The stories themselves aren’t exactly to the level of, say, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but they go a very long way toward humanizing the characters, endearing them to players in ways the series hasn’t bothered to in years, and making the relationships between these characters a little bit easier to parse out. (Anything not explained in Soul Chronicle is elaborated upon in the Library, where extra tomes of backstory unlock as you play in every mode.)
The most expansive mode, however, is Libra of Souls, where players get to craft their own fighters from the game’s robust—if slightly haphazard—Creation Mode, and take them on an RPG-style romp throughout Eurasia in an attempt to cure themselves of a curse caused by Soul Edge. This mode is very much SoulCalibur VI‘s version of the Weapon Master and Chronicles of the Sword modes from the previous games in the SoulCalibur series, and it loses out by tipping the balance too far toward the text than the gameplay. Fights here are painfully anticlimactic given the extensive lead-in and load times. More often than not, you face nameless goons instead of major players. Stages don’t have enough creative variation, and the RPG elements—earning new weaponry, XP, health recovery, and so on—are undercooked.
This is also the only area of SoulCalibur VI where players who are new to the series get anything resembling a tutorial, but new and complex concepts still only barely sink in before the game has moved on to something totally unrelated. The story being told is rather sturdy, with a surprising amount of real, fascinating history and mythology sprinkled in for good measure, but its presentation still leaves much to be desired, with none of the striking artwork that keeps Soul Chronicle engaging through its text-heavy stretches.
This would all be for naught if the actual fighting wasn’t up to snuff, but SoulCalibur is almost peerless in that regard. The series had been slowly falling into a trap of bigger and flashier attacks at the expense of tension, and this game finds a nice balance. The innate satisfaction of swordfighting is brought to the forefront again. SoulCalibur is back to being a game of clashing blades—about you capitalizing on a whiffed attack, figuring out if your next move will leave you open to being brutalized by your opponent, and how to mitigate that possibility, as opposed to “whoever hits hardest first wins.”
The new elements—Soul Charging, Reverse Edge, and Lethal Hits—that SoulCalibur VI introduces to the series are all high-risk maneuvers that can leave you defenseless, but the reward when executed just right yields some of the most devastating maneuvers in the game. All three of these tactics work within the mechanics of a stand-up fight, instead of being at odds with them. They ensure that duels remain dynamic but still up-close and personal.
Ironically, SoulCalibur VI‘s skimpiest modes are its most basic. The Arcade mode continues the trend of pushing you through a mere six straightforward fights before gifting you with a couple hundred SP to purchase extras from the game’s shop—and all without an ending. Online multiplayer does much of the same, and while it’s extremely rudimentary, it’s refreshing in its simplicity compared to the chaos of fight points and ranking systems that define the online modes of other fighting games. In the end, there’s a purity to how SoulCalibur VI is so focused above all else on its spectacular swordplay and world building. The increasing tendency of fighting games to tailor themselves to pros has simultaneously worked to alienate the capable but casual player. And where SoulCalibur VI goes for broke are the areas that make its vibrant world and its motley crew of characters endearing to that player.