On its surface, Soulcalibur VI is a reboot for the weapon-focused fighting series. It eschews the slew of new characters in Soulcalibur V for a retelling of the events of the original Soulcalibur, and brings back most of the iconic characters in classic attire. Within that nostalgic pitch, however, is a combat system that deftly builds on its predecessors, with several smart improvements that give players more ways to dig into a fighter that’s equal parts intricate and flashy.
Fighting is still rooted in simple 3D movements and vertical, horizontal, and kick attacks, which all feel intuitive. Although combos are more prominent than they have been in the past, most are simple; you benefit more from learning a wide array of attack strings to trick your opponent than optimizing how much damage you get when any of them land, which leads to diverse fights based on a great mix of reaction and memorization.
That said, a number of smart refinements make Soulcalibur VI’s combat more nuanced than its predecessors'. I was worried the new Reversal Edge attack would dumb down combat, but it actually adds an interesting new layer. Executing the move, which locks both players into a rock-paper-scissors showdown if landed, has some strategy behind it. You can charge it to parry attacks, or land it immediately if you catch someone off-guard.
A combination of new and refined defensive mechanics also make it easier to break out of an opponent’s pressure. Guard impacts now deflect any kind of attack and don’t use up your soul gauge, but still require clutch timing to pull off. The addition of the Soul Charge also gives you a way out of oppressive situations by knocking your opponent away and powering up your attacks for a short time.
With all these new options and the unique mechanics of individual characters, it helps that the onramp is smoother than ever. Not only does the tutorial get you up to speed on every universal mechanic, but the “combat lessons” tab in the pause menu gives you a brief rundown of each character’s gameplan, as well as a few suggestions about which moves to use at different ranges. This gives you a great starting point to work with as you find new options and introduce your own twists on your favorite character.
The single-player options include the standard arcade and training modes, but also two story modes. Libra of Soul is ambitious, but held back by an over-reliance on text and scattered pacing. It’s an RPG-lite experience in which you create a character based on another character’s fighting style then plot your course through a large map in search of opponents, quests, and weapons as you level up. You also do quite a bit of reading, however, which is frustrating since the narrative isn’t exactly compelling. The story takes place throughout the early years of the Soulcalibur series, as your character goes in search of both the Soul Edge and Soulcalibur while fending off mysterious “astral fissures” popping up around the world. Despite a few interesting questlines, most of the tales aren’t memorable.
Luckily, fights are frequent and varied enough that I was invested in the mode nonetheless. Matches might make the stage extra-slippery, certain attacks much stronger, or your opponent's attacks poisonous. I liked that I needed to zero in on different aspects of combat, managing my movements carefully or learning what the best approach with a particular attack button is. The A.I. is surprisingly nuanced, too; I remember specific enemies that were overeager about reflecting my attacks or relentlessly tried to push me off the edge.
The other story mode, Soul Chronicle, takes a more traditional approach, consisting of visual-novel-style stills telling the story of individual characters in the early years of Soulcalibur’s timeline between fights. These storylines intersect with Libra of Soul and feel more coherent, but it’s only mildly interesting in the face of Libra of Soul’s grander scope.
The online suite is more standard, with the usual ranked matches, casual lobbies, replays, and leaderboards we’ve come to expect, though it’s a little unfortunate you can’t snag replays of highly-ranked players. The matches I’ve played online thus far have been stable and do a decent job of obscuring poor connections, though one and two-bar connections still have hitches and slowdown.
Soulcalibur VI takes the opportunity to re-introduce the series after a hiatus and runs with it, making the series feel fresh while offering a deep fighter with lots for lone players to dig into. The single-player offering suffers from some bloat, but weaves combat into its narrative better than most other fighting games, and the fighting at the center of it all is better than ever. Whether you’re a newcomer or a dedicated fan, the latest retelling of the story of souls and swords is a captivating one.
Soulcalibur VI is billed as a reboot, but smart improvements to combat and a lengthy (if bloated) single-player push the series forward.