Early 2002. I am not quite nine-years-old. I am in my local toy store, near the electronics department, where a large display sits with built-in demos for games soon-to-be released. As one so fond of video games, it was something I always looked forward to. On this particular day, I scrolled through the list of games available to play until I came across a title I had never heard of before: Soulcalibur II. My first exposure with the series came then and there, immediately falling in love and begging my mother to get it for me for my birthday later in the year.
Recently, being a fan of the franchise has been like trying to rekindle the spark one received from a flame long past. Following a very lackluster Soulcalibur V, I was convinced the series was over, that the world would never see the likes of soul-famished knights in azure armor again. To my complete shock and somewhat-renewed excitement, the announcement for a sequel came late last year, promising a renewed take on the series' classic narrative. The time between initial announcement and eventual release seemed to shoot past me at the blink of an eye; so now that it's come to pass, what does Soulcalibur VI do for the franchise as a whole?
What one should be conscious of going into this game is that the presentation takes near-full precedence over everything else. Particularly present in the two story modes available (Libra of Souls and Soul Chronicles), one will more often be viewing cutscenes and fully-voiced (in Soul Chronicles) dialogue than actually fighting in-game. Soulcalibur VI has made the decision to be as cinematic as possible, something unprecedented thus far in the franchise, save Soulcalibur V's main story mode. But where Soulcalibur V's story mode only focused on a select few, Soulcalibur VI gives every playable character their own backstory, and even a created character designed from scratch can become bound to the twisted tale.
The story of Soulcalibur VI is essentially a soft reboot; it reintroduces the audience to the events that took place during the course of the original Soulcalibur (not to be confused with Soul Edge/Blade) while adding various storylines and more presentative flair. Think of what Mortal Kombat 9 did for its own franchise, only buried behind an ocean of menus, loading screens, and disjointed pacing (more on this later). If there is any discernible difference between the story presented here and in the original Soulcalibur, only those well-versed in Soulcalibur lore will be able to tell. From my own perspective, the only new items appeared as additive substances found in new characters, detailed means of abilities, and magnified use of storytelling. Generally, all events end and begin the same as previously, with only the journey towards those ends serving any notable distinctions.
Initially, I was hesitant of this new style of presentation, which consisted of watching two to five-minute cutscenes before being faced with a challenge involving gameplay that could take anywhere from thirty seconds to three minutes. In both Libra of Soul and Soul Chronicles, there is a large amount of dialogue to sift through before actually playing the game, which is a huge foundation for the game to depend on to entertain the viewer outside of the core fighting mechanics. One must be entirely confident that the writing will be able to engross the player to the point that they won't notice how little they're actually playing. I noticed immediately, but gradually came to accept it for a single reason: characters.
There is something about the world of Soulcalibur, despite the rather straightforward good vs. evil plot devices (complete with villianous laughs and all-too-pure characters), that has continued to intrigue me since my first experience with it during my youth. And for the first time, the cinematic approach to this game gave ample opportunity to have these characters interact with each other in a variety of settings. It is never entirely perfect, as some chemistry relies on anime-esque writing tropes and the tiring "What am I fighting for?" dilemma, but for certain times, I found myself blissfully enveloped in the story of these characters. To see these characters interact in as expansive a way as it does here, which was previously limited to a few lines during a "destined battle" sort of scenario, gives rise to a feeling empathy and understanding that only the more cinematic approaches can achieve. While there's a tad more variety in storytelling than challenges during these sequences, I think it strikes a decent enough balance to hold over both fans of the game and fans of the lore.
Elaborating on what was promised above, while I find quality merit in the cinematic execution of the story, there is some negative criticism to be had with how the game handles these instances. For each character (as well as a "main storyline"), their story is divided into chapters, with each chapter providing said two to five-minute cutscenes and normally (not always) a segment requiring battle. After each chapter ends, one is faced with a loading screen, then a cursor to the next chapter with the general synopsis of what is to be expected (with more loading). Sometimes these chapters happens right after the other, sometimes they have large gaps of time in-between. Spreading long lengths of time, I can see the desire to make these storylines into chapters, but for events happening right after the other, I would've preferred a direct continuation rather than being sent back only to confirm I wanted to go forward. It only creates these accumulating gaps of loading time that slows the pace of these stories from further immersive effect.
Within this mode, every playable character is given some sort of story that is (usually) tied in part to the overarching story of Soul Edge. These stories can range from five to nine chapters (though the average is around six), with the main storyline having twenty chapters that focus specifically on Kilik and those who eventually aid in his quest. Some of these stories are good, with ample character detail (notably Raphael, Voldo, Yoshimitsu, Seong Mi-na, etc.), while others feel more like filler (Talim, Mitsurugi, Maxi). The flow of quality tends to lean towards the positive, but not every character is given fair treatment. The amount of detail put forth in the mode is also encouraging, with completing everything likely taking ten-plus hours. Ten-plus hours of story and cutscenes in a Soulcalibur game? That's quite the turn of events.
Libra of Soul
Another mode I was incredibly interested in was Libra of Soul, a story mode dedicated to making one's created character the star of the journey to Soul Edge (or Soul Calibur). What's most notable about this mode is its menu-accessive aesthetic, something I find eerily similar to Sonic Forces' main campaign. One can progress through a straightforward path that teaches the player about the basics of the game and the mode, mirroring Weapon Master mode from Soulcalibur II somewhat with the variety of challenges available to the player later on. At some point, the entire map becomes available to explore, but the means of travel can be bumpy, with the chance of enemy encounters and various hazards coming into effect along the way. One is also required to be resourceful of their person, as health doesn't automatically recover unless they have healing items to use after the fact. Essentially, Libra of Soul is an expanded version of Weapon Master from Soulcalibur II that requires more input from the player, with elements of Chronicles of the Sword mode from Soulcalibur III mixed into the fray.
What immediately stood out to me with this mode was the writing—and not in a good way. In various things, the emphasis on character creation and player immersion can sometimes take a step too far, offering a sense of escapism and self-importance through the writing that I'm not particularly fond of. This self-indulgent writing finds its way spectacularly close to home within Libra of Soul, with the created character being one that attracts any and all like a moth to light. Their importance seems to overshadow everything else, which forces the writing to constantly fall back on appeasing the character with important scenarios that affect all others, no matter the circumstances. To some (probably many), this is hardly an issue at all, but to me, it only aids in distancing me from the product as too cheesy in its pursuit of coddling this "special" character within the world of Soulcalibur. I would've preferred if the character were simply another cog in the giant machine of stories available that carry no more (or less) importance to the central plot.
One has likely already seen the collection of different
abominations silly creations that others have made using the character creation. With the advanced options present in the mode, one can accurately create a variety of different references to other series or, more appropriately, online memes. What they can't create, however, are serious contenders within the universe. While the motivation to make joke characters is strong, some may be disappointed to find that the limited amount of equipment will provide little variety to character personality, sans one with an excessively creative mindset. Of what's available outside the season pass DLC, the majority consists of two things: stock pieces and equipment used on the pre-existing characters of Soulcalibur lore. It genuinely infuriates me how small the sample size of equipment pieces are in this game after how expansive the previous iteration was.
What may make up for this with some (not so, personally) is the availability of different races and added miscellaneous detail. One can create a number of different creatures and species, including "Outsiders" (humans with animal ears/tail), Lizardmen, Automatons, and Mummies, among others. One can also choose from a larger variety of voice clips and pitches to make them sound more and less (usually more) monstrous. One can even optimize various phrases their character can say in specific situations. In essence, the game added more detail to a character's outstanding personality, but provided little to dress them up in, aside from what other characters are already wearing.
Despite anything else cinematic or limited or otherwise, Soulcalibur VI is still the same with the most crucial aspect: core fighting style. Each character has a fighting style that mirrors their styles from previous games, with only slight differences. With my own history, picking up the game was like going right back to the classics, with the fighting mannerisms feeling familiar to me despite many years since the previous title. This familiarity may be a crutch for me, but I do feel that any gamer could pick this game up and wreak havoc in a matter of minutes. Subtle directional inputs does a lot for the basic button inputs of vertical, horizontal, or kick moves that one can experiment with in either the training mode or through multiple means of battle. Mastering certain characters may take patience, but the game is fairly easy to jump right into.
Some new(er) additions to the formula come in the form of reversal edges and critical edges, the latter being used in various sequences in prior games. Reversal edges are triggered by a single button or interspersed in characters' combo attacks, which parry an enemy attack and triggers a rock-paper-scissors-like sequence where the resulting attack depends on each combatant's button input. Certain buttons beat other buttons, so it is essentially up to chance whether this sequence falls in one's favor (especially with computers). I have, at times, complained about this sort of sequence as being too overlong (see: Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3), but here it's quick enough that it only adds a simmer to a battle that may already be intense, and can turn the tide in battle, as well. Critical edges are essentially an ultimate move assigned to each character, dealing out a substantial amount of damage—assuming it hits—while also displaying a cinematic progression of all-out power.
Another aspect that makes its return is the soul charge ability, which increases the strength of most moves and, depending on the character, gives the player an aesthetic transformation change (as well as a slightly different movement style). Doing so costs energy from one's soul gauge, a bar that fills from attacking, guarding, and otherwise inputting commands. Much like the game's priorities, it takes a more cinematic turn, freezing time and triggering a small cutscene of the character powering up, unlike how it was in previous iterations where it had the chance of leaving one open to attack. This gives a bit of a casual advantage to new players, especially with how little the cost is for using it and the advantages it provides.
As far as input goes, the game works wonderfully, nothing less than I would expect from a series that has, since I started it, never had an issue with button input. My only complaint is that, with pressing a button more often than I intended, I'm locked into an attack combo that I may not have wished to continue. When one is pressing certain buttons, it's very precise, with the game registering a button far before another input has finished registering. Certain button combinations also provide more complex moves, a tradition of the game at this point, that I adore exploting for different moves that I may or may not have intended to do. If nothing else, Soulcalibur VI is the same fighting frenzy that made it such a joy to play in the past. Nothing has changed on that front, and none of the added features make it any less smooth.
Graphics & Audio
There was a certain look to Soulcaliburs IV and V that I really couldn't get behind. Characters had a sort of blend-together look that was encapsulated by a certain caucasian-styled facial structure with notably dark circles around the eyes. Characters didn't really look different anymore, despite numerous differences in nationality and otherwise. With Soulcalibur VI, this was eliminated beautifully, returning the characters to a softer palate the emphasized their specific facial details that made them unique. At the same time, the graphical capabilities make them look gorgeous in HD quality, even if the design itself feels very similarly to that of Soulcalibur V. In terms of power, there still remains the little quirks that persist in ruining immersion, such as items clipping through hair and what-not, as well as an overall look that doesn't feel quite up to the standards of most AAA titles. It's definitely passable, though not entirely polished in the end. It's the best the series has ever looked, but only minimally.
Of the sound, I will begin with the voice acting, which ranges from decent (Yoshimitsu, Astaroth, Seong Mi-na) to absolutely horrid (Taki, various minor characters). One crucial aspect of the story-based, cutscene-fluid Soul Chronicles mode is that the characters feel real enough to have their situations be immersive, and with limited visual appeal (cutscenes are normally caricatures interacting), the voice acting becomes all the more important. When a character's voice is so awful I cannot help but to mock it, that isn't very immersive. Thankfully, the performances are normally decent enough to get by, though I pray that should any subsequent sequels follow the same cinematic path that they shore up enough revenue to hire proven actors.
Suiting the mood with the score is something I haven't felt so strongly about since Soulcalibur II. While by no means phenomenal, the score of Soulcalibur VI is as expressive and Sublime as one could possibly ask for with the limits of its presentation. There's some level of variety with the different location of stages and modes, some paying homage to classic tunes (which didn't go unnoticed). Some tracks are even good enough to warrant listening to outside the context of the game, another quality I haven't had the pleasure of identifying since the second (third?) one. A good emphasis on musical score is something I wholly appreciate.
With all that I had expected from the trailers, I can't help but leave a little disappointed. Yet within the ashes of disappointment gave rise to feelings of appreciation I didn't think I'd find within the game's cinematic approach to character development and detail. The more I grew accustomed to what the game was determined to showcase, the more I began to find myself impressed with what it was able to accomplish. It is, unfortunately, not a return to glory for the franchise after the controversial direction Soulcalibur V took, but it is a meaningful and enjoyable entry into a series that may find new life through looking back instead of looking forward. If nothing else, it's still as fluid of a fighting game as the series has ever been.
|+ Soul Chronicles mode offers great character detail||– Character Creation mode is a huge disappointment|
|+ Core fighting gameplay and mechanics still feel fluid and enjoyable||– Libra of Soul mode's writing too self-indulgent|
|+ Libra of Soul an interesting foray into alternative gameplay style||– Structure of Soul Chronicles mode has too much empty space/feels choppy|
|+ Musical score is up to par||– Voice acting needs improvement|
|+ Character design focuses on differentiation again|