SoulCalibur is a series of video games that's all about duality. That's on both a story level, as it tells the tale of a cursed sword and a holy sword locked in eternal conflict, and from a design standpoint, where it tries to be both a groundbreaking fighting game and a silly character creator. SoulCalibur VI is one of the more successful balancing acts, adding some flashy new mechanics that manage to deepen the strategy behind swordplay. Custom character creations crank up the craziness, which might hinder the game's competitive image, but mostly just makes things fun.
The opening narration reminds us that SoulCalibur is "a tale of swords and souls, eternally retold." That's especially true here, as VI is a reboot of the original SoulCalibur. A knight named Siegfried picks up the cursed sword Soul Edge, turning himself into the monstrous Nightmare and spreading evil energy throughout 16th century Eurasia. Warriors from all over the world gather amid the chaos, hoping to claim Soul Edge for themselves, vanquish its evil using the good sword SoulCalibur, or fulfill some personal mission.
Their battles can be experienced in SoulCalibur VI's two story modes. First is the RPG-esque Libra of Souls, starring a character of your own creation. This is probably the first time you'll experience the dual-nature of this game, as it will accept whatever sensible or ridiculous thing you throw at it. Will you create a believable character, a true warrior who can claim a spot in SoulCalibur history? Or will you laugh as your Pickle Rick creation trolls its way into saving humanity from a power-hungry madman?
Whatever you create, you'll seek the mystery behind Soul Edge's power, and along the way meet up with other SoulCalibur characters and fight lots of people. You'll level up, and get new weapons so you can fight higher level people. Sometimes you'll make choices between good and evil. These will result in slight variations on the quests and weapons you receive, but the story progresses mostly the same regardless.
The real achievement of Libra of Soul is that is helps you learn the game. Battles will sometimes have conditions, such as only throws and kicks will deal significant damage. You'll find yourself needing to experiment to win, which in turn will increase your knowledge in your chosen fighting style. It's not award-winning storytelling, but it's a good introduction.
The other story mode, Soul Chronicle, lets you play the actual characters' stories. Soul Chronicle's scenes are fully voiced, unlike Libra's, and feature gorgeous hand-drawn art reminiscent of something you'd see after beating arcade mode in the old days. In fact, this is basically arcade mode, only one you can play in what whatever order you like thanks to a handy timeline menu. It does a great job of taking the many disparate stories and showing how they intertwine, grounding the overarching tale the way a reboot should.
Of course, SoulCalibur VI is a fighting game. So the big question is: how does it play?
The staples of SoulCalibur are all present and accounted for. There's a variety of weapons on display, ring outs galore, and an importance placed on positioning. Added to these are two new mechanics that will no doubt lead to lots of mid-match upheavals: Reversal Edge and Soul Charge.
Reversal Edge, at the press of a button, has your character brandish their weapon defensively. This blocks the next hit, and then strikes back with a red glowing weapon. If that attack connects, both fighters will separate and have a stare-down. While that happens, you choose a button to push. The fighters then rush at each other and perform the chosen attack. Each type of attack (horizontal, vertical, kick) beats one and gets beaten the other, rock-paper-scissors style. Two of the same thing cancel each other out. You can also just choose to guard or dodge to avoid risk.
Reversal Edge, as the name implies, is a great way to turn a fight around. If you're getting pummeled, just do a Reversal Edge to break up the action and get a breather. Certain characters can also use certain Reversal Edge outcomes to start a combo. The mechanic is bound to see its share of criticism because it can make comebacks a little too easy, but it also fosters a sense of moment-to-moment awareness that fighting games thrive on.
Soul Charge is the other big thing this game brings. Every character has a meter that charges as the fight goes on. Once it fills, you can perform a big, show-stopping finishing move. Or you can initiate a Soul Charge to make your warrior stronger and use new combos. Again, the choice is yours, and lets you define how you fight.
With these new techniques available, you might be itching to try your blade against other human players. Yes there's arcade and training mode, but online is where you go to throw down for real. And that's where the dual serious-silliness hurts SoulCalibur VI.
As you already saw with Pickle Rick, people have gotten insanely creative with custom characters. But for every work of art, there's a troll. And these trolls are allowed in ranked play. Most of the time they're crude but harmless, such as the many people who have discovered that a cylinder and a mushroom combine to look like a certain male body part. Then there's this guy from a Kotaku story, who enlarged a cube prop to cover his custom character. This makes it impossible to see his actual fighter, meaning his opponents can't properly read and react to his attacks. This is in ranked mode, meaning serious players are losing to this cheat cube.
On the whole, though, there's plenty of fun to be had with SoulCalibur VI, whether you're a hardcore fan or a newbie to the series. The story succeeds by going back to square one, the fighting has gotten deeper, and custom characters are a blast. Creativity is hurting ranked play, but I'm sure Bandai Namco will address that soon. Overall, this is definitely a tale that deserved to be retold.
A PS4 copy of this game was purchased by The Gamer for this review. It's available now for PS4, PC, and Xbox One.
4.5 out of 5 stars.