The fighting game genre is overflowing with options for those that want to trade blows with virtual opponents, and each has a unique flavour to it. But whether it's Street Fighter's fireballs, Smash's platforming, Mortal Kombat's brutality, or Marvel Vs. Capcom's blistering speed, they're all essentially twists on the same basic formula. Bandai Namco's SoulCalibur series, however, has always distinguished itself by arming its colorful roster of fighters with an array of weaponry.
The last mainline entry in the series, SoulCalibur 5, launched in 2012. Nothing has offered a similar experience in the interim, which made SoulCalibur's absence all the more difficult for fans. But, finally, the hiatus is over and SoulCalibur 6 has been announced. With a fresh set of faces guiding its creation, developer Project Soul is reviving the series with new ideas intended to refine the much-loved weapon-based combat while also maintaining its approachability.
At a recent Bandai Namco showcase, we got an opportunity to play through an early build of the game. It featured just Mitsurugi and Sophitia as playable characters but provided an opportunity to get a feel for the systems underpinning its gameplay. For fans, it'll come as welcome news that not a lot has changed, at least with the fundamentals of SoulCalibur. Attacking is primarily done through horizontal and vertical slashes or kicks, all of which can be modified by pressing directions during execution, holding buttons down, or chaining them together for combos.
SoulCalibur 6 immediately feels familiar, so much so that within seconds of picking up the controller, muscle memory from the hundreds of hours of playing SoulCalibur 2 kicked in and I was moving effortlessly through Mitsurugi's stances, using combos to juggle opponents, and launching them out of the arena for ring outs. As a longtime fan of the series, it felt like a homecoming, but a handful of new systems also provide more to think about for those that want to dig deeper.
The biggest new addition is Reversal Edge, which is executed by simply pressing and holding one button, at which point the character winds-up an attack that is slower than most others. During this they're open to attack, but Reversal Edge has a small amount of armour and so it will nullify one incoming attack. After a brief startup, the character will use their Reversal Edge attack and, if it lands, the game seamlessly enters a cinematic sequence where the camera swoops in and time slows.
At this point it becomes a game of rock-paper-scissors where you have a split second to take in what the opponent is doing, consider whether they will attack you--and if so whether it will be with a horizontal, vertical, or kick attack--or move, and act accordingly to counter. At a higher level, fights in SoulCalibur become about momentum, and it can often be difficult to steal some of that from a good player. Someone who knows what they're doing can often parlay a single knockdown or launch into a stream of inescapable combos and setups until they've won. Reversal Edge provides the opportunity to slow the pace down and reset the situation by creating breathing room, but it does so without tipping the scales too far. To regain steady footing you'll still need to make the correct judgement call and hope that the other player isn't already one step ahead.
Reversal Edge was designed to place emphasis on mind games involved in understanding and exploiting the way another player tends to behave, but without overwhelming casual players
When asked about the decision to introduce Reversal Edge, producer Motohiro Okubo said the system was designed to place emphasis on mind games involved in understanding and exploiting the way another player tends to behave, but without overwhelming casual players by making it a single button press. Since the version we played didn't have a proper explanation for the system, it was difficult to gauge how to fully take advantage of Reversal Edge and the advantage won by whoever comes out on top after a clash. On a few occasions a correct guess led to a special; this stunned the victim very briefly, which created a very small window to do extra damage. For the most part, it was a dependable way to ease pressure, take stock, and maneuver into a neutral position, which will certainly be handy against skilled opponents.
Another new mechanic is Lethal Hit. Every character in SoulCalibur 6 has a move that, if it lands in a specific condition, will launch the opponent and slow down time, leaving them vulnerable to follow-up attacks. For Mitsurugi it was a vertical slash used as he's rising from a knocked down position. For Sophitia, meanwhile, it seemed to activate when she blocked with her shield and immediately followed with a successful downwards slash of her blade. Lethal Edge requires a good understanding of your chosen character, a bit of setup, and a hint of luck to properly land, but the opportunity it provides will be devastating in the right hands.
Other familiar systems make their return to SoulCalibur 6 with some tweaks to make them simpler to understand and implement in play. Critical Edge, the series' equivalent of a super move, is built up by taking damage to fill an energy bar. Once available, simply tapping the right trigger button will launch into an attack with a special animation that, if it connects, does considerable damage. Critical Edge is as easy to dodge as it is to pull off, however, so simply throwing it out there will be wasteful. Instead players will need to find the split-second in which their opponent is vulnerable, or create an unblockable scenario, to actually make the most of it. It feels like a simple but effective way of adding more to the mind-games element of battles without the need for complex button inputs.
Another returning system, Guard Impact, has also been simplified. In previous games tapping forward and block at the exact moment an incoming attack was about to land would result in a counter that would push the enemy back a bit. Similarly, doing so with back and block would parry the attack, with the opponent falling to the ground as you move aside--the former was used to gain an offensive advantage while the latter for positional advantage. In our time with SoulCalibur 6, it seemed that it was only possible to do the forward and block variation, resulting in the pushback counter. This could be another concession for simplicity, but it's one that doesn't have a negative impact on the depth of the fighting mechanics.
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Given the limited nature of the demo we played, we felt compelled to ask Okubo about some of the other details fans of the series will want to know: what the return to an earlier period in the series' timeline means for characters like Siegfried and Nightmare, Raphael, or Zasalamel; whether the excellent Weapon Master single-player mode from SoulCalibur 2 would make a return; and the possibility of guest characters. Predictably, he kept his cards close to his chest, saying they felt there were more stories and questions to be answered about the origins of Soul Edge and Soul Calibur--the two legendary blades at the heart of the series' narrative--which is why they jumped back in the timeline. Pressed about the modes, he answered with a little smile and confirmation that the team is attuned to what fans want.
Whether Project Soul delivers on these wishes remains to be seen, but based on our brief hands-on with the game, the fundamental systems of SoulCalibur remain intact and as satisfying as ever to play. The room was filled with players that had different levels of experience with SoulCalibur; some were fiddling with buttons and studying its intricacies, others reveling in wantonly swinging swords and sliding out of arenas, but all were having fun. The wait for a new entry in the series has been long and arduous, but the soul still burns.