For a "tale of souls and swords," soul was unfortunately what the SoulCalibur series seemed to be lacking most around the release of SoulCalibur 5. The near-brush with death appears to have done Namco's second-string 3D fighter a whole lot of good however, as SoulCalibur 6 is infused with the sort of energy and heart that the series hasn't had since its classic second entry.
Part of the success appears to be down to focus: there are less characters and less stages in SoulCalibur 6 than in its predecessor, but that allows the existing cast to breathe. Cues and systems have been ported over from the wildly successful Tekken 7, too, while the developers have clearly focused their backwards consideration on SoulCalibur and SoulCalibur 2, the most beloved entries in the series. The result is an immediately more confident and fun release.
There's a respectable 21 character slots in the base game, though much fuss has already rightly been made of the fact that one fan favourite character is already available as day-one DLC. More DLC will follow, too, including a season pass that sources have led us to believe will include another guest character and a range of series staples that didn't make the initial cut. 21 is a decent number; it's comparable to SoulCalibur 2, is more than the initial 2016 release of Street Fighter 5 and more than SoulCalibur, a game which I consider a high watermark both for the series and fighting games in general.
The cast feels sufficiently varied, too. For my money, the SoulCalibur series' focus on different weapons and their attached fighting styles makes for one of the most inherently varied casts in fighting games, and that's no less true here. Guest fighter Geralt of Rivia is also a joy to play as - even in a completely different style of game he moves in a style and tempo that is fully in keeping with his appearances in the Witcher - and that same level of attention has been put into all characters, even if some do appear to be reusing some of the work from the decent-but-flawed SoulCalibur 5.
The important thing is that this is a better, more confident game than its direct predecessor in practically every sense. Tekken has perhaps always been the more balanced series, but it feels like lessons learned in the excellent Tekken 7 have this time made their way across to their tale of souls and swords. Battles are balanced and crisp, and the game's penchant for sensing when close calls are incoming in order to deploy nerve-wracking, exciting slow motion sequences honestly never gets old.
That sort of wild, cheer-inducing sequence makes SoulCalibur 6 perfect for casual fighting game fans, coupling perfectly with the weapon-based focus of the game. The wide arcing swings of weapons are easier to read and understand than even the exaggerated martial arts of Tekken, putting this series more on par with the properly over-the-top movement of Street Fighter.
That makes it easy to pick up and button mash through, but depth is available, and it's not even hidden - one-button commands like the sidestep or Reversal Edge counter make it easy to add a dash more tactical flair to even the scrubbiest match-up, but there's a great deal to learn and master beyond that, too.
Sometimes the way the simple and complex systems intersect isn't the most elegant, and this makes the ride from newbie to pro nowhere near as comfortable as in something like a Street Fighter 5 - but it's better than many, like Namco's own Dragon Ball FighterZ where newcomers can only hope to be crushed online repeatedly and eventually learn from mistakes. Some of the easy mechanics actually work as a disincentive, too - mastering proper blocking will likely be less attractive to newer players when they can just spam the reversal edge, for instance. Consider these systems a double-edged blade; SC6 is a winner in the player-versus-player department, but the path of self-improvement could be better constructed.
For those less confident about online fighting SoulCalibur 6 features two story-based modes, Libra of Souls and Soul Chronicle. The latter is relatively throwaway but for how it tells the tale of Geralt ending up in this universe, but the former is a significant mode with quite a lot for players to sink their teeth into.
Series veterans will recognize Libra of Souls as inspired by SoulCalibur 2's excellent Weapon Master Mode, which at the time was a full-on masterclass in fighting game single-player content. It's part RPG, part fighter, with the player tasked with creating their own new fighter before exploring the world to level up your character and upgrade your weapons. This plays out mostly via text and through picking menu options, but it's nevertheless a full-blown RPG with side-quests and reams of lovingly crafted flavor text. When you do enter a battle, special mechanics and battle conditions will make this more than just a glorified arcade mode (which is also included, by the way) - so as you play there's a real sense of progression.
The text-based presentation isn't for everyone, to be sure, and the fights are often over all too quickly, but that's what Soul Chronicle aims to even out with its more focused doses of stories - one for each character, then a general one tackling the main thrust of the series narrative. Both are ultimately decent and ensure that alongside the more traditional modes there's a reasonable amount of single-player action on offer.
I tested the game on PC, running on a high-end machine using an Nvidia RTX 2080Ti graphics card. That's as powerful as they come, more or less, so it probably won't surprise to learn that the game looks pretty damn good. The initial automatically detected settings weren't anywhere near correct to what my card could handle, so PC players should be aware they'll probably need to make some manual tweaks. Once tweaks are made performance is generally rock solid, hitching only on things like the versus screen when character models and stage assets are being loaded in. The important stuff, in battle, runs perfectly.
Bandai Namco is on a bit of a fighting game roll. Tekken 7 and Dragon Ball FighterZ are both hugely successful, and SoulCalibur 6 comes out swinging with the same sort of tightly-constructed, satisfying action. It's arguably the most approachable of the trio, though its accessible systems aren't necessarily the best-balanced in the world. It's an easy recommendation, mind, because at a casual level SC6 is just bloody good fun. Get some friends, some beers, some button mashing and some toe-curlingly tight encounters and you'll find the spirit of the original alive and well - and that's all that matters in the end.
Tested on PC (specs here) with a review copy provided by the publisher. At time of publication, online modes were not available.