It's been six years and nearly an entire console generation since we last saw an entry in the core SoulCalibur series, yet the sixth instalment manages to feel like the return to form and an exciting new direction, all at once.
Part of that familiarity for returning players comes from the game being something of a reboot for the series – it takes place concurrently with the original SoulCalibur in the late 1500s, exploring the events of the first game from alternate perspectives and with new characters added to the mix. The retelling is an odd choice, given previous entries had moved the timeline forwards and even introduced the children of earlier characters, but for the most part, it works. Perhaps that shouldn't surprise though – SoulCalibur has always been one of the more story-driven fighting games on the market and here, the lore is given even more prominence with not one but two story modes.
The first, 'Libra of Souls', is centred on your custom-made character. The creation suite itself is one of the most versatile in the series' history, with enough unlockable attributes to make an incredibly varied slate of brawlers, from humans to arch-demons. Making your way across a world map with new objectives at each waypoint, this mixes combat challenges with modifiers – such as winning without using throws or defeating multiple enemies in a row with only one health bar – and RPG-esque quests that unlock items to further customise your character.
The second is the more traditional 'Chronicle of Souls', which is focused on the main cast of the game and how their fates entwine around the eponymous sword. The mode is daunting to look at – an overlapping grid of timelines, with a main chronology spanning years plus one for each playable character as they interact with it – but makes sense as you play through. Between the two story sections, SoulCalibur VI delivers the deepest (if strangest) narrative for the series to date, making for a single player experience that's robust and worth playing in its own right, not just as training for versus play.
This is the best in the series since SoulCalibur II.
The actual fighting mechanics are phenomenal too, refining the series' weapons-based combat and signature 8-way run movement system while adding some flashier mechanics. One of the best is Reversal Edge, activated with a squeeze of the right shoulder button and triggering a slow motion showdown between players. Almost rock-paper-scissors in approach, the visually impressive technique allows you to dodge, block, or counter in one of the most stylish additions to the series. The Soul Charge system makes a return, but overhauled to now allow mid-fight transformations for some characters, while each character now has unique abilities beyond their fighting style – kunoichi Taki's 'Mekki-Maru' move persistently deals chip damage, for instance, while newcomer Azwel can summon different weapons out of thin air.
The roster itself isn't the series' most expansive though, feeling slightly restrained for stepping back in the timeline and eliminating legacy characters. However, those on hand make for a fun collection of fighting styles and weapons to experiment with, while new characters – the aforementioned Azwel, a deranged scholar who wants to 'save' humanity; Grøh, a secret agent hunting those who come into contact with the cursed Soul Edge sword; and Geralt of Rivia, guest-starring from The Witcher – add some fresh blood. Geralt in particular feels a perfect fit for the Soulcalibur world, with his twin swords and sigil-based spells seamlessly integrating with Bandai Namco's own bizarre cast.
With its wealth of story content, refined combat, and solid line-up of fighters, this is the best in the series since SoulCalibur II, and – whisper it – maybe the finest SoulCalibur yet.