Shoryuken review: SoulCalibur VI – The competitive side

By on October 19, 2018 at 9:00 am
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I got to spend a lot of time with the pre-release review copy of SoulCalibur VI, and I’ve tried my best to detail my personal experience with it as thoroughly as possible. As a site dedicated to fighting games, I realize there is one side of this game that is infinitely more important to our audience — the versus gameplay. As such, I will cover the games more casually-oriented single player content in a separate review.

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Note: All information discussed references the PlayStation 4 version of SoulCalibur VI.

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On the Stage of History once again.

In my eyes, SoulCalibur has always been a series about getting to the point. At its best, the core mechanics are quick and easy to pick up, and nuance is more often found in the refinement of continual play than it is in execution-heavy combo fodder. Later games in the series drifted away from this, adding longer and longer combos and slowing down fundamental tools and movement. With that in mind, my hopes for this game were simple: give us a cleanly-designed engine where every character has a viable way to open people up, decent movement, a good training mode to experiment with, and a gorgeous world to look at.

I am very happy to say that SoulCalibur VI, more or less, does all of that. I am confident that the game, as it exists right now, is the best game we have had in the series since SoulCalibur II.

The first thing you’ll notice, regardless of your skill level, is how fast the game plays. It’s not just the fact that this game has sped up movement speed — by combining old school movement with the later SoulCalibur’s guard crush mechanics, we have ended up with (for now) an aggressive game that favors players willing to take risks. Even zoning characters like Ivy and Seong Mi-Na benefit a lot more from being active at their preferred ranges — because the risk of guarding, even if you’re impressively guarding lows on reaction, is incredibly high.

Every character feels fresh thanks mostly to new mechanics like Lethal Hit and Soul Charge. Namco went to obvious lengths to vary character movelist design around these two systems, so its fundamental to understand in order to understand SCVI.

Lethal Hits are situation-specific combo starters that encourage a unique set of offense for each character; take Cervy’s air throw B2 for example, which gets a combo extension only after the player lands 12 “gun” attacks in a match. Astaroth gets a lethal hit on 66B when he calls out a backdash — this is vital to his game, since back-dashing effectively escapes the core of his toolkit: his command grab/mid mix-up. Needless to say, Lethal Hits can get very particular, and mercifully, the game tells you what each characters lethal hit options are in the movelist.

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The highest damage combo opportunities in the game are centered around Lethal Hit and Soul Charge, and will determine how you think about a character.

Super meter returns to SCVI, and with it, so does Soul Charge. Characters that activate a 1-bar consuming Soul Charge get a briefly powered-up state, and let me tell you, they are crazy. In an age where everyone is concerned about supers taking too much time with cinematics, I think that Soul Charge might be the way meter is spent for the majority of the cast in the long run. I much prefer this to supers because they create tense situations and freeze the timer. All bets are off when a Soul Charge is popped.

Those that have followed my journey from TX Showdown to now know that I don’t like the game’s new mechanic, Reversal Edge. I’ve feared what it would do to players and the game’s pacing itself, and it seemed like needless system bloat in a game that already re-introduced meterless Guard Impacts.

Well, I don’t have to speculate about Reversal Edge anymore. This new mechanic — SoulCalibur’s cinematic take on Focus Attacks — has been the source of the game’s loudest critiques. In a weird sort of way, I think I’ve… not come around on it, per se, but have learned to tolerate it. Its ability to build tons of meter and blow through strings blows up new players at first — but over time you’ll learn not only to step it on reaction, but to actively defeat it with Break Attacks and timing mix-ups. Even if I’m not a fan of it — the cutscene “mix-up” afterwards is essentially a mobile game version of Calibur, it’s not fun and it’s not why I play this series — it’s rarely a big enough deal in good matches for me to get worked up over. This is partially because a whiffed RE is incredibly vulnerable, and it weakens your own guard bar for using it. In a game where guard crushes are already plentiful on their own, this is a big deal.

Last, but certainly not least, I have to fall to my hands and knees and thank Namco for, after what feels like an eternity of waiting, finally giving everyone in the cast a viable low. It’s actually better than I had hoped: much of the cast has uniquely powerful lows in different situations as opposed to a generic 2K. Raph’s b2B, for example, is a re-purposed, sped-up version of his old 1B from SCII — it’s a frame trap on hit, unseeable, and everything Raph has needed for years. There is a reason to be nervous enough to block low in this game now — and when combining that with the general weakness of guard, it’s very easy to convince people to take drastic measures to escape pressure. I love it.

The New Characters

There’s three new characters in SCVI, and they are all wonderful, welcome editions to the cast.

Grøh and Geralt are more or less understood by this point from their frequency in pre-release tournaments. These characters have solid fundamental tools, good mix-ups, and versatility despite being relatively simple characters. They are both everything that is good about Calibur design when done right, regardless of where they end up tier wise. Grøh is fairly standard fair for a Calibur character — a stance character with decent close-to-mid range pressure and a set of combos and footsie tools that deal good damage with minimal effort. Geralt’s magic signs break Calibur mold a little bit in the sense that he makes heavy use of meter to chip and zone foes, but outside of that he’s a fairly standard character with fantastic range on BB, AA, 3B, and a good mix-up low in 1B. These characters both feel like they could only be played in Calibur, even if that’s clearly not true for Geralt.

And then there’s Azwel.

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Azwel is, to a degree, innovative. He is a stance character without a stance: Pressing K and a direction summons a particular weapon, but you will always have access to all the moves each weapon can summon. (Your weapon “Stances” are Swords, Spear/Shield, and Axe.) Depending upon what weapon you have, however, makes your moves that don’t use that weapon slower. Your swords are your AA, BB, 2A, etc, so you want them for close range pressure and general poking. But oh! I need some defensive tools: the shield’s auto-GIs will help me. But now I really want a power low, and I want to shred their guard bar… Axe it is. And if you get caught in the wrong mode and need your Sword 2A to save you? Well, you’re in trouble. You now have a very slow 2A that will almost certainly get you CH if you try and press it while you’re being rushed down. It’s also worth noting that Azwel automatically switches modes when doing a move — so it can be very difficult for a opponent to keep track of what mode he’s in.

This is just a brief summary of the character — he’s probably the most dense character design I’ve seen in this series in a while. By assigning the “Stances” to different zones of inputs (Everything “backwards” — so back, down-back, and up-back — is a shield. everything “forwards” is axe, everything “neutral” is Swords.) the character is shockingly intuitive despite his complex nature, and his goofy, manic personality fits his eccentric play perfectly. SoulCalibur VI has hit all of its new characters out of the park this time around, and Azwel is by far my favorite of them all. Bravo Namco.

Training Mode

I have to interject some personal bias here: Training Mode, for me, is the most important mode in any fighting game. If everything else in this article were something that I enjoyed and Training Mode were terrible, I would not play this game “seriously” or recommend it. That’s how much my enjoyment of fighting games hinges on this mode, and I hope everything I say from here on out is understood with that context. I know it’s probably weird to lump this into the “multiplayer” article, but this is such a vital tool to the competitive experience that I feel like it has to be here.

With that said: It’s better than what I feared it would be with only a year between announcement and launch, and it’s worse than what I think Namco is capable of.

The Good: There’s a record function that allows you test up to three options and assort them randomly. While not as many slots as in Tekken 7, the ability to record multiple options and learn to differentiate them — particularly in a genre where that is the single most important step to improving — is incredibly important and appreciated. You can also select moves directly from the movelist, which is nice, though there is a caveat with that we’ll note in the next section. It also bears mention that it shows you, in numbers, exactly how much guard damage something does. Thank you, Namco.

Speaking of Tekken 7, there’s one thing SCVI has immediately over it: there are tutorials on both how to play the game and individual sections on how to approach each character. (A little odd when you consider how much simpler of a game Calibur is to play.) The character sections are somewhat bare-bones, but they do a serviceable job of at least guiding you to how to think about a character’s playstyle.

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There’s a lot to like in SCVI’s training mode.

The Bad: I had training mode crash the game three times in one hour, all while recording moves. Having my favorite fighting game function literately break the game made me a little unhappy. There is also considerable lag if you try to record moves on some stages — particularly on the Windswept Plains. I also had training mode’s UI completely break: It simply wouldn’t bring up the pause menu and I had to restart the application.

While those are minor annoyances that can be polished out in a future patch, a larger problem right now is that the pre-set “Select Move” option in training mode stops working properly if you do something that puts them in crouch. Say, for example, you want to test the safety of a move vs. Sophitia’s 236B. Though Sophitia’s 236B will cancel a crouch state, the game doesn’t care: it will always make the dummy return to neutral, then do 236B. To get around this, you have to record 236B yourself — not an intuitive workaround for newer players.

The UI is a little sluggish in general, and it feels like it takes longer than it really should to move the cursor through menus. Considering the number of toys you get to tweak in this mode, it gets a little annoying after a while, particularly when the mode doesn’t remember your settings if you go into a match from standby.

All in all, Training Mode does what I want it to do, even if I have to wrangle it a little bit. A little more polish and it will be perfect.

Replays

This was a pleasant surprise. You can see the most recent replays of other players, and you have a fairly long replay list of your own battles that you can save and share. You can also “follow” players, but as of right now all that let’s you do is look at their profile to see what character they play as. You can see *a* replay — whatever their last upload is — and that’s it. I am assuming at some point in the future you will be able to see a list of replays on their profile — because if not, I’m not really sure why I’d “follow” someone other than to scope out who they are spending time with in ranked (or see what weird custom character they’ve made.)

There’s also no way to search for players in the replay section right now. It’s great that replays are there, but I’m hoping the utility of searching for replays will be fleshed out in the future.

Online Experience

The matches I got to play on 3 and 4-bars far exceeded my expectations, but it was a slog waiting to find opponents. This is the exact same experience in the beta — but it’s a lot more forgivable here considering it was mostly reviewers and people breaking street date that even had the game. We all know that Calibur will have problems on day one — every game with online play does — but if, after the dust settles, it plays as well as it did in the beta and in pre-release, this will be an amazing game to play online. Here’s hoping.

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I thought I had heard you can’t take CaS into Ranked, but this is not true. See my Bangoo online.

I do want to mention that it seemed like I got matches somewhat more frequently when I was in the network section as opposed to using training mode’s standby option. Placebo or problem? Who knows. It also seemed like I was getting matches somewhat more frequently as we get closer to release date — a positive sign, for sure.

Overall

I have been burnt by bad Calibur releases for so long that I could only wait nervously for this game to come out. The wait was worth it, at least for now while the new game smell is here. There’s still some big problems — namely, Tira/Lizardman’s pay-more-to-play status and some weird training mode bugs — but it seems on the surface that Namco really did listen to what many players have been begging to see in the series. Although I worry about how some tools might pan out in future competitive play, I am having way too much fun with the game for that to matter. It’s just so good to be back on the Stage of History — and it’s so good to see it doing well.

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The next part will cover modes relevant to the casual, immersive experience: Character Creation, Museum Mode, and SCVI’s two (!) story modes.


Bandai Namco provided SRK with a copy of SoulCalibur VI for the purpose of this review.


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