Old adversaries stand before one another, bobbing gently at the knees and dressed from head to toe by the male gaze. They’re about to engage in an immaculate display of weaponised fisticuffs which, as masterfully smooth and complex animations play out and items of clothing pop away as though a soft-porn producer is calling the shots from on high, shows both how far
Soulcalibur has come in 20 years, and how awkwardly it remains stuck in the past. Above the ground-level fundamentals,
Soulcalibur VI seeks to layer in new levels of complexity with gauge-based systems which affect the ebb and flow of each encounter. Some of those systems are positive, while one’s sure to be unpopular with the competitive set. One in particular, the returning equipment-breaking system which treats the disrobing of a bundle of over-endowed polygons as some sort of reward, feels like an unwelcome relic, a staggering act of tone-deafness that shows how little attention Namco’s fighting-game teams pay to the world outside their walls.
As you’d expect, at its core it plays much the same way the series always has, and it’s no surprise to find that neither Mitsurugi nor Sophitia, the only two available characters in our demp, have been subjected to radical redesigns. The former still utilises his sword for balletic medium-speed attacks, while the latter jabs away at opponents’ nether regions at rapid speed. As if it needed to be said, doing either of these is deeply gratifying in the most direct sense, such is the grace of each fighter’s movement and the poise between them.
Innovation in fighting games these days tends to be measured in gauges, and predictably enough the new or iterated-on features in Soulcalibur VI largely revolve around the Critical Gauge, introduced in the previous game. Fill it up by dealing damage or by blocking incoming hits, and its contents can be spent on Critical Edge attacks – this series’ equivalent of super combos, in which players are rendered passengers while an endearingly overstated and devastating damage-dealing sequence plays out. Critical gauge is also the currency behind Soul Charge and Guard Impact moves, used for self-buffing and extra-powerful counters respectively. Guard Impact can even defend against unblockable attacks; it’s the sort of addition that will delight the tournament scene while also giving the less-invested player a means of countering what they perceive as cheap play.
Yet the latter group will be more thrilled by the new Reversal Edge mechanic. It’s unashamedly intended as a way to alleviate that intolerable feeling of being juggled helplessly until death by a more skilled player, and, if you pull it off, gaining some momentum. Activated with a single button press, Reversal Edge initiates a dramatic slow-mo which resets the action and has each player choose a single attack, second-guessing each other in order to strike first, and strike hardest. Mitsurugi’s slow vertical attack, for example, is a high-risk strategy during a Reversal Edge. Sophitia’s crotch-busting low punch, however, is a comparatively safe bet. It’s rock, paper, scissors, in other words, albeit with more potential outcomes and played with melee weapons from feudal Japan. Project Soul says it expects the system to be used less and less as players become more proficient, perhaps self-governed by a kind of honour system in tournaments, and intending it to enable newer players to feel masterful every now and again by using it to turn the tide against a more agile adversary. A similar system, Clash, featured in
Injustice 2 last year, however, and rather blunted the flow of high-level play; given the flair with which Bandai Namco implemented slow-mo into Tekken 7, perhaps it has earned the benefit of the doubt for now.
Only, however, in terms of mechanics. For all Project Soul’s tinkering under the hood, the main takeaway from the day is what’s under Sophitia’s skirt. She starts the round dressed to scandalise, and thanks to that equipment-breaking system, often ends it in little more than a vaguely Grecian bikini and heels. It’s embarrassing for everyone involved – except, unfortunately, the developer, which becomes the latest in a long line of creators failing to spot the difference between honourably serving your fans, and cringeworthy fan service.
For all the tinkering, the main takeaway from the day is what’s under Sophitia’s skirt