Soul Edge: The stage of history…

Even when I was vaguely “good” at fighting games—a long time ago in a very small selection of them against a miniscule pool of opponents who were about as not-dedicated to the genre as I was—I knew I wasn’t really there for the fighting. Yes, Virtua Fighter is a beautiful ballet of interlocking bodies, every flavour of Guilty Gear has depths I simply cannot perceive, and The King of Fighters series is a consistent cornucopia of varied systems and characters, but I’ve always seen that side of it as the part that’s best left for other people to enjoy “properly”, you know—with all the skill and grace I lacked. What I’m really here for is all the fluff around the edges: the meaning behind an unusual matchup’s special intro, the reason why two very different characters share a surname, the joy of spotting a sneaky background cameo—that sort of thing.

And that means… yep, I’m the kind of person who mostly sticks with fighting games because I’m interested in their story. And no plot-via-punching shines quite as brightly as the experience found in Soul Edge.

Namco’s weapon-based mid-’90s classic is far from the first or last fist-flinging release to take its narrative seriously—who hasn’t spent time with Fatal Fury OVAs, Samurai Spirits RPGs, and Mortal Kombat movies—but even when measured against the surprisingly stiff competition, Soul Edge still stands head and shoulders above the rest. In fact this game’s so in love with the idea of telling you a story it starts doing so before you’ve even powered on your PlayStation: the instant you remove the (Japanese) disc from its case you reveal an instructive inlay image, showing everyone’s reasons for pursuing the titular Soul Edge.

The standard arcade mode, usually the place for competitive play and little else, is piled high with rich narrative-enhancing flourishes. Catch a glimpse of Voldo’s dead master’s treasure in his sealed pit and watch floating stages sway under your character’s feet as they head downriver. As these fights wear on the day does too, night bringing with it anything from ghosts and fireflies to bright red skies and wild blazes along castle walls. The music—whether you’re listening to the unforgettable arcade tracks or the equally excellent home “Khan Super Session” tunes—also makes a spirited attempt to get in on the storytelling action, each new bout accompanied by a short line of text showing the title of the music playing. Voldo’s theme is “The Gears of Madness”: an appropriate title for a man so blindly devoted to the voice in his head. The ethereal voice that adds texture to Sophitia’s “A Mediterranean Call” sounds like the gods themselves summoning the young woman to fight, and Cervantes’ “Castaway in Darkness” hints at a soul lost to the cursed blades rather than dominating them.

As you’d expect much of the real plot-related juiciness lies in the game’s endings, although even here Soul Edge chooses to do things a little differently. The outcome you see—and there’s always more than one possibility—isn’t based on the time taken to reach these scenes or the number of continues used but on your own inputs, performed while the story plays out. Did you dodge the rifleman’s shots as Mitsurugi before rushing in to attack him (all in first-person), proving the timeless might of the sword against this new weaponry? Do you allow Siegfried to take the Soul Edge, and then watch it clamp around his hand as he, in horror, tries in vain to remove it, transforming into Nightmare before your eyes? To the very last second, their fate is entirely in your hands.

And this is all before I even mention Edge Master mode.

Added especially for the home port, this extended single player quest seized on the base game’s abundance of atmosphere and then expanded it in a way we’ve rarely seen since. Sure, plenty of games of all kinds have a movie’s worth of cutscenes in them (especially these days), but Soul Edge is one of too few that weaves the story directly into your own experiences, rather than treating the plot as hands-off filling wedged between the “real” bits of the game.

So committed is this mode to enveloping you in the story it is all told via a book you manually flip through, the paper curving in a satisfying arc as you turn to the next page. You’ll see that impressive effect an awful lot too, as there are a full eleven pages worth of text standing between you and your first fight, and even after that the game is not afraid of spending some time on mood-setting details. You may ultimately still need to knock someone out of the ring or defeat them within a set time limit, but having to kick someone over the edge because they’re so tough there’s no other way to win, or needing to win a fight on a tight time limit because you’re fighting a frantic battle as you make your escape and reinforcements are already on their way, adds huge scoops of excitement to an otherwise very standard set of rules. A few lines of text turns a battle against an opponent whose health is restored over time into a fight against a holy warrior blessed by their god or an unfortunate soul possessed by an evil spirit. A mirror match is a moment of madness or a magical trick. And when you’re done you don’t progress to the next stage, your character crosses the sea or heads east, perhaps pointed in that direction by a map found after their last battle or magically warped far away from their home country in a flash of light.

This fanciful context breathes life into everything it touches, including the weapons you earn along the way. Some are lightning fast, some replenish health or will tear through an opponent’s weapon durability bar: they don’t need to be balanced, they need to help tell an interesting story, and maybe even encourage a little role playing. A cursed blade that drains health with every swing in exchange for untold power is not just a fabulous idea, it also asks players themselves if they’re prepared to wager their own life to gain an advantage over the person standing before them, a gleaming holy sword that heals simply by holding it is bound to feel protective and safe.

Soul Edge wants to be—and definitely is—a great fighting game, with dramatic parries, fascinating movesets, and a relatively small yet perfectly formed roster just waiting to be mastered. But it’s also a fantastic adventure too, a whole invented world seen through the eyes of the martial artists and other brave souls who live within it, their long and dangerous journey to find the titular magical weapon a constant and complementary presence to the action, something worth experiencing over and over again.

Or to put it another way: it’s a tale of souls and swords, eternally retold.

[Ko-fi supporters read this last week!]