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Review: Steelrising

7 Sep 2022

It goes without saying that many developers have tried their hand at the Soulslike genre over the years. Generally speaking, the most successful of these attempts are those that take the familiar staples of the genre and reinterpret them to create an experience that’s fresh and engaging while still staying true to player expectation. If you can accomplish that while also letting players run around in an enjoyable setting, well that’s even better.

Steelrising is the latest game from RPG developer Spiders and publisher Nacon, set to release on September 8th, 2022 for PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S. Its own take on the Souls formula takes place in an alternative Revolutionary France, as King Louis XVI’s machine army wreaks havoc across Paris. It’s an immediately intriguing concept, but is Steelrising able to fully capitalize on it?

Aegis in the City

Set in an alternate 1789 during the first climax of the French Revolution, Steelrising is centered on Queen Marie Antoinette’s bodyguard: a sentient automaton named Aegis. Secluded in the outskirts, the queen is helpless as Paris proper is ransacked and burned at the hands of King Louis XVI’s army of machines.

With no freedom to leave of her own accord, she tasks Aegis with tracking down Jacques de Vaucanson, the inventor of the automats, to find a way to put a stop to the city’s siege. What follows is an infiltration deep into the heart of Paris as Aegis begins her search, cutting through the automats and crossing paths with prominent historical figures of the French Revolution.

At the outset, Steelrising does an excellent job of immersing the player in the conflict at hand. The presentation of the earliest cutscenes informs the player of all relevant information leading up to the game’s start, but more importantly, it does so through a very personal lens. Players can feel the emotional toil felt by Marie Antoinette as she speaks to her assistant with solidly written, realistic dialogue.

This quality is consistent throughout much of the game’s cutscenes and conversations with other characters Aegis meets. It’s a very promising start for the game’s storytelling, but it’s a promise that unfortunately remains unfulfilled. The problem quickly revealed by the narrative is that Aegis spends such little time with each NPC that none of them are ever given an opportunity to carve themselves out from the background.

Apart from researching their real world counterparts and appreciating their inclusion in the storyline, it’s hard to see many of Steelrising’s characters as much more than narrative set dressing—doubly so when the game gives them so little to do other than sit in rooms and direct Aegis to her next objective. The same is true for the cutscenes comprising these conversations, as they’re typically straightforward with the same camera angles hopping back and forth as each character speaks.

Things are broken up a bit by the inclusion of flashbacks Aegis experiences when interacting with certain items. These offer interesting glimpses into prior events and the political landscape that led to the revolution, but it doesn’t fix the problem of being centered around characters that the player is never given much of a reason to care about.

In true Souls fashion, the gameplay makes up a vast majority of the experience here, and its successful implementation serves to highlight the unexciting aspects of the storytelling; interacting with Steelrising’s NPCs becomes more of a chore you have to sit through to get back to the gameplay than another aspect of the game to appreciate, and that’s a shame.

The Tireless Automaton

After customizing the appearance of Aegis, you’re given the option of four starting classes. Each of them begins with different weapons, tools, and various stat differences, none of which will be unfamiliar to those that have experience with other Soulslike games. Also similar is the way that your starting class is more of a baseline for the very beginning of the game, rather than something that defines your experience through its entire runtime.

Players have the freedom to choose which stats to increase by spending Anima, which is currency earned from defeating enemies and bosses. This is just one of many different ways to customize Aegis’ build—to the point where it can feel a bit overwhelming to see just how much you can change upon reaching the game’s first Vestal (Steelrising’s equivalent to checkpoints). As the game progresses, however, it becomes easier to understand your options and your choices start to feel more meaningful in altering the way you approach your battles with the automats.

Combat in Steelrising feels weighty enough to place emphasis on player decision making, but the animations are smooth to make Aegis feel dexterous and nimble at the same time. There are many active elements in combat, and the overheating mechanic is perhaps the most notable example of this. If you run out of stamina in combat, you’re able to press a button with specific timing to gain a significant portion of that stamina back, as opposed to simply backing off and waiting for it to fill up again.

This not only forces you to be actively monitoring your UI elements while also keeping track of nearby enemies in the heat of the moment, but also lets you quickly reenter the the fray to heighten engagement with the fight. You can’t abuse the mechanic either, as doing it repeatedly will build up a debuff that freezes Aegis in place if it gets too high.

The game has quite a few aspects of its combat that intertwine to elevate the combat in a similar fashion. When it comes to weapons, for example, Steelrising isn’t afraid to give you many different options in a short amount of time. There are several categories of them and each weapon has its own special move, which can be anything from a unique attack to a parry to a temporary debuff powerup. What’s more, nearly all enemies (including bosses) are susceptible to these debuffs, further validating many different approaches. I personally built Aegis around dealing weaker, successive strikes to stagger enemies and found it incredibly satisfying, but I could just as well have built her around dealing as much damage as possible and watching health bars simply melt.

But high levels of player choice and build variety are only a smash hit if the enemies you’re fighting against also have the same degree of variety, and this is where Steelrising starts to falter. All of the automat enemies sport novel designs and attack patterns, but that novelty wears off fast when you realize just how often you’re going to be fighting the same enemies in the exact same ways. As you guide Aegis through Paris, it’s very rare to come across enemy groupings or encounter placements that are genuinely interesting or new after the game’s opening hours. The level of difficulty is also far too even keel, with every enemy and boss providing roughly the same degree of challenge, especially if you thoroughly explore areas for upgrades.

The environments themselves are partly to blame for the repetitive feeling as well. Working your way through the destroyed, barricaded streets of Paris is a joy from an aesthetic perspective, but it has the Achilles’ heel of stymying the level design. Many locations feel overly flat and lacking in verticality, with only glimpses of fun movement across them. You can see attempts to offset this to a certain extent—the Tuileries area is more about combing the streets in a grid while La Cité is about approaching them from above, for example—but they always inevitably funnel the player back into the same style of exploration.

In short, the combat shows flashes of greatness that are sadly dimmed by the lackluster level and enemy design, despite the stellar visuals both elements bring.

La Belle Ville

Issues with level design aside, one area that Steelrising undoubtedly excels in is the presentation of its visuals. Every location in the game is dripping with a dark, 18th-century aesthetic. Paris and its outskirts are artfully recreated with excellent usage of lighting and lovingly detailed architecture derived from the time period. The game’s setting is far and away one of its strongest points.

Enemy automats themselves also sport highly creative designs that feel uncannily evocative of living creatures, while their robotic animations work to showcase the way they’re powered by oil and clockwork. This is true for Aegis too, whose animations are smooth in the interest of player responsiveness but also just unnatural enough to stay true to her existence as sentient machine.

Sound effects are also well integrated into the overall experience, highlighting the mechanical whirring and grinding of cogs. I would be remiss in not specifically praising the voice acting and voice direction, however. There isn’t a weak actor to be found in Steelrising, and the inclusion of French words and phrases interwoven seamlessly throughout the English dialogue is always delivered convincingly.

The music of the game is more bland than one might expect. Boss fights are almost exclusively bombastic orchestral affairs and the tracks that play during general exploration is typically forgettable the moment you hear it.

Short of a Revolution

Steelrising has the clearly defined bones of a great Soulslike. It features development team Spiders’ most well executed and fluid combat to date, offers players a plethora of build options that feel meaningful in customizing their approach to combat, and delivers on its unique historical aesthetic well.

Unfortunately, these obvious positives are dragged down by level design sorely lacking in verticality, enemy encounters sorely lacking in variety, and a narrative sorely lacking in investment. It’s one of the more admirable attempts at the Souls formula in recent memory, but it doesn’t have every piece of the puzzle.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Nacon for PC. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Nacon.